I leave for Lesotho in eleven days. The picture here is a scan of a badly scratched film print of M’e Mpho Nthunya and me in 1992 under a rainbow in the mountains of Lesotho. She was 62, I was 47, and we hadn’t yet written her book, Singing Away the Hunger. Her book is the biggest thing either of us ever achieved. We’re not likely to top that. In this picture, she’s wearing my jacket, one I still have, still wear. The jacket is the only thing in either of our lives that hasn’t changed.
Now I’m older than she was then, she’s eighty, and Lesotho has changed profoundly. AIDS has proved a plague on the whole population. Most of the people I knew are dead. Random violence has increased. Poverty is worse. It’s unlikely that I can fix anything, and as Thomas Wolfe knew, you can’t go home again. Six years I lived in southern Africa, and it was my home for those years. I left at the end of 1998, and now I am returning, and I need to go, and to the extent possible, to bear witness. To document. To record. To preserve the stories and the voices and whatever is there: because it’s what I can do. If all goes according to plan, I’ll come back to Oregon at the beginning of November. I’d like to stay longer, but that’s all the time I can afford. I’ll be moving in on my dear friend Chris Dunton (more about him later), and I expect a month of my company is as much as any human being can stand.
Why am I going? What do I hope to achieve or learn? What am I doing, and am I as well-prepared for this as I can be? One of my neighbors asked me if I’m going on a Safari. Another said she wished she could go “for the shopping,” because she likes African art. I’m not going on safari; I’m not going for the shopping. I’ve been fussing about which camera to take with me, and a good friend, worried for my safety, suggested I not take any camera at all–to avoid looking like a tourist, ripe for robbery. But I have to take a camera. This whole trip is about reporting back.
I need to return to Africa, and my intention is to come back with stories, with pictures, with interviews, and with understandings of myself and the people there, and with some of the grit of that land embedded in the soles of my shoes, under my fingernails, in my ears and my hair. I want to smell it again, to breathe it into my body, to eat it and sleep with it. My intention is to learn how Lesotho has changed and to meet myself on the road. I want to see how it has changed, how I have changed, and to see if there is anything I can still do to be of use to that land and that people, to tell its story (so few people ever do tell its story), and to find out if being there will help me to understand something about what it is to be human.
Lesotho is on the other end of the rolling world from where I live now. I will arrive there in late spring, having left here in early autumn; when my body-clock thinks it’s night, it will be day; I will go from living at sea level to living in the thin air of a mountain kingdom where the “low lands” are a mile above sea level; I will leave this place of densely-populated apparently White people and get off the plane in a place of densely-populated apparently Black (or golden Brown) people. I will leave one of the materially richest countries and emerge in one of the poorest. But what are the inner resources of the people in both places, and how are they tested and honed? Does the 19th century concept of White and Black have any meaning, given Lesotho’s history; and if so, if it means something now, if the perception of “race” has meaning, what is that meaning? I want to see what I can understand of that place, of what has happened there since I got there quite accidentally as a Fulbright Scholar in 1992. The accident: I had been assigned to Nigeria, where I’d prepared to do theatre studies with Igbo women; I got reassigned at the last minute to Lesotho because I was allergic to Larium, the malaria preventive required, at that time, for Americans going to Nigeria. Do check out that link. If I hadn’t been allergic to Larium, if I had taken it for two years, as the State Department wanted me to, I’d probably be psychotic by now.
I have since learned how lucky I was to be allergic to that drug. I learned right away how lucky I was to be assigned to a tiny country that never has made much of a splash in the global consciousness. There was so much to say, so much that outsiders never knew. There still is. I had some ethical qualms about telling, with my outsider’s eyes, what I saw. I still do. I tried then not to be a colonizer, not to exploit others, not to take what is theirs. I tried to give voice to Basotho people, and I will try to do that now, to be a conduit for Basotho people to tell what they know about themselves. But the conduit is always polluted by its own way of seeing, its selective filters, its choices to tell this and overlook that. Always. I have my own story to tell. I still do. And as Alice Walker writes in Overcoming Speechlessness (2010): “The world is, at last, finding its voice about everything that harms it. In this sense the twin teachers of catastrophic climate change (some of it caused by war) and the Internet have arrived to awaken the voice of even the most silenced” (72). Let me be part of that.
To the extent possible, I want to tell what I learn: here, in this blog. On Flickr, and on Blipfoto. Maybe somewhere else. Maybe I will make poems. Maybe an article. Don’t know. If it is true, as I think Flannery O’Connor said, that if you live to be eight years old, you have enough to write about for the rest of your life, it is also true that six years in southern Africa gave me more than I can ever tell; but my information is out of date. I want an update. I want to ask people, “How is it for you now, in this place?” “What’s right in Lesotho?” “What’s wrong?” “What are you doing about it and what do you want to do?” “What do you wish someone else would do?” I want to hear the answers to those questions, I want to make videos of people talking about those questions, to take notes, and to hear whatever else they want to talk about. I want to take pictures of the people and the land, the houses, the animals, the plants that grow in the mountains. I want images of that place where my life changed profoundly and forever. I want images of Basotho people, of life in Lesotho as it is now. I want to put what I can of that story, in the words of the people who live there, on the internet. Why? Because it’s there, because maybe I can, because nobody has to say yes to it (no grant agency, no publisher, no guardian-of-the-gates), because as far as I know nobody else is doing it, and because nothing else I have before me seems more important, more exciting, more worth doing.
I have done a great deal to prepare, and I’ll talk about those preparations in my next post. For better or for worse, I want to leave a record of this attempt. Here. I welcome ideas, suggestions, criticism, and encouragement. Maybe there’s something else I need to think about. The internet makes us a community, and I’m willing to hear from the community. On the other hand, I take responsibility for my errors, for my failings, my faults, and my blind spots. There are MILLIONS of blogs. Few people will ever see this one. But here goes.