Rolling out the red carpet

12 Aug. 2007

Congratulate me. Like such greats as Grace Kelly, Princess Di and Julia Stiles, I have grown up to be every little girl’s dream come true. I am now royalty.
Last Monday, I went for a visit to my final site, Menkhoaneng: birthplace of the founder of Lesotho. After Tsehlanyane National Park, Menkhoaneng is the most beautiful place I have seen in Lesotho. Good thing they’re both off the same dirt path. Menkhoaneng, the Place of the Monkhoana Trees, has mountains that curve and dip, and these deep valleys tapering into dongas. Although they move at a trickle, there are rivers aplenty flanked by trees, bare from the winter cold.
My primary assignment is to help a council of four villages build the cultural village of Menkhoaneng that showcases Basotho traditions and history around the time of King Moshoeshoe I. The council hopes to market the village as a tourist attraction while at the same time making it into a safe haven for Basotho culture. I personally feel that the difficulty lies in cultural compromise. Every villager I have met thus far is extremely proud of Menkhoaneng’s historical and cultural importance, but culture is fluid, especially in light of cross-cultural interaction, and with tourists comes possible cultural compromise. Since their heritage is so important to them, I hope to steer a path between exhibition/income generation and the integrity of Basotho culture.
Anyway, on the ride over, I was given the chance to change my Sesotho name, Pontso, which means “revelation.” It has a great meaning, but shares homonyms with Chinese that are rather unflattering. It was the chance I had been waiting for since the beginning of Community-Based Training. Yet the brainstorm on my ride over yielded no new possibilities, and I was met with a more pressing issue upon arrival—every Peace Corps trainee’s worst nightmare—there was nothing in my heisi (Afrikaans word used to refer to thatched roof houses in a square rather than circular shape).
Peace Corps has certain housing standards for every organization vying for a PCV. Up to that point, I was under the impression that I had basic furniture comprising a bed, a table, chairs and a gas tank to fuel a heater and stove. In the process of acquiring at least some of those items, my supervisor recruited both the community counselor and my ‘M’e (title of respect, she’s my ‘M’e in particular because I will be living on her family compound), who turns out to be the mofumahali (the village chief).
We drove to the family compound where the previous PCV had stayed, and for the next two hours, my ‘M’e, supervisor and the community counselor haggled for three kitchen pieces. I had been instructed to stay in the car with the driver, who was blasting Sesotho music. For some reason, all Basotho drivers love to set their music at a deafening volume. I eventually decided to get out and play with the puppy tumbling over the corn pile. Its mom came up to me several times and would jump on me.
“What do you want?” I asked. “Na u batla ho jaifa?”
So I took its paws and began to waltz. It was such a laughing riot for the herd boys and children that I thought for certain my new name would be “Dances With Dogs.” In Basotho culture, cats and dogs are valued for their functional roles rather than as companions. It’s not unusual to extend your hand toward a dog and have it shirk away in expectation of a beating. But my guess is that the previous volunteer, ‘M’e Peggy, must have set the precedent that people who enjoy playing with animals are not necessarily perverse.
For the next couple of days, I meandered around the community and made myself accessible. In almost every encounter, I was met with the comment, “u monyane!” I hoped they just meant I was petite, but really, they were remarking on how young I am at 22. Their previous volunteer was somewhere in her 60s. At the very least, I knew that the age difference meant there would be no comparison between us. However, my age also suggests my abilities because the Basotho value old age rather than youth. Whether it has to do with a life expectancy of 40 due to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, TB, &c. is questionable, as AIDS started its upward spiral only since the 1980s.
I had till Wednesday to settle on a name, as my ‘M’e had called for a community gathering to introduce its newest member and her newest daughter. She had wanted “Mpho,” which means gifts. I didn’t particularly like that name either. For the days I was at site, I introduced myself as Pontso with the qualifier that tomorrow I might be any variety of things, perhaps Lehapu Selebalo or Maquenya Selebalo: Watermelon or Fat Cakes. My ‘M’e suggested that my name be “Princess,” and for a bit, I thought it would be hilarious. Technically, for the next two years I am a princess as the daughter of the village chief. When else as an American would I ever again be royalty?
But ultimately it did not sit well with me. As much pleasure as I derived from the irony of the name, I think the American side of me kicked in—also ironic because I would never label myself patriotic. Unquestionably, I am blue-blooded, but since royalty does not exist in our country, the idea of having a name that indicates such sounded distasteful to me.
I am now spending my last couple of days in Maseru before we return to our sites. We swear in as Peace Corps—Lesotho’s newest volunteers on Aug. 15. Shortly following, I shall make the trek back to site as the newest villager of Menkhoaneng, Ausi Pontso Selebalo.

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~ by dennetmint on August 15, 2007.

3 Responses to “Rolling out the red carpet”

  1. My vote is for Fat Cakes. Or can you combine Watermelon and Fat Cakes? Fat Watermelon Cakes? You can be W.C. for short. hahahahahah. I’m working on your educational britney package…but it might be a while on the books…LOVES! 🙂

  2. Just got my staging kit and found your blog after talking to Micah at Cotillion in Ox, woo. Congrats on the swearing in!

  3. Ausi, reading your beautifully written comments was like being back in the beautiful village of Menkhoaneng. I can’t wait to meet you in February. Peggi

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