So Smart We’re Stupid?

We may have come full circle in our intelligence in America: We’ve become so smart that we’re stupid; we’ve learned so many new things that we no longer remember the most basic and important things.

I was listening to an interview on NPR’s Science Friday with the writer Michael Pollan, who is one of my favorites and who is touring for his new book Cooked. He talked of these amazing ways in which the bacteria in our guts transform the food we eat. They are aided, or inhibited, by the way we cook and ferment and otherwise prepare our food before we put it into our mouths. Fascinating stuff. Smart.

Yet on the heels of these elucidations came the stupidity. Pollan talked with intrigue of learning to bake bread while writing his book. He cooked over fire and also played with fermenting cabbage. These processes were so novel to him; he spoke with child-like effulgence.

I thought: Only children should be speaking like this. In Lesotho, by the time you’re a teenager you’ve got these things down.  All of my students in Lesotho made their own bread. The boys slaughtered pigs and roasted them over a fire built right next to the principal’s office. And in Lesotho, a girl’s prospects of being married go down if she can’t make a good motoho, a traditional fermented drink. One day the teachers at Ngoana Jesu Secondary School ridiculed the chief’s daughter when she brought a gift of motoho for the staff that wasn’t up to par.

At school, the students raised these pigs and then slaughtered and cooked them up.
At school, the students raised these pigs and then slaughtered and cooked them up.

And here is Michael Pollan, professor at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, winner of many food-writing awards, called a “foodie intellectual” by The New York Times. He is 58 years old.

Nevertheless, I wanted to pardon Pollan. He may write about food, but he is after all only a journalist. He’s not claiming to be an expert of any kind. Next, however, Science Friday went on to interview Dr. Robert Hutkins, professor of food microbiology at the University of Nebraska.

“Would it be fair to call you a pickle expert?” the interviewer asked.

“Well, I guess I’m an expert in fermented foods, and a pickle is a fermented food, so I guess that’s fair enough.”

Interviewer: “Could you walk us through a recipe for a fermented pickle, for someone who wants to try this at home?”

Dr. Hutkins: “So I have to tell you that I’ve not done this myself. So with that caveat, you know — and actually, I would probably recommend sources online that you could find to do this.”   

Wait, wait, wait. Did the doctor of fermented food really just say he has never made fermented food? But how . . . ? Why? Hasn’t he skipped a step? He can explain all of the workings of the microorganisms involved in the fermentation process, but he has never actually made it happen?

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has fermented other foods, just not pickles. Still!

Where are we as Americans when our National Public Radio interviews our country’s best authors and they tell us stories about learning to do things that children in poor countries do every day? And then we listen to doctors of food who have never made food?

How is it that our knowledge has not been built in a more linear fashion, where we learn the basics — like how to cook food — and only then do we learn the molecular details about what happens to the food when we cook it and eat it?

Makes me wonder if we’re studying the wrong things these days, or at least learning things in the wrong order.

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New Voice on the Chinese in Lesotho

During all my years in Lesotho, I spoke to a Chinese only once. I encountered many Chinese at the shops they own in villages and towns throughout the country, yet I really only conversed with one man who drove his pick-up truck to our school in the countryside one afternoon to deliver heads of cabbage. Our principal knew the man from the capital, Maseru, where she lived, and had purchased the cabbage from him for our school lunches.

“This lechaena knows Sesotho,” Principal Tsita told me. I couldn’t believe it. I’d yet to meet a Chinese who knew the local language.

“This lekhooa knows Sesotho,” Principal Tsita told the Chinese man.

So the Chinese man said to me, “Ho joang, abuti?” — How’s it going, brother? His pronunciation was spot on. We chatted for a minute about my living alone out here on the outskirts of a small village. When he left, I stood impressed with his language skills. I had to admit that his Sesotho was farther along than mine.

I’d love to have talked with him more and picked his brain about his living in an African capital behind barred windows and armed guards. Chinese are not exactly loved in Lesotho, as in much of the rest of Africa, or so I hear. But I never have heard much of the Chinese side of the story, until stumbling upon Mothusi Turner’s work.

Turner is a student at Oxford University who knows Mandarin, has roots in Lesotho, and is studying and writing about the Chinese in Africa. An enlightening piece you might want to read is “Setting up Shop in Lesotho: How the Chinese Succeeded.”  I had always wondered how many Chinese were in Lesotho, where their money came from and where it went, not to mention how in the world they first ended up in this little mountainous enclave that few people in the greater world even know exists. Turner goes toward answering these questions. And there on his blog are a number of other important and unique articles. As far as I know, he is the only one doing this research.

