It has not rained more than a fly’s spit since April, and so it is not unusual for the poor to have little to no water, but today even the privileged class, those of us within the University’s strong red steel fence, had no water. Not for flushing toilets, not for washing hands, bodies, dishes, nor clothes. Fortunately, we had some drinking water already boiled and set aside.
Fortunately it was the day of the English Department’s monthly birthday luncheon, to which I was an invited guest, so we privileged among the privileged left this wretched situation in a series of (privileged) vehicles and travelled to Mmelesi Lodge, near Thaba Bosiu, where we relieved ourselves and enjoyed the music of flushing toilets and then, even more wonderful, the splash and slurry of water to rinse our gritty hands and faces before dining under a tent al fresco, on tables with ironed cloths and napkins.
We feasted on steamed bread, papa (corn meal mush), fish, chicken, and various other kinds of protein I did not investigate, as well as potato salad with suspicious mayonnaise, a carrot-and-bean casserole served cold, and a great and glorious bowl of English trifle. Those who drank (we were nine, three of whom did not drink) consumed untold glasses of wine and then gave in and drank five bottles of it.
One junior member of the academic staff is a former student of mine, and two senior ones were here when I was, so we swapped stories of old classroom adventures, rehearsals, and friends. The energy of the young staff is infectious. They are full of themselves, rollicking with hopes of achievements to come, joking about ways to raise money for research: let’s have a departmental choral performance, says Palesa, and invite the audience to pay for bawdy songs, for recitations of praise poems to themselves or scurrilous songs about their enemies, or to keep Prof. Dunton (my friend and host) from singing. The dear, kind prof who studies how children acquire language sang a couple of children’s songs. Palesa, full of spit and vinegar, got up and sang a hip-swiveling song. The Head of Department, a devout Catholic from Cameroon, sang a couple of beautiful hymns, and the whole group even sang my favorite Basotho hymn, at my request, in natural eight-part harmony. I see that it is necessary for those who have managed by extraordinary resourcefulness to acquire privilege to let go and have good times, even while in the back of their minds they worry about relatives who have no access at all to precious water.
The one item of business came from the Head, who announced that by perseverance and determination she succeeded to gain the promise of R1000 ($143) per academic staff for attendance at conferences this year. [Not in any case sufficient to cover costs.] Asked the amount allocated for research, she looked off absently toward the mountains and said softly, sadly, “Zero.”
After a shocked silence, the “birthday girl,” my former drama student, asked us, “Those of you who are older than thirty-nine, tell me please, where were you when you reached this age? What were your priorities? And how do you feel about it now? Was it a turning point for you, being thirty-nine?”