Living in Lesotho: First of the series in three sketches

22 Sept. 2007

Since arriving at site, I have attended three mekethe. Mekethe are feasts that people throw, sometimes because of something special and sometimes for no reason at all. The whole village is invited, and they serve food from noon till evening with plenty of leftovers so that a mokethe could even spill into the next day or day after.
Usually on the night before, the hosting family will slaughter a cow or sheep. Although nama (meat) is the showcase of the next day’s festivities (Basotho love their nama), other side dishes and staples include all of the following: rice, semp, papa (like white polenta, only ground finer and looks like mashed potato), bread, carrot salad, beet root salad, moroho (usually Swiss chard or cabbage), sauce and either mashed potato or a potato salad. Every once in a while, there’ll be mokopu, a mashed butternut squash that takes hours to prepare well. Leading up to the coveted feasting time, the bo-ntate will chat and smoke outside while the bo-‘m’e are preparing each plate inside. At the first mokethe I went to, blue plastic dishes tiled the floor, and their geometry was reminiscent of a bubbling ocean splashed with thick oranges, choppy greens, yellows and striated browns. There were at least 40 dishes sitting in wait, and as each one was served, another took its place so that at least 100 people must have been fed during my hour and a half in attendance.
After the meal, two men entered the kitchen—truly the women’s domain—with the lingering smell of an unspliced joint they had smoked earlier. After paying their respects to the matron, they proceeded to spoon out snuff, followed by chewing tobacco, into each ‘m’e and nkhono’s (grandmother) cupped hands. I refused my share, to which one of the bo-‘m’e scolded me, why didn’t you just take it and then give it to me? And yet, of the 10-15 bo-‘m’e and bo-nkhono lining the bed where the matron and some young children sprawled, I saw only one of them snuffing it up. The rest divided plastic bags into pieces to wrap up their drugs, almost like party favors.
Next, they brought out the joala—Basotho-brewed beer. Joala is made mostly from ground sorgum, and as it takes no combination of big machines, unfathomable heat or any closely guarded secrets, most everyone makes it. It’s thick and actually a bit sour. The combination of texture and flavor masks the taste of alcohol, but regardless, it is disgusting.
Around 4:30 is when the bo-ntate have had enough joala to loosen up. The crowd will clear an area near a patch of 3-5 cast-iron pots, where food has been cooking all day, and someone will break out the radio. Basotho music is full of cow bell chimes and an overemphasized beat layered with a male vocal performing what closely resembles a recitative. But screaming. And on the dance floor are many more men than women who, if you can believe it, dance worse than the stereotypical white person. I had to stop and ask myself, am I really in Africa?
The second mokethe I attended was on the same day as the first, and the third was about two weeks after. A t the end of each day, the same, extremely plastered woman approached me.
“This is my husband,” she told me, pointing to a skinny man standing nearby. In both instances, they were heading home. In the first, my ‘m’e and I were likewise heading home. After some unintelligible jibber-jabber, she grabbed me and kissed me on the lips. Twice. As though grabbing breasts weren’t already an awkward enough expression between women in this society, now a schnockered woman was also slamming me into her lips. After the last feast, there was an urgent knocking on my door, and there she was, as belligerent as ever, and her husband in the shadows. Thank God for Peace Corps’ requirement of burglar bars, I thought, because there’s no way she’s comfortably forcing her lips through those.
Every time I have prepared to go home from a feast, the host or hostess insists that I take something despite how much I might protest: I already have food that will spoil, I can’t finish a whole loaf of bread before it goes bad, can’t I just take half? Not an option. Their generosity is stunning and is a relief where everyday, I’m stormed by requests for food, money, candy, &c. despite my cries that I have none of these things, at least none to spare. I’ve taken to telling people that sweets are bad for the teeth, I never cook and that I’m just as poor without a salary—to the disbelief of all.
The best feasts have been when I have a relationship with the hosting family. As the Peace Corps volunteer, I’m expected to “grace” each mokethe, but it’s the best to see how the family members protect me from drunk bo-ntate and their banter, or how the hosting ‘m’e, who has been serving others all day, finally sits down to her own meal at 5 p.m. and how clear it is that underneath her exhaustion, she’s beaming.


