From Bliss to Heartbreak in One Day

Pictures impossible. Electricity erratic. Hope I can post this.

Dawn walk, met Hlolofatsi, 19, and Teboho, 20, lovers who met, she told me, April 11, 2008, and hope to spend the rest of their lives together. With un-self-conscious curiosity she asked me, “Why are you here?”

I told her I taught here in the 90s and have missed it, and I’m visiting to feel again my love for the country and the people.

“I am glad to hear this. Most people, they hate it here. They say it’s too rural, too backward, too corrupt, nothing to do.” She looked at Teboho and they laughed. “Most people, whether they are from here or not, hate this place. And I think it’s sad. I love Lesotho.”

After breakfast, I went with Chris to his office, posted yesterday’s blog, and then went up to see M’e Mpho.

Getting there was much harder than I expected. I think I’ve got altitude sickness, despite the Diamox and all the water I’m drinking. My heart pounded fiercely, I gasped for breath, my hands and feet started tingling and cramping, and I became violently nauseated, but I managed not to vomit. When I came to a shady spot, I sat down, and it took me fifteen minutes to return to semi-normal breathing, my heart still pounding like a bass drum on the fourth of July. By the time I got to M’e Mpho’s house, I was in a state of collapse, and her first words to me were, “M’e Makie, you look like you are about to die!”

The village has doubled or trebled in size. There are hundreds of new houses, nice ones made of cinderblocks with proper red metal roofs. Many have electricity. Some even have running water, though I think there are no water mains—those who have water have bored their own wells. But perhaps there is no water running. There is a drought on; it hasn’t rained since April. I saw a few people in snazzy looking clothes talking on cell phones. But the older villagers, like M’e Mpho and M’e MaAnna, are in horrific straits. (Click on photo to see it larger.)

I asked M’e Mpho, “Where do the new people work?”

“We don’t know! We ask ourselves, where do they get the money? But they don’t talk. We don’t know nothing about them.”

M’e MaAnna was sitting on M’e Mpho’s porch when I arrived. She’s deaf, blind, and mute. I asked M’e Mpho if M’e MaAnna still prays.

“No. She do nothing but sit all day on my porch, go home at night to sleep.”

“How does she eat?”

“I can’t feed her. I don’t know. I think she is always hungry.”

She who was a whirl of energy, swirling and singing her ecstatic prayers, has become a tomb of stillness, a sealed temple of silence. When I put into her hands the soap and the scarf, she said nothing, only held the scarf to her face and smelled the box the soap was in.

“Oh my God,” M’e Mpho said. “I am afraid she will try to eat the soap.” M’e Mpho leaned into M’e MaAnna’s ear and shouted, “Sesepa! (soap) SESEPA!” M’e MaAnna made no sign that she understood, only rose slowly, holding the scarf and the soap to her face, and she felt her way down the two steps to the ground. She shuffled in silence to the shack where she sleeps, then later reappeared and again took her post in the white plastic chair on M’e Mpho’s porch.

M’e Mpho said that some years back, Anna, M’e MaAnna’s daughter, came and beat her with a whip. Anna had been told by a Sangoma (traditional doctor) that her mother was a witch who had killed Anna’s father and Anna’s son by black magic and was trying now to kill Anna.

“Anna shouted, ‘You will know me! You will not do nothing to me, witch! I will kill you first!’ M’e MaAnna said nothing. Not one word. Only looked down at her feet. Then Anna took everything of that place—St. Francis, the Pope, the crosses, everything. Even the bottle caps. She dug them up with a shovel, put them in a sack, and carried the sack to the river and threw it in. She say if another one of these things [shrines] comes, she will beat her again and take it again. Since that day, M’e MaAnna has been like this. Now she is deaf and blind. She could talk, but she says nothing. She sits on my porch all day. Even no one is here, she sits in that place. It is her job. I think she wants God to take her, but it looks like God does not want her. Even the devil does not want her. I think she will sit here after I am dead, saying nothing, hearing nothing, blind and still.”

M’e Mpho is thinner than I’ve ever seen her. She was wearing a dress I recognized, a dress that was old in 1992, torn at the seams, only it hangs on her now. Her hair has gone white under the white headscarf I bought for her when she lived with me in Texas in 2000. Her eyes are tired, and her spirit is discouraged.

“I think God has forgotten me. Maybe he doesn’t want me. Why does he take my children and not me? I am tired, really. I want to leave this hunger and the pain in my body. I am tired of more children coming into this hard life. Only if I can see the ocean one more time, then I pray God to take me.”

Her five-year-old great-grandchild Kabelo danced in and out of the house with two little friends. I had brought hairbands, bouncy balls, a matchbox car, and Tootsie Roll Pops for the children, and they were cavorting with them. M’e Mpho, who used to adore children, found them irritating.

“Tsoa!” (Go!) she commanded them. When they didn’t immediately leave, she reached for a small leather whip standing by her chair and slapped it on the couch. They went.

“I tell you I am tired, really.”

She had gone to the clinic last Thursday to get an abscessed tooth pulled, but they found her blood pressure was 210, and they said they couldn’t pull it. They gave her four prescriptions for medicine, but she had no money to buy the medicine, so she was coping with both “high blood” and the toothache. I immediately gave her all the money I had on me, and she sent a grandchild to the chemist and had the meds—and took her first dose of them—before I left.

