Say the word “Africa” in the western world, and images arise of poverty, hunger, desperation. Emaciated children with fly-blown eyes, old women staggering uphill with great loads of firewood balanced on their grizzled heads, men with machetes, boys with machine guns, corrupt political bosses with fancy women and gold-plated toilets. These images make us cringe and shudder, or toss a few bucks at aid agencies, or sign petitions for Darfur. They emphasize Africa’s “otherness.”
But there is another Africa less sensational, the Africa of hard-working, sometimes-muddled, sometimes broken-hearted middle-class Africans: teachers, physicians, government clerks, businesswomen, IT specialists–people who work in cubicles, or grade papers, or swing shifts at the hospital. People who have cars and car insurance payments. People who hook up satellite dishes to the outsides of their houses so they can watch old Hollywood movies when they wake up at 2 a.m. with insomnia. People who have electricity and indoor plumbing, who cart their children to violin lessons and art classes. People who hire less-affluent relatives to care for their aging parents, who try, despite the constant pleas of neighbors who come banging at their doors daily, to save a little for vacations in Mauritius or to take their teenagers to Disneyworld or the Louvre. They have kitchens like this one, and in their kitchens, battered wooden tables, and around those tables the history of their families’ trials and conquests has been lived and told, wept over and celebrated.
Teboho Mothae, nicknamed “Nzama” in honor of a famous football player, has more worries than he can bear, and it has been years since he played football–years since he played anything, really. His parents died when he was a young teenager. His two older brothers live far away and are unable to help him. Two younger sisters live with him, his wife, and his two-year-old son, Mmokose. Thinking about Mmokose is the only thing that gives him hope, but Teboho’s income is what they all depend on…and Teboho is sick. He has been working as a taxi driver since he was seventeen years old–that was ten years ago now. He says half-heartedly that he would like to own his own car, but he has no real hope of that happening. He’d like a car that has decent tires, decent suspension, a working battery, a windshield that isn’t broken. He would like more reliable work than taxi driving, but he says there’s not a chance in hell of that. So occasionally, if someone buys him a beer, he pours it very slowly and gently into a glass, watching the foam build up. And then he drinks it. Continue reading
“I call this place Paradise. People ask if I get used to it, if I take it for granted, but I don’t. Every day I wake up grateful. I’ve been here eight years, and I still have to pinch myself to believe I’m not dreaming. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and every hour it changes: the colors change, the seasons change, the sounds change, and the smells change. How could anybody ever take it for granted? I hope to go on living and working here till the day I die.” Continue reading
Now that I’m home and have wide-band internet access, and my soul seems finally to have caught up with me after the 39 hours of jet travel in each of the two directions, I have time to write and think. I’ve decided to focus on the blog and continue writing about this month’s adventures for a while. I’ll work with my notebooks (safely baked for two hours in the oven when I got home, to be sure any bedbug eggs are dead). I want to back-track and post some stories and notes I didn’t get a chance to post while I was there, though I won’t try to put things in date-order. I’ll add pictures related to old blog posts, to make the blog a little more of a resource on Lesotho for myself and others, but primarily for myself. The blog won’t be about Lesotho in any objective way. It can only be my view of Lesotho, and about the issues that Lesotho raises for me. If that bores you, just terminate your subscription, or delete…whatever. Please don’t feel any obligation to comment, but if anything I write makes you want to know more, I’d be grateful for questions. If there’s something I mention that seems unclear or confusing, or if some observation or rumination seems incomplete or wrong-headed, let me know.
This morning I got an email from someone who has been reading the blog but not commenting, and she said it all so succinctly that I just want to put her words here: “Seems like it was the perfect trip — despite the bedbugs and altitude and sunburn and, most importantly, Lesotho still being Lesotho — you did everything you wanted to do — : saw Mpho, took her to the ocean one last time, reconnected with her and discovered the book you two made together continues to affect the women there; saw Palesa living a life that she looks (at least from her physical presence in the photos) grounded in — something that would have been impossible here — and also got confirmation from her about who you were/are in her life. And, got to be back in that amazingly physical beauty and bare-bones reality that I think has much to do with the reason the place is so powerful.” That’s it. She said it.
“Saying goodbye,” Palesa said as we walked her to the taxi that would take her and Katleho from Oliver Tambo airport back to the shack village in Daveyton where they live, “is always hard. But what are we gonna do? You have a soft heart, M’e Makie, but it’s strong. You can cry listening to a song on the radio, but you have a strong love that can handle anything. I saw who you were the first time I met you. I could not speak English at that time, but if I did, I would say, this is a woman with a soft heart that is very strong. If I would even kill an ant, you would say, ‘Awwww.’ So you’re a vegetarian. I’m not like that. I’m African. I have to be hard, hard. Still I always know you love me, and your love makes me stronger, even now. When I feel scared sometimes, I remember how you believe in me, no matter what, even if I try to kill you. It was not me that tried to kill you, it was the sickness, but if I did kill you, you would be dead. I know why Seth and Manko are angry with me. Our mother would be dead if I killed you. I have another mother, but you are their only one. So they have this very strong feeling, and I respect them for that. I am glad I didn’t kill you, even though I did try my best, because I had that thing in me that made me want to kill you. But it’s gone now, and I am glad you have a soft heart and a strong heart to love me no matter what. How long did I live with you?”
“I remember, and I also remember that I am an African woman, and I am strong enough to do what I have to do, and part of that is because of you. Sometimes I believed my mother when she told me you would never want to see me again. But it was not me. It was a sickness. Maybe Manko can’t love me. I don’t blame her. If I was her, I wouldn’t have the heart to love a person who tried to kill me. But in my heart I always believed you would love me, no matter what. And my heart was right, you see? Because you are here. And I am here. And we’re not dead. We’re still loving each other, and I still know your heart.” Continue reading
Jet-lagged, exhausted, bedbug-bitten, sunburned, and deeply happy. I am so glad I did that. I have pages and pages of notes, stories, and lives. There are over a thousand pictures, most of which I haven’t even seen yet. I am posting a beginning few on Flickr. I will save the ones that have long stories, as I can’t even think clearly right now, much less do justice to the stories. But these few give a slight sense of what it was. More, much more to come. If you have been following this journey, thank you for your company. If you have commented, I will get to those comments soon. First I have to reassemble my molecules and find my balance. Then more words. I promise.
Cannot access my email, but at least I could reach the blog (after half an hour of trying). Ramabanta is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth. It RAINED, which made everyone ecstatic.
Made these notes in my journal on the morning of Oct. 22: Every moment the light shifts and something new appears: a gash of ochre sandstone, a stone house with a thatched roof, a stream of sheep like a sudden white river, a hillock, a stand of trees. Something is momentarily illumined and then falls back into shadow. Doves, crows, weaver birds coo and chatter, their sounds echoing against rock. Cowbells. Roosters. Chickens. Children shouting, laughing. Human voices in call-and-response. Smells of woodsmoke, of dust, of cow manure and a sudden breeze of jasmine. But always the migrating light, making everything change.