26 October 2007

Ausi Thebello is such a cutie-pie! She’s been creeping up on our yard for the last couple of days, always so shy. She visited once with Ausi Lisebo, one of the primary school teachers. I asked her how old she was, and she started hiding different parts of her face behind her hands.
The girl’s four. When I ask her, “Ho joang?” (What’s up), she freezes and smiles.
Today, she sat at the edge of our yard in the cold staring as I washed laundry. After about an hour, she had summoned enough courage to stand at the corner of my house and babble something incoherent. Ausi Thebello (te-BE-lo, means “expectation”) picked up a FANTA pineapple can, came up to me and asked where my camera was. I told her I had no battery left, but if she’d buy me some, I’d gladly take her picture (my response to everyone).
“Shoota! Shoota! Joalo ka ena!” she said, bringing the brilliant yellow can to her eye. Talk about striking a pose. She charmed me and I instantly broke out the camera. Here was a four year-old teaching me how to work a shot!
I asked her if she wanted to learn how to take pictures.
“Tlelase ea pele,” I declared. “Etsa matsoho a hau joalo ka na.”
I spread my thumbs and index fingers, forming a box. Lesson one: framing. It took a while, and in the end, I don’t know whether she understood she should do the same for practice. My own very real camera died as I was recording her confused recitation.

Ausi Thebello helped carry my laundry in. She was cold, so I draped my blanket around her. She wanted to look at my books and found herself reading English and Thai upside-down, a skill I have yet to master. She asked me to play her music, so I played Ella Fitzgerald. I began to sing along.
“U rata ho bina?” I asked.
Ausi Thebello did not like to sing. She did, however, like to dance. I invited her to take the floor with a couple of random moves, a twirl. She smiled and jumped off the chair.
“Sheba! Sheba!” she cried, doing what resembled a hula dance. We traded moves for about 10 minutes before I started cleaning. She’d run in and out of my house, sit down and watch me clean, leap off her chair every once in a while and command me to “sheba” as she danced.
“Ausi!” I applauded. “U jaifa hantle! Brava!”
Then Ausi Thebello did a twirl. She wanted to dance just like me, she explained.


