Quintessential Lesotho in one photo

If you’ve been to Lesotho, you’ll recognize every silhouette in this photo. A peach tree, a couple of rondavels, a man wrapped in a blanket, the leaf blade of an agave (or aloe, as Basotho call it), mountains, more mountains, and an expansive sky.

The scene is quintessential Lesotho.

I took this photo in 2004 on a hike from Malealea to Semonkong.

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Ts’oeneng Mountain

When I arrived in Ts’oeneng I assumed the village got its name from the rock atop its mountain that looked like the profile of a monkey. Ts’oene means “monkey” in Sesotho.

Later, I was told a couple of other origin stories. There used to live troops of monkeys in the caves near the mountain summit, that’s where the village got its name.

Shrouded in fog in the photo above, you can’t see the village well, but it is all around the foot of the mountain.

Then there is a clan in Lesotho called Bats’oene, which you might translate as “people of the monkey” — that’s their totem animal. Maybe the village was settled by them.

Regardless, Ts’oeneng Mountain was something I looked at every day. This photo was taken from my house on the Ngoana Jesu school grounds, looking east, on a summer morning.

It was from behind that mountain that the sun rose dramatically, as did the moon. And among the villagers, the mountain’s nickname was Khoeli-e-kae. “Where the moon is.”

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Winter in Lesotho

As my shoulders are sunburned and the air conditioning runs in my house this July in California, it’s hard to remember that it’s winter in Lesotho. Yet when I do remember, I recall scenes like the one above, which I photographed exactly ten winters ago: cold, gray, slow-moving storms over dead brown mountains — completely different from the fast-moving lightning storms of summer.

In winter, I recall wearing my blanket in the morning as I stepped outside to pee. The concrete floor in my house felt even colder than the air in the mornings.

Between classes, I sat with the other teachers outside the staff room, but close to the north-facing wall in order to magnify through reflection the little power the sun had. Students in classrooms wore beanies and gloves.

Qacha's Nek district
Qacha’s Nek district

And then if it snowed — I’ve never been in a quieter place than Lesotho during a snow.

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How to pronounce Lesotho

I remember getting the news from Peace Corps that they were sending me to a country called Lesotho and having two thoughts: Where’s Lesotho? And secondly, how do you pronounce Lesotho?

I wouldn’t find out until I arrived in the country. No one I knew in the U.S. could tell me. Surprisingly, even today in 2017, Google doesn’t know. (And I thought Google knew everything.)

I was dictating some thoughts into my phone using Google’s Keep application, but when I said Lesotho it wrote, “Miss you too.” So I said Lesotho again and Google wrote, “the suit the suit.” What? I said Lesotho one more time, slowly, and Google wrote, “to listen to.”

I know how to pronounce Lesotho. This couldn’t have been my fault.

I’m reminded that physical travel — actually moving your body to a new place — is still a unique form of education.

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The best moroho


This is my yard in Southern California, where I sowed moroho in one of my “plots,” as Basotho would call this vegetable garden bed.

Every year at Ngoana Jesu Secondary School, ntate Lemphane had the students of his agriculture class sow their own plot of moroho using seeds of a couple different types of greens (rapa e tala and rapa e putsoa), which I’m pretty sure we call turnip greens and collards in American English. When the students’ moroho got to about the size of mine in the photo above, the women who cooked the school lunches harvested them, boiled them in big black cauldrons, and served them with papa. It was my favorite lunch of the school year.

The moroho was tender, crisp, sweet and spicy — it was everything that moroho could hope to be. It wasn’t mushy like cabbage could be, nor was it bitter like chard (“spinach” Basotho call it). It was the best moroho I ever tasted.

Well, I harvested this stuff in the photo, I did it at just the time I remember ‘me ‘Makopano and the other cooks doing it, and I cooked up some papa to go with it. Brought me back to sitting in that staff room, eating with my right hand off of a tin plate, listening to the tin roof tick as it heated under the afternoon sun, hearing ‘me ‘Masamuel shout at a female student to fetch her a cup of water after she’d eaten.