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Barbara Kingsolver: Urban vs Rural

One of my least admirable qualities, according to my wife, is that I quit books. She will read a book that she detests all the way until the last page just because she started it. She doesn’t quit books. I, on the other hand, am convinced that there are millions of great books out there that I haven’t read and I’m not about to waste my finite time on a book that isn’t great — whether I’m two pages into it or two hundred, I’m fine with cutting my losses at any point.

When some years back I quit in the middle of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible, it was the worst literary failure that my wife had ever seen of me. She still brings it up. She loved the story of the missionary family in the Congo, and she had been the one to hopefully recommend the book to me, and then I only got halfway through it.

But all’s not lost with me and Kingsolver. Though I won’t be returning to what the novelist has to say about missionaries in Africa, I find her thoughts on biology and rural living perspicacious. In an essay she wrote called “The Good Farmer,” she says this:

“In my professional life I’ve learned that as long as I write novels and nonfiction books about strictly human conventions and constructions, I’m taken seriously. But when my writing strays into that muddy territory where humans are forced to own up to our dependence on the land, I’m apt to be declared quaintly irrelevant by the small, acutely urban clique that decides in this country what will be called worthy literature. (That clique does not, fortunately, hold much sway over what people actually read.) I understand their purview, I think. I realize I’m beholden to people working in urban centers for many things I love: They publish books, invent theater, produce films and music. But if I had not been raised such a polite Southern girl, I’d offer these critics a blunt proposition: I’ll go a week without attending a movie or concert, you go a week without eating food, and at the end of it we’ll sit down together and renegotiate ‘quaintly irrelevant.’”

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What is a Bono?

It caught my eye as it ran across the CNN ticker: “Madonna, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, and Bono are some of the celebs pledging to ‘save Africa.’ But does Africa want them?”

I was on my way to teach a class, so as I continued down the hall I thought about it. Good question . . . does Africa want them? But it can’t be answered. Africa doesn’t even know they exist.

Once while I was living in Ts’oeneng, I think it was in 2006, Bono came to Lesotho. He visited the capital on a Saturday and I happened to travel from Ts’oeneng to there the next day, where I ran into an American friend who told me about it. She was working in Maseru for a non-governmental organization and she giddily told me all about the event the night before where Bono had spoken about the local textile factories and AIDS. She showed me photos on her cellphone. There he was on the stage at Lesotho’s most expensive hotel wearing his signature extra-terrestrial sunglasses (is that what they are?)

Wow, so Bono had visited little Lesotho. He came and went and I would have never known. I guess out in the villages we don’t get a lot of news. But then I wondered if his visit counted as news in Ts’oeneng.

On Monday, I asked my Form E class — the oldest and most world-wise class of students at Ngoana Jesu Secondary School, “Did you know that Bono was in Maseru over the weekend?”

“Pardon, sir.”

“Did any of you guys hear that Bono, the singer of the music group U2, was in Maseru this past weekend?”


Not that my students were totally unfamiliar with Western celebrities. One student had written “Snoop Dogg” on his backpack, and I had been asked a number of times if I liked Celine Dion.

But that’s just it: Snoop Dogg and Celine Dion. Which Western celebrities were also known in Lesotho was curious and never predictable. Dolly Parton was played frequently on the radios of public buses, along with R.Kelly. Soccer is the most popular sport, so people knew the British player David Beckham, but the only other athletes we knew in common were professional wrestlers. They loved John Cena.

No one I met knew Madonna, or Angelina Jolie — and once I showed students a magazine photo of her husband Brad Pitt, to which they made no connection either. Sorry, George Clooney. You, too, don’t translate.

And sorry, Bono. While you’re flying in and spending a few hours saving Africa, Africa is wondering who you are.

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Have you ever thought of Goodreads bookshelves as a window into your mind?

Do you do Goodreads? I’ve found that it can be a useful place for discovering new authors who write in genres you like. And you can keep track of authors you already read. For example, when I heard the other day that Michael Pollan was almost due to release a new title, Cooked, I put it on my Goodreads “to-read” shelf. I suppose it’s like an Amazon wish list, except only for books.

Only it just occurred to me that my Goodreads shelves are open for public viewing and, in a way, they feel more revealing than a hundred Facebook photos. You can shelve books you’ve already read, which you can rate as well, and even review if you want to, and you can shelve books you want to read, like I did with Pollan’s Cooked. And then someone can come along and look through your shelves. It’s like giving them a look into your brain, for on those shelves are the ideas, the knowledge that you’ve consumed.

Or at least they are the ideas, the knowledge that you claim to have consumed.

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Chinua Achebe vs. the Hardy Boys

Chinua Achebe’s passing is a loss for me personally, but I’m not sure he was as important to Africans as he was to me, an outsider interested in Africa.

