South Africa postal workers strike

Never imagined I’d be affected by one of the many strikes that are constantly happening in South Africa, but now a box of my books (“The Mountain School”) are in limbo in a warehouse somewhere, part of the “mountain of mail” that the South African Post Office says they’re sitting on. My books are bound for the store at the Morija Museum in Lesotho, but nothing can get to Lesotho without first getting through the Republic of South Africa.

South Africans look down on Lesotho, generally. Lesotho is the poor, backward little neighbor up in the mountains. Not that they’re totally misguided in that — look at the coup and assassination attempts and suspensions of parliament happening right now. But still I find it ironic that it’s the inability of a basic utility like the postal service to function in South Africa that is preventing my books from finding their Lesotho destination.

I sent the box of books from South Lake Tahoe, California. “Departed Post Office September 10, 2014 5:07 pm,” reads the tracking log from the United States Postal Service. The final entry on the log: “Your item is being processed by customs in SOUTH AFRICA at 10:58 am on September 17, 2014.” Today is November 10. Almost two months of being “processed” by customs.

The South African Post Office is actually in its third month of its strike. Not surprisingly, the post office workers want higher wages. Not surprisingly, the post office has been in the red since 2005 and doesn’t even have the money to pay current wages: the story of postal services everywhere.

“A Rainy Day I Will Never Forget”

Yesterday was 97 degrees, the hottest day of the year. I expected more of the same today: the National Weather Service had forecast a high of 91 with clear skies. But at 9:30 AM it began to rain.

It didn’t begin to sprinkle, it began to rain — what a Mosotho farmer would even allow to call rain — as in, I put trashcans under the roof downspouts to harvest runoff. I felt memories of Lesotho rush back.

We don’t get summer rain in southern California. Here it’s bone dry from May to October. Forever, however, any summer precipitation will bring my mind back to Lesotho and how welcome those afternoon showers were as they cooled off the summer heat.

Marine layer fog most mornings -- like this -- is as close as we usually get to rain in summer.

Marine layer fog most mornings — like this — is as close as we usually get to rain in summer.

I couldn’t resist celebrating this rain by taking my five-month old son out into it. “This is amazing,” I explained to him. “It never rains in the summer!” He licked my arm.

I put him down for a nap, went back into the rain, and a lightning bolt struck. I saw the white flash out of the corner of my eye and simultaneously heard an electrical buzz followed by the thunder crack. I crouched and covered my head, realizing the bolt had touched down only a few hundred yards away. Then my mind was really brought back to Lesotho.

I ran inside the house and watched the rest of the thunderstorm play out through the windows. In Lesotho, thunderstorms approach from the west; here, this thunderstorm had approached from the southeast, from the Sea of Cortez so to speak. I wrote the observation down in a notebook. I made a cup of coffee, heating water and pouring it over grounds through a tea strainer on top of a mug. It’s what I did in Ts’oeneng; it’s what I still want to do whenever rain comes down: write with a cup of coffee in hand.

My mood was so high. Rain eliciting that reaction in me surely comes from my experience with rain in Ts’oeneng, where I learned to think of it as a blessing.

Uruguay, still wearing their neon pink pajamas at a World Cup four years later

I don’t care about soccer. Haven’t played since I left Lesotho. But I was sick last week and so started watching the World Cup and lo and behold little Luis Suarez is back at it, cheating and denying and getting kicked out while his countrymen continue to support him and pretend the world is picking on their small nation. After Suarez bit an opponent in the shoulder the other day and got banished, the president of Uruguay went to the airport at 5:30 AM to give Suarez a hero’s welcome home. He called Suarez “a boy genius.” Is the country nuts from the top down?

I remembered that I had written about Suarez and his teammates and their mishandling of themselves when I went to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. I read those posts and thought, How is it that this guy is still allowed to play at all? Here are the posts from then:

URUGUAY WEARS PINK PAJAMAS

I’ve been keeping a pansy list. It includes players which, when an opponent gets close enough, throw their hands in the air, arch their backs, roll in the grass and then look at the referee with a soap opera face while grasping their shins for dear life. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo is on the pansy list, and so is Oezil from Germany. France and Ghana have some players on it too, but then last night’s game between South Africa and Uruguay made the list obsolete. For Uruguay tops them all. Uruguay wears pink pajamas.