There was a little change remaining from the pills, and in the afternoon I was feeling hungry (and ashamed of my petty hunger), so we sent a child to buy bread and milk. The child came back with half a loaf and a pint of milk, and M’e Mpho laughed for the first time on this visit and said,

“What did I always tell you, M’e Makie?”

“Half a loaf is better than none,” I parroted back, with tears shining in my eyes.

I stayed at M’e Mpho’s house till dusk and then walked the long way down hill, accompanied by one of M’e Mpho’s great-granddaughters, on the right in this picture. The way down was easier by far than going up. Another of M’e Mpho’s truisms.

Chris lives on the back road of the University compound, very near the house where I lived so long ago. From the bottom third of the village, I could hear the blare of disco music. It turned out to be Chris’s next-door neighbors, a Nigerian family celebrating a first-birthday of their youngest child, and a large part of the University faculty was there. I had a shower, and Chris and I went to the party. There, it was just as Hlolofatsi had claimed at dawn: everyone hates Lesotho. There are good reasons for the distress.

The University, which had 3000 students when I was here in the early 90s, has 10,000 now, with no additional faculty. Classes are massive. Students sit on the floor, stand in the aisles, even stand outside and look in through the windows. A class of twenty in my time is a class of 120 or 220 now. The workload for the professors is insupportable. It’s all lecture-style, discussion is impossible, and many of the students are ill-prepared, inattentive, unproductive.

A Zimbabwean professor told me, “I feel I am running all the time and going backward. I have to requisition for even one piece of chalk, and the requisition must be signed by three people including the dean…” and Chris added wryly, “And at least one of those has no pen.”

I asked if he’s looking for work elsewhere.

“Always. Everyone I know is always looking elsewhere. But where? Certainly not in my home country. No. We must make do. But we don’t have to like it.”

Then there was a Judy Garland moment. Another professor, the one in charge of drama, asked me if I am prepared to stage a play while I am here. Shocked, I immediately said no. I am only here for a short time, and I have other things to do, sorry. But if you are staging a play, I would be happy to support you by attending rehearsals.

“No, sadly, we are not staging anything right now. I was hoping you might do it.”

Chris, though, while entirely mindful of the difficulties, has decided to remain here even after he retires. He long ago unofficially adopted a family of eight children whose parents both died when the eldest were teenagers. Chris has been mother, father, and protector to these children, and now he’s grandfather to their children. He plans to get a small house built on their property, live on it for the rest of his time, and leave it to them. Perhaps he’ll continue offering part-time teaching, and he’ll continue his research and writing. “I was a long time coming to this,” he sighed. “But I’ve been in Africa 32 years. It’s the only place on earth that feels like home to me.”

About Kendall

Undoing white supremacy and capitalism, one photograph at a time.
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7 Responses to From Bliss to Heartbreak in One Day

  1. Ann says:

    Sitting in a comfortable chair by my computer desk, having several spotlights around me, electricity taken for granted, that is, Eric Clapton music playing in the background, choice of TV, DVD, too much food, too much of everything–seems suddenly extravagantly superfluous when reading your words of pain when you meet with M’e Mpho and M’e MaAnna.
    Our small world is sheltered, protected by rules and regulations, while the “other world” is out there, on M’e Mpho’s porch and M’e MaAnna’s world of silence screaming miles away. Forgotten by God, forsaken by people.
    Sending the people love and blessings, what will it help, another half loaf of bread, some milk, to make tears shine in your compassionate eyes. So much needs to be done, so much. And you did the utmost you could do. You flew all the way to Lesotho to see the people and the land you once have loved so much, and still do. And all I can say from here is bless you. Not much, I’m afraid. Yet, I am with you in my spirit and in my soul.
    Bless you and your loved ones in Africa.

  2. leiflife says:

    How terrible for you to find your old friends in such sad conditions. I feel for you, even as the changes don’t surprise me. So many years have passed. Yet I am sure that your coming, your beautiful teary-eyed presence, and your gifts brought something sweet to their day. Bless you, dear one.

  3. Kim Sharp says:

    My heart goes out to you and the loved ones you are visiting. M’e MaAnna especially has tugged on my heart strings. The land, customs and life circumstances you write about are thankfully beyond my experience-yet make my heart cry to hear. Me in the land of plenty contemplating those with little and worse yet abuse by loved ones. Finds me overwhelmed and struggling with the guilt that digs up. Food for thought indeed.

  4. Darlene Olivo says:

    Oh, my dear,

    My heart sinks with these stories. The outrage at the daughter trying to kill her mother! The utter hopelessness and helplessness. It pierces my heart even at this distance, not knowing her; I can’t imagine how your heart can hold such pain. I can only bear witness to your witnessing.

    I send an enormous enfolding hug:


  5. John Guarino says:

    Amidst heart rending conditions, I’m always astounded at some folks’ stalwart resilience.

  6. Keith says:

    Such a moving story! The first part reminded me of an experience I had in Odessa, Ukraine. I wrote about it in a piece I called “The Steps” on my blog. Then, as your story continued, I was reminded of the one and only time I returned to Scotland (after 81/2 years away, and the way what I found conflicted with what I recalled). But then I came to the part of your story dealing with M’e MaAnna and I found something that I had never experienced personally. It was so powerful that I don’t think I can respond to it right away; but it certainly gave me a lot to think about and I suppose that was your purpose.

  7. Pingback: Distant silhouettes |

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