17 Nov. 2007

We couldn’t afford to do pizza, so we thought we’d go for one of those traditional Basotho dishes, where slabs of papa are stacked on high, flanked by a hunky side of nama. My friend and I entered a lijong (restaurant), our two other friends trailing behind, and I was immediately shocked: Here was a snake of a line connecting the front entrance, the produce section, winding around the food counter to the register and medicine cabinet, and composed entirely of Basotho. The ones dishing out the food—of which Basotho take great pride—were the most loathed group in Lesotho: the Machaina (Chinese).
It would be difficult to spot a storefront in Lesotho that isn’t owned by the Machaina or Maindia (Indians). These two groups run supermarkets, cosmetic shops, warehouses, hardware and furniture stores, and the Machaina are especially resented for also being factory owners. In fact, the resentment is so pungent that political parties have attempted their presence as a rallying point—expel the exploitive Chinese from the country. Basotho grumble that Chinese own everything, yet do nothing to boycott Chinese-sold goods or start their own businesses.
The resentment the Basotho hold has transcended nationality to encompass anyone who looks East Asian. Peace Corps volunteers of East Asian descent are at a greater risk than other volunteers of being physically assaulted in public, being harassed, becoming the target of petty crimes as well as having cries of help ignored.
Before we were even close enough to place our orders, a Chinese man standing behind the counter approached us.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“No, Ntate. We’re just waiting to order,” we replied.
Then he turned to me. “You look like you’re Chinese or something.”
Or something? This has always proven a puzzling question to me, one that I am not sure how to answer when any Chinese approaches or lurks behind me, as they often do from the novelty of my fresh face. When I enter their shops, I’m uncertain whether to greet in Sesotho, English or Chinese, not wanting to presume their nationality, already knowing that most Machaina speak a pidgin Sesotho and being uncertain whether they have learned English.
“She’s ABC,” my friend answered.
“American-born-Chinese,” I clarified.
Immediately happy to meet me, the man explained that he was the owner of the lijong, along with four of the grocery stores in Botha-Bothe Camptown. He was the president of Lesotho’s Chinese Society and also held high-ranking positions with many other Chinese-centered organizations. All his shops were ones that volunteers in Butha-Buthe District frequent. Excited to meet this entrepreneur, we joked that he should open a shop stocked with Chinese items—sesame oil, soy sauce, cellophane noodles—all the things we are used to as Americans, as well as an actual Chinese restaurant. We’d be his patrons, we declared.
“Can’t do it, no market,” he explained. But he handed us his business card; if we ever needed anything, including Chinese food, he’d gladly bring it from Maseru or South Africa for us. We were stunned by his generosity and, to top it off, lunch was on the house.
I returned home that day and reflected on all the times that the Machaina have been kind to me, protective of me since I arrived in Butha-Buthe District. Those in the bedding store who gave me R60 discounts. A girl at the supermarket who overwhelms me with candy and trinkets she thinks are pretty, even once presenting me with a clock framed by a porcelain shepherdess holding a cane. So she can keep you company up in the mountains, the girl had explained.
There is a definite current of animosity between the Basotho and Machaina, and as a look-alike, I’ve been swept up in it. But the thing is, despite that I am caught in the whirl, contemplating identity politics has never seemed more pointless in any place I’ve been. The irony, of course, is that it should be relevant when the majority of the country staunchly shares one ethnicity. Rather, what I often wonder is just where I fit in. As Basotho scream at me, speak in nasally tones, jostle me on my sprints through the taxi rank, I yell back at them, “Ha ke lechaina.” I am not Chinese. Why do I say it? Is it because I’m afraid for my safety, that I want to disassociate myself?
I was heading for a Machaina store once when I walked into a cluster of Basotho with a Chinese woman following close behind. “Lekhooa, Lekhooa (white person)!” some screamed. Others asked what my nationality was while the woman behind me was asked whether we were the same.
“Ha re tsoane,” she said.
I entered the store, which turned out to be owned by the same lady.
“Of course we’re the same,” she told me. “I just said we’re not because I didn’t want them to harrass you.”
But we’re not, I thought. I wonder, when I tell people I’m not Chinese, whether it is fear that motivates me to attempt an idea the Basotho refuse to understand or whether I make that distinction because I am trying to communicate a principle that will likewise be a waste of breath: Diversity exists, and physical appearance is not a meaning within itself.


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~ by dennetmint on November 18, 2007.

2 Responses to “Living in Lesotho: First of the series in three sketches”

  1. Denise, throughout my reading of your description of life in Lesotho (which, save obvious cultural differences, seems in many ways to somewhat correlate with other descriptions of first-world-slash-third-world juxtoposition), I’ve noticed a distinct difference in the way that various political economys interact with outsiders. For example, in the United States, we often look at things in terms of “us” and “them.” And, therein, “we” usually see outsiders in a somewhat negative sphere. And I’m not talking about simple realities such as racial profiling or dislike for those ethnic/social/political/religious groups that the “everyman” percieves as the common enemy. I’m talking about the social constructions that ebb and flow throughout our own national identity, our perception of America as a sort of looming hegemony, a country full of people who are intrinsically able to accomplish tasks in an unequaled manner. Its like immigrants and those otherwise seen as outsiders can be a part of this country, they just can’t have a real say in what we do or how we do it. They can’t, simply, teach us. In America, we would never cede someone honorable royalty (or the rough equivelent) simply based upon nationall because, by doing so, we are accepting subserviance. And yet, you describe a scenario in which you are seen in a specific light based less upon your tangible skill set and more upon your status as an American and as Peace Corp Volunteer. And yet, at the same time, America seems more accesable in terms of pedestrian assimilation than many undeveloped nations, as evidenced by some of your e-mails detailing “accpetable” levels of harrasment by the locals towards yourself. Obviously, nothing I’ve written is groundbreaking or otherwise remarkable, I just think its interesting how different cultures view themselves and, specifically, the lines of demarcation between “commoners” and “uncommoners.” I hope youre doing well, I’ve got some things to send off. I apologize that its taken me so long but, as I’m sure you know, life has the tendency to devolve in ways previously unimaginable. I love and miss you. xoxox,

  2. […] successful there while the Basotho are cementing themselves in poverty. As a Chinese American, I experienced a hefty amount of misdirected discrimination. The Marketplace broadcast seemed to side with the idea that the Chinese were snatching up every […]

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