I can’t say that my moroho tasted quite as good as those school lunches, but for its effect in briefly transporting me back to Ts’oeneng it was magical.

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Lesotho as an enclave

There aren’t many countries which are entirely surrounded by a single other country, as Lesotho is entirely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. There’s also San Marino within Italy, and then there’s Vatican City within Italy too. That’s it. Three in the whole world.

Nancy Wright teaches political science at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York, and she created a unique seminar titled, “Surrounded! Sovereign Enclaves and Semi-Enclaves in International Relations.” So Lesotho is covered in her course, and one of the assigned readings related to The Mountain Kingdom is my book, The Mountain School.

I was able to participate in the class’s discussion of Lesotho earlier this month in a conference call along with my Peace Corps mate Charles Fogelman, who is currently working on a PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on land use law in Lesotho.

We all talked about the effect of Lesotho’s situation as an enclave, how Lesotho might have developed if it weren’t, and why it is in the first place. Also, we discussed why South Africa doesn’t attempt to incorporate Lesotho today — a common debate topic during our Thursday afternoon sessions at Ngoana Jesu Secondary School while I taught there.

But our discussion broadened, and Professor Wright’s students had perceptive comments and questions more specifically about issues and stories from The Mountain School. We talked about foreign aid, race, Chinese presence in Lesotho, textile factories, and even my fleeting obsession with listening to the rap music of 50 Cent.

As a writer, I am most pleased not when a reader agrees with what I’ve written but when a reader’s comments show that what I meant to say with my words were precisely what the reader understood them to say. Clarity is paramount. To wit, one student noted that it seemed that my overarching goal while living in Lesotho was to understand the people by living like them, as far as possible. Bingo, I thought.

Then a student asked what it has been like returning to live in the U.S. after years in Lesotho trying to be immersed in that small world. In some ways I’ve found adjusting to living in the U.S. even harder than it was adjusting to living in Lesotho, I said. How so? asked Professor Wright. I had trouble elaborating, except to say that my life in Lesotho was so focused — I woke up before the sun at 4:45 a.m. every morning to study Sesotho, and I did so with passion because it was supportive to my single goal of trying to get along and understand life in Lesotho. I no longer have a single goal. I feel like I have millions now, and I’m not always sure which to prioritize, and this is harder. But there’s got to be more to it, I thought. I need to consider the question more. Perhaps it deserves a separate post on this blog or as an epilogue to the book.

No matter, life in Lesotho was an enclave. It was entirely surrounded. It was darkness but for the candle light on my table as I did Sesotho exercises from my little green grammar book.

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Book discussion in Portlandia

The Columbia River Peace Corps Association’s Book Club in Portland, Oregon, was nice enough to invite me to participate in their discussion of The Mountain School on September 16. They have an enviable group and routine going on up there.

I had a great time hearing the thoughts of those who read the book, many of whom had been Peace Corps volunteers in decades past and in countries far from Lesotho (Philippines, Ecuador, Liberia, Venezuela, Ghana, Belize, Niger). I learned that there are some experiences that many Peace Corps volunteers share despite differences in era or continent: dangerous rides in buses or taxis, getting robbed or mugged. Not that it’s all trial and tribulation! But those are things that stick with you, and it’s good to commiserate about them, and once it’s long after the fact you can even laugh about them.

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‘Malefa: an update

Where is she now? My super student is married with a daughter named Pinkie, and she lives in a village just a few miles from Ts’oeneng. In Lesotho, the wife becomes part of the husband’s family and therefore usually moves to his family’s home village.

She recently graduated from the National University of Lesotho with a bachelor’s degree in Education, focused on Development Studies and African Languages, Sesotho in particular. She has taught part time at a few schools, including her alma mater, Ngoana Jesu, but is still looking for a full-time position.

Meanwhile, she’ll be working for the Independent Election Commission as a display clerk while the country votes on February 28 in an early and contentious election.

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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.

UPDATE: The books did eventually arrive, and in fine condition, around Christmas time.

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“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.

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Three Years Learning as a Peace Corps Teacher in Lesotho, Africa