I taught “Things Fall Apart” to my Form D class at Ngoana Jesu Secondary School in 2006, and of all the books I taught there — from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” — that novel was my favorite.

First, the context. The classroom felt charged as I taught this book about colonialism in Africa in a classroom in Africa — I being a European-looking guy. But what buoyed the book through every English period for a couple months was the extent of Achebe’s talent as a storyteller and his honesty as a thinker. His sentences were economic, powerful, each like a command. The ideas behind them were plain to see. This let the tension pour through as Okonkwo struggled for his identity, for his people, for his pride. This was the first book I taught that was written by an African where I felt it stood up to any other book I’d read, ever, written by anyone, from anywhere. My students, on the other hand, would have left Achebe’s Nigerian Okonkwo to be with the American Hardy Boys.

Before we read “Things Fall Apart” that year, we went through some bookless weeks. The literature books selected by Lesotho’s Ministry of Education were not yet stocked and available for purchase in any bookstore. (And there was no such thing as buying online and shipping to the village.) But my friends and family from the U.S. had collected and shipped a variety of books to our school over the previous two years, and we now had quite a collection of Hardy Boys thrillers. So I chose one to read aloud in class each day, just to pass the time until the Ministry of Education’s required literature books became available.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the students paying close attention to the motorcycle chases and the shady characters that Joe and Frank Hardy encountered. Soon my other Hardy Boys books were being borrowed and read by students in their free time, and not only the Form D’s. Lemeko, as in Lemeko the Climber, that voracious little reader, began burning candles through the night to get to the end of another Hardy Boys mystery. Sepheche would be sure to have a copy on hand to read out in the pastures as he looked after his father’s cattle. Over the next few months, a group of boys emerged who were reading, exchanging and discussing Hardy Boys books more than their textbooks. “Could you ask your friends in America to send more Hardy Boys, sir?” They were running out. I started calling them the Hardy Boys.

The Hardy Boys: Moraba, Sepheche, Lemeko, Thato, Lefike.
The Hardy Boys: Moraba, Sepheche, Lemeko, Thato, Lefike.
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Radio Lesotho, Streaming

Click the logo

Years I’ve been waiting for this! The Government of Lesotho is finally streaming their radio station, Radio Lesotho. It gives me the chance to listen to the language I miss so much here in California — there are no Sesotho speakers in this part of the world. It also gives you the chance to hear how the language sounds. Click here and you’ll go to the Government of Lesotho website where you’ll find a player in the lower right.

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Initiation Ceremony – New Men

Boys just become men, freshly returned from the mountain school.

One of the first warnings I received upon arriving in Lesotho was not to hike aimlessly in the mountains, for if you happen upon an initiation school you’ll be captured. A group of boys spend about six months in initiation school up on a summit, being circumcised, learning to stickfight, practicing a unique form of local poetry, reciting the lyrics of secret songs, being taught how to conduct themselves as men in the village, and more. We don’t know the more. We don’t know the details. “We” being not only foreigners, but even Basotho who have not themselves “gone up the mountain.” Initiated men ferociously guard the specifics of what happens up there.

But I wanted to offer a photographic supplement to my description of an initiation ceremony in the beginning of The Mountain School. I had the photos; I just wasn’t sure if I could post any.

As you’ll recall, over my years in Ts’oeneng I got to know Witchdoctor Santu, the man who ran the initiation school in our area, and he eventually let me in on some activities, even allowing me to photograph an initiation ceremony. Normally, the uninitiated are not even allowed to look makolonyane — new men in the face, let alone photograph them. So I wasn’t sure if the photographs I had been given permission to take were for my eyes only. Sadly, Witchdoctor Santu has passed away, so I couldn’t ask him. I was, however, able to consult a former student who is now an initiated man, and he gave the sanction for me to publish these types of images (the photo above and the video below).

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Canopic Jar 27

Taxi rides permeate life in Lesotho. You walk, maybe you ride a horse or a donkey, and you squish into taxis — that’s how you get around. Here’s one of the Kolo taxis that I took every time I commuted from my village to the capital.Kolo taxi

Yet I didn’t find a place in the narrative of The Mountain School to give taxis their proportional due. I only detailed one very uncomfortable ride. Fortunately, the literary journal “Canopic Jar” has just published its latest crop of prose and poetry from writers across the globe and in it you’ll find a piece by me about a more ordinary taxi ride, though everybody who knows knows that there are no ordinary taxi rides in Lesotho.

This issue also includes excellent poetry by the Mosotho poet Rethabile Masilo, as well as Tim Pfau. Canopic Jar 27 here.

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