They spent so much time on their knees in the grass, writhing in fake pain, that the referee eventually fell for one of the acting jobs and awarded them a foul which probably ended South Africa’s World Cup.

Uruguay was the better team, technically. They were up a goal, and they didn’t need to cheat, but they did. A Uruguayan player and the South African goalie were both running at the ball when the goalie slid, the Uruguayan jumped, and the tip of one of the goalie’s cleats kissed the tip of one of the Uruguayan player’s cleats. Then the Uruguayan, Luis Suarez, twisted himself in the air, spread his arms out wide and looked to the referee begging. The referee kicked out Itumeleng Khune, the South African goalie. Uruguay got a penalty kick and went up 2-0. The stands were shocked. The entire country seemed deflated. The South Africans in the room with me were silent. The television announcer stuttered until he said, “People in the country are likely to lose interest in the World Cup now.”

It wasn’t that Bafana Bafana was going to lose the game 2-0; it was that they got ripped off. Soon enough, the stands began emptying. The likelihood that South Africa can now make it to the next round is paper thin.

I hear no more vuvuzelas outside my window. Thanks, Uruguay. I hope you sleep well in your fuzzy wuzzy pansy pants.

URUGUAY WEARS NEON PINK PAJAMAS

Ghana and Uruguay were tied 1-1 and in the last seconds of extra time when a Ghana player kicked the ball at the Uruguay goal. Luis Suarez of Uruguay, standing on the goal line, with nothing but the net behind him, then put both hands up and slapped the ball out of the air. He was not the goalkeeper, however, which made touching the ball with his hands on purpose a clear act of cheating. Luis Suarez cheated. The Ghana kick was a sure goal. And when the referee approached to issue a red card, Suarez was walking away, then he gave the ref a double take and dropped his jaw like, “What? Me?”

If Luis Suarez hadn’t cheated, Ghana would have won. Africa would have won: The entire continent had taken the Black Stars as their own; they were the last African team left in the tournament. South Africans were particularly supporting the Ghanaians, referring to the team as Baghana Baghana. Nelson Mandela wrote a personal letter to the Black Stars to wish them well. Local companies took out full-page advertisements in newspapers to show their support, such as the one by Metropolitan financial services which showed a drawing of Africa and the message, “Together we can conquer the world. Good luck Ghana!”

But Luis Suarez struck again. Remember, this is the same guy who faked an injury against the South African goalkeeper during the group stage, getting the goalkeeper kicked out and breaking the spirit of the South Africans, basically ending their World Cup run.

On the radio today people called in and were very careful to avoid making real threats toward Suarez. One person said: “Shame on you. That’s twice you’ve been responsible for knocking out African teams.” And another vaguely said: “Suarez should be punished.”

Morning Reads

There are morning reads and there are other reads. Other reads can be read in the morning, but morning reads don’t want to be experienced except in the early hours of the day when your mind is freshest, most philosophical and most optimistic. Preferably also you have a cup of coffee in hand and a block of uninterrupted time set aside.

“A Place of My Own” by Michael Pollan has been my morning read for the last couple months. I take in only a handful of pages at each sitting — this is all you need of a morning read. The book is the story of Pollan building himself a writing house in the woods of his large property in Connecticut. But also, says Pollan, it “looks at the art of architecture and the work of building through the lens of nature.” It’s no simple telling of the steps of drawing blueprints to framing to roofing. “A Place of My Own” ponders why we build shelters, why we use cedar for shingles, why architects and carpenters don’t love each other, why Pollan feels the need to get his own hands dirty instead of just hiring the work out. There are digressions about the challenges of designing inswinging windows, the limits of modernist architectural styles, and how trim around a window is like a transitional phrase in a narrative. The book is a building of words as much as words about a building.

I tried to read “A Place of My Own” in the evening once and it went nowhere. My late-day mind kept skimming over sentences that included words like declension, belvedere, and fenestration. And when Pollan began to talk of “Modernism’s program of psychological hygiene” I was done for. These are things I might care to read about in the morning, only in the morning. I do my learning and my philosophizing best in the morning — I do my writing in the morning. The rest of the day I do my doing.

Yet thank God for morning reads because when you need deliberately chosen words, attempts at creative narrative structure, and deep thinking, you need them. You need a Pollan to have written “A Place of My Own.”

