Monday, June 29, 2009

If We're Going to Make This All About the Numbers

While my time in Lesotho can in many ways be summed up by the things I have seen and done and of course the people I have met, one startling absence has made a significant impression on my mind. Evident everywhere are the rich traditions Basotho people hold dear – singing, dancing, drumming, and group celebration. But absent during these wonderful moments is a key demographic, and their lack of attendance drives home for me one of the most simultaneously visible and invisible challenges faced by African people. Where have all the middle-aged people gone?
As a continent, 50% of Africa’s population is currently under the age of fifteen, and Lesotho has one of the highest rates of HIV here and in the wider world. 1 in 4 Basotho people is infected with HIV, and in the 30-40 age bracket that statistic reaches an astonishing 40%. Having seen these numbers on paper in various forms and amalgamations before embarking on my 15-hour plane ride here, they seemed unfathomably large and imposing. But walking the streets and working with families in my neighborhood, I am repeatedly struck by the fact that is not the huge numbers that seem to affect people here the most, but the smaller ones.
Small are the numbers of grandmothers left here, and yet they are responsible for raising their numerous grandchildren orphaned by AIDS. Smaller still are the children who are raising their brothers and sisters in the wake of being orphaned. Few are the resources appropriately allocated either as a result of foreign assistance from governments and corporations abroad or from local governmental agencies. Small and dwindling is the population of middle-aged people, infected with HIV in their twenties and dead by their mid-30s, once the disease has had the 8-10 year run in their bodies necessary to reach complete destructive force. But tiniest of all is the percentage of people receiving suitable ARV (antiretroviral) treatment for their various stages of HIV/AIDS.
And yet. And yet on the street where I live, children play during their holiday breaks. They freely ride shared bicycles up and down dirt roads studded with stones to prevent erosion and put in place by a neighborhood association that collected the money from individual houses. Women hang laundry on backyard lines after they’ve tended their side yard gardens filled with the green leafy vegetable morojo. Inside, babies nap, nestled under piles of blankets to ensure snuggly warmth during a cold winter that doesn’t automatically include indoor heat. Families walk or drive to church on Sunday morning and spend their afternoons together barbecuing and gossiping with friends over a case of cold beer. And yet, life here isn’t all that different from suburbia in the United States. And yet the challenges faced on a daily basis are entirely and utterly foreign to me.
Saturday is the day of funerals here, prepared for on Fridays by groups of neighborhood men and boys who volunteer their time to dig the graves of loved ones and community members. An ex-pat I met on a trip to the mountains last weekend told me, “When you tell a person here that someone has died, they don’t respond the same way they do at home. These people just don’t value life like we do.” And yet Saturday afternoons are filled with agony. Wailing can be heard from the graveyard down the street as groups of neighborhood people troop from one gravesite to another to another. Women collapse on one another in pain, overcome by the thought of one more absence to face. And yet, who in the wide, wide world of global villages and in this small space with large problems, are we to claim that these people don’t grieve, that their absences don’t matter?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Walking Down the Street Just Isn't the Same

You know you’re really a part of the family when it’s your night to make dinner. I’ve been in Lesotho for a full week now, and my surroundings have changed dramatically since my previous post. Initially, I was living in a Guest House in Khubatswana, but I have since moved into the home of a local family who live near the centre, still in the neighborhood of Khubatswana. To arrange my housing, two of the artists I work with and very scientifically went knocking on doors a few days ago and a wonderful family, headed by a very kind woman in her mid-30s, agreed to host me for the duration of my stay. The opportunity to live in the neighborhood and experience it firsthand is an perspective I never could have dreamed of getting living in an isolated room in a guest house, and it has completely transformed my vision of the neighborhood I can now officially call home.

My presence here has admittedly caused a small stir. One of two white people living in the entirety of my neighborhood (and not a Peace Corps volunteer), I finally got to meet the local chief - who dresses in jeans, a sweater, and a knit hat like every other Ndate (father/man) – in order to receive approval from him to live here. I also got to meet some local young men, who showed up at my door yesterday morning to say hello and get a good glimpse of me. I think they were slightly disappointed that I wasn’t friendlier, but to my credit it was 8 in the morning – the next time I’m the only white person in town I’ll make sure to be more of an early bird.

Race raises some obviously interesting questions here, but few of them have turned out to be the issues I anticipated. Some people stare curiously, while in the city some people simply raise an eyebrow in my direction. Out in Khubatswana, some people want to practice their English, and still other people give me uncomfortably deferential treatment in light of my skin color – like a man at the bank who insisted I cut him in line and patronizingly patted me on the back - but nobody ignores it. Part of the acknowledgement surely stems from a perforated language barrier – while everyone in Lesotho attends school in English, some people are understandably uncomfortable with it and I try whenever possible to learn and practice my limited Sesotho. But part of it is that I am now a white woman living in an African nation. My neighbors are black, my host family is black, the people on tv are black, and the famous musicians are black. While catching glimpses of myself in the mirror has begun to become unsettling, and I certainly don’t enjoy it when children under two cry at the sight of me and it’s explained to me that they don’t know what I am, I have also felt an incredible sigh of relief being able to throw off America’s colorblindness and come out with it already – I’m white, and that’s just how it is.

When I explain to people, especially neighbors of the Centre, that I have come to Lesotho because I care about the unique way their community is cultivating a love for reading in their children and encouraging a culture of reading in their country, they seem really receptive to my intentions. When I attempt to speak my broken Sesotho, they are patient with my efforts (even when I ask people to repeat their names ten times in an hour and eventually write them down for me) and appreciative that I am really trying. When I ask them questions about their lives, they are eager to share and eager to question me in return. It might be easy to feel different and out of place here given my inability to blend into a crowd, but when a young girl tells me she dreams of becoming a scientist or doctor and I get to see they way a group of local artists throw themselves into building up their community from the inside out, Khubatswana our struggles look pretty much the same.

First Days in Khubatswana

My first two days in Khubatswana, a suburb of Lesotho's capital, Maseru, can be told largely through a series of very important introductions, quite fitting considering that greetings form the basis of all polite interaction here in Lesotho. To greet a woman you say, ‘Dumella 'Me', and for a man ‘Dumella Ndate.’ You must greet every one, especially when you are a white, western oddity - or suffer the social consequences (ranging from being vehemently called back to preform the greeting you have failed to complete, or simply being considered incredibly rude). On my first night I finally met the mad genius artist/illustrator in his early twenties whose work enhances every FALC (Family Art and Literacy Centre) book project. The next morning I met a young photographer who lives at the centre. I almost met the chief, or Morena, of Khubatswana (the neighborhood I'm living in) but he wasn’t home. That afternoon I met a young woman working on the board of the FALC who writes poetry. We’ll be working together on a bilingual biography of several successful Masotho women over the course of the summer. I also met a professor who I will be working with on the biography project, as well as a gentleman who runs an educational math center of his own and has called Lesotho home for many years. And at last, this afternoon I met some of the children who frequent the center, all boys except for the oldest three-year-old girl I’ve ever seen, whose eyes looked so far beyond me I thought my face might never come into focus. She finally smiled, and I'm pretty sure that means we're best friends.

But I haven't spent all of my time meeting people, just a lot of it. The centre has also been steadfastly working to prepare for it's opening extravaganza, where its new fixtures - shelving and curtains and some art supplies - will be unveiled for the community. The date, Saturday, caused some complications as it is set aside for one of Leostho's biggest weekly events - funerals. I have been looking for alternative housing to the Guest House I'm currently living in, and in searching for a family to stay with near the centre, I was assured by every neighbor I
would be taken to the mountains to see the snow and a funeral every week. The opening will happen tomorrow come what may, and all of our efforts have been geared toward ensuring its success. We have dusted, swept, sorted, washed, and fussed, and I think the artists should and will be very proud to share their work with the greater community.

Preparing for a grand centre opening in Lesotho poses some different and interesting challenges from the ones an opening might afford a similar community group in the US, which I quickly learned when an artist and I tried to get local contractors to install bookshelves and painting -
fixtures paid for and ordered four months ago and finally installed less than twenty four hours before the event. Another lesson learned is that knocking on someone's door does not mean business here as much as calling them on the phone does. Anyone can walk over and knock on your door (and you can subsequently pretend not to be home), but to call someone on the phone means using a pre-paid phone card, aka money, and that shows real intention.

That sums it up for a first impression of my new home, so Khea Leboha (Thank you) and Khotso (Peace).