Candles in the morning

I get up for work before the sun, and then I turn on the light and I cringe. It blinds me. I look the other way and I blink and I stand and wait until slowly I acclimate. Then I can see the shower to turn it on and get to the business of the morning.

I remember waking before the sun for work in Lesotho. Actually, I would wake before the sun because I wanted to study Sesotho for an hour before going to do my teaching work.

Some of my Sesotho homework, under candle light.

Some of my Sesotho homework, under candle light.

I got out of bed and shuffled carefully in the black to the table upon which I kept my box of matches. I struck a match — the light was small and orange, not blinding white — and then I lit the wick of the nearby candle. The room was slightly, partially, innocently illuminated. I eased into the day.

Electricity is cool, yes. I like being able to use this laptop computer. But sometimes I think of switching back to candles, just in the pre-dawn mornings, just for that smoother transition between sleep, darkness, and a busy day.

Graduation

While I was teaching at Ngoana Jesu Secondary School in my third year, one of my students, Maleshoane Thaki, gained admittance to the National University of Lesotho. She was the first from our school, ever. We were all so shocked, and proud.

This month, September 2013, four more of my former students graduate from NUL. It’s the only university in the country. It’s a big deal for any Mosotho student to get in and graduate, but it’s beyond unprecedented for four former Ngoana Jesu students to be graduating with bachelor’s degrees from NUL in one year.

Three of the four names you’ll recognize from The Mountain School: Congratulations to Lemeko Molefi (the rock climber), Sepheche Adoro (the initiate), and ‘Malefa Taunyane (the super student). And congrats also to Tahleho Morobane, who is ‘Malefa’s close friend.

Lemeko’s degree is in Development Studies and Environmental History; Sepheche’s degree is in Sociology and Anthropology; ‘Malefa and Tahleho both earned degrees in Education.

To top it all off, ‘Malefa, has been awarded a check from the university for 1,000 maloti (about $100) for being nominated as “The Best Student in African Languages and Literature.”

Four of my former students graduating from NUL this year, and ‘Malefa the best in the entire university in her field — I feel something like the pride of a father. I can’t wait to see what rivers they ford next.

Facebook, Sesotho Style

“Mornin guys? Kele hopotse kao fela n cn’t wait 2 c some of u s i knw dt we gna mt.”

What?

A former student from Lesotho posted this on Facebook the other day, and that’s my usual reaction to any posting from someone in Lesotho: What?

Actually, Facebook for me is always such a puzzle (and a comedy) because I only use it to keep in touch with people from Lesotho. I have no American “friends.”

And over the past year or two I’ve noticed that Facebook, Sesotho style, follows a number of common practices. First, there’s the mixture of Sesotho and English. This is not done because I might read the post. Mixing Sesotho and English is something that Basotho do even among themselves as soon as they learn their first English words. It’s done for a variety of reasons, one of which is to show off one’s education.

The Sesotho-English mixture can be confusing for me, which wouldn’t be the case except that the words are always abbreviated, as if it’s a text message — and abbreviated in unorthodox ways. “Mornin” is obvious, but “cn’t”? Why not just add the a to make it a complete “can’t”? You add the apostrophe, but not the a?

And how about “dt”? I think it’s supposed to be short for “that” because there’s no Sesotho word that would make sense in this context. Yes, it’s definitely “that” because the th sound is hard for Basotho to make and so they often mispronounce “that” as “dat.”

Compounding the challenges of comprehension of these Facebook posts for me is that there are often mistakes in the Sesotho. For example, the first word in the above message — “Kele” — is properly written as two words “Ke le.”

Anyway, I can eventually tease the meanings out of most messages, and this one translates in full into:

“Morning guys (not a question). I remember all of you and can’t wait to see some of you as I know that we’re going to meet.”

Although I don’t have much experience Facebooking people from other parts of the world, from what I can gather, posts from people in Lesotho do have things in common with posts from Americans and others. There are way too many self-portraits put up — big, nose-hair showing portraits. There for me to read are also messages with too much personal information about romantic relationships and other things that spark outpourings of emotion and ought to be kept private.

Seemingly peculiar to Sesotho style, however, are two more things. Males post more about soccer than anything else. Constantly, soccer, soccer, soccer, especially when the two big South African teams, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, are playing. And finally, both males and females do something that anyone who taught in a school in Lesotho will recognize instantly, and that is they love to give advice, and to do so by speaking in proverbs, usually Biblical ones.

Here’s a post from another of my former students: 

“Ua heso 2 reach a certain goal u ar 2 go thru challenges know dat its when u ar a warrior. de devil never tempts weak pple bt de strong ones. Take a gud example by Daniel. Again its when a vision is fulfille. eba strong ngoaneso. Jesu o mamela a fetole!”

I’ll let you try to decipher that, and I’ll leave you with this one from yet another student (I love this stuff!):

“Hey frnds. be aware dat God is available en living. so try harder to please him. oh God i love u Daddy.”

What?

From Scribing Letters to Facebook, Fast

Our school and village had no electricity. When I left in 2007, I kept in touch with people mostly through letters. The school and village still don’t have electricity, but these days I keep in touch with people mostly through Facebook.

Many of my former students now have cell phones. Some of them live in towns where they have electricity and can charge them in an outlet connected to the grid while some still live in the village and charge the phones with small solar panels or by paying someone who can take it to electricityland. They Facebook on these phones, and some are on the site almost as much as an American teenager.

The situation blows me away because I was the first to show the students a digital camera back then. I would ask them if they had heard of the Internet and not a single student even knew what it was.

It’s been such a rapid transition — only six years — to go from the 19th century to the 21st. And they virtually skipped the intermediate technologies of landline telephones, then cell phones used for talking, then personal computers used for email. It was straight from writing on paper and licking a stamp to social networks on the Internet. Talk about bridging a gap. They are now on equal footing with everyone in the richest countries in this respect.

Book Reviews

I’ve heard of writers who don’t read reviews of their books. I understand the temptation to avoid being criticized, but I see “The Mountain School” as a conversation starter, just the first word in a dialogue, and so for me to ignore a review would be like refusing to participate in what I aimed to get rolling.

Still, the last review I read began by complementing me as an “extremely gifted writer” and calling the pacing of the book perfect only to later say that some of the things I did in the book were “morally indefensible” and made the reviewer feel “creepy.” She also said she wished I had devoted more ink to the position of women in Lesotho, and then noted that I’m not someone she would want to sit down and drink a beer with. Ouch.

It was a customer review on Amazon. It was just a customer review on Amazon, you might say. It’s not to be taken as seriously as a published review in a newspaper, for example. I disagree. In fact, I take this type of review — just as one from Goodreads or one passed along to me directly in conversation or email — equally as seriously as any written professionally. There are perceptive readers everywhere.

So I hesitated when I came upon another review this morning, this one on a website called Peace Corps Writers: I’ll read it later. No, remember why you wrote the book. Read it now.

I’m glad I did. It turned out to be good through and through. When I say good I don’t mean stroking my ego. I’m truly grateful for constructive criticism. Rather, a good book review, I think, is one that shows careful attention to the text and evaluates the book based on what type of book it is and not on what it could be. I don’t mind being called creepy, as long as it’s because of something I actually did in the book, but “The Mountain School” shouldn’t be judged on its lack of attention to women’s rights in Lesotho. This book was meant to capture my time in Ts’oeneng, nothing more, nothing less. It isn’t a treatise on gender rights. Did it do a good job of taking you with me to Ts’oeneng and giving you that story?

Deidre Swesnik wrote the review I read this morning on Peace Corps Writers. I think she recognized the book for what it is. She writes:

“He is brutally honest with himself and his readers and tells us even of things about which he is not proud. He is at times judgmental, open-minded, conflicted, happy, determined, easy-going, and frustrated. He shows us the good and the bad. He shows us that Peace Corps is a full life experience, not just what comes homes in letters and gets remembered after you’ve been home for a while.”

My aim was to tell that truth. I wanted the reader to be able to say at the end, “That was what it was really like.” And I want to be able to read the book myself in 10 years and say, “Oh yeah, that was exactly what it was like.”

What I also appreciated about this review was that Swesnik made personal connections to my experience in Ts’oeneng. She had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in the 1990s, where she found herself in situations similar to mine in Lesotho. I learned from the connections she made between my and her stories. And she pointed out that my being an outsider in Ts’oeneng — that our being outsiders in Africa – is not unique. It is like something everyone experiences many times in life. It is frequent and universal to feel like you don’t fit in.

I like that Swesnik pointed that out because I felt like she understood the book as I had tried to craft it. The first line in the dialogue had been successfully delivered, and the response had too.

C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”