Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Best Wedding Ever

The day of the wedding party finally arrived, and though I’d bought a Siseshwe to match what I’d been told was my entire family’s obligatory wardrobe, I trooped over to my host-grandmother’s house only to find everyone else in jeans and sweatshirts. Duh.  Despite having been duped into cultural relevancy, the attention I received was irresistible, and I loved every minute of it. Flocks of women clucked over me and patted my hair and face, telling me how wonderful I looked in traditional clothing and how I should just stay with them forever. I was paraded through the front and backyards before finally being allowed to seek refuge in the guest bedroom with my friends – a host sister-in-law and the woman who works as a maid in my house. The feast itself was glorious and bountiful, though remaining a vegetarian in the face of all that good-smelling lamb proved as challenging as always here.

One of my favorite parts about having been adopted in Lesotho is that no one is hesitant to put me to work, and it makes me feel like I’m really part of the family. I can imagine nothing more awkward than standing off to the sidelines watching other people get down to business, so being assigned to work the buffet table was exactly what I’d hoped for. There were around seventy-five people in attendance, so there was plenty of serving to be done. As I handed out heaps of wonderful delicacies, the women gathered around the special stoves in the kitchen brought in for the occasion, fussing over the food and gossiping about the men, who stood outside drinking beer and gossiping about the women.  The multitude of kids present were relegated to the backyard where they could do no harm and play in peace with the toy cars they make out of bent aluminum and half soda-cans.

The people who meandered through the serving line represented what has become my favorite aspect of Lesotho – the combination between modern and traditional that breeds seeming contradictions like the blanket-clad businessman brusquely pacing his way downtown as he passes the sheep herder leading his flock down a street filled with whizzing cars. All of this is witnessed, of course, by the random men on horseback as well as the fashionable young women whose knee-high boots, trendy handbags, and colorful pea coats easily beat my own tucked away in Boston. And all of these genres had gathered in one place to eat and celebrate this joyous family occasion. Their total juxtaposition draws me in every time, as do their easy smiles and willingness to let me into their world. Even on difficult days, Lesotho never fails to spark a grin.

After we’d satisfied our bellies, the group trekked up into the hills of the neighborhood to my house, where a dj had been set up and enough alcohol to quench the nation’s thirst had been acquired, and then the party really started.

Again, the women gathered indoors to cook papa and morojo (maize meal and greens) while the men tended the brye (Afrikaans for barbecue) outside. I have no idea what the guys’ evening was like because they never stepped foot in the house, but the women had a great time.

After a delicious evening meal and several rounds of Lesotho wine and beer, singing began in earnest. I have never heard voices like the ones I’ve witnessed in Lesotho, where people bust out three and four part harmonies at the drop of a hat and musical talent seems to run in the water. Every woman in the group introduced herself through strong, gorgeous song, her story accented with approving responses from the punctuating chorus the group had become. She sang her name, her husband’s name, how many children she had, and the name of her birthplace. When my turn came I shared my tale with the group and they went wild, ecstatic that I was joining them, and possibly even more excited to learn that I was as yet unmarried with no children.

Round after round of exuberant singing was followed up with traiditional dancing, comprised of a series of shoulder thrusts and a kind of hip swaying that still astounds me. By the time I finally caught on and joined the congo line around the plush living room, things were in full swing and everyone was laughing and moving up a storm. It was amazing to be a part of the enormous energy swirl of energy created by these beautiful women and my head still spins when I look back on it – partly from the dancing and partly from the many bottles of wine that came before.

Once the dancing had wrapped up, it was back to sitting and chatting - and plotting. Now that everyone knew I was both unmarried and childless, proposals flew like darts over my head. Suddenly everyone wanted to introduce me to their brother or a cousin, and several people proposed marriage to me right away on behalf of their sons. I disappointed them all by apologetically explaining that I was leaving in just a few weeks for the United States to finish my education, but I assured them that I found their offers extremely flattering.

It wasn’t until the early hours of the morning that people began to drop like flies, passing out here and there on air mattresses and spare beds borrowed from kindly willing neighbors. Sleeping quarters were tight, but it didn’t matter – we had celebrated, danced, and sung, and now we were exhausted. I, at least, slept like a baby, and my dreams were dotted with Sesotho music.

Morning brought hangovers and a huge breakfast prepared once more by the women I’d come to see as family and it was enjoyed by everyone. Soon after, all those people packed up their bags and boarded private cars and public transport to return to the various homes and villages they'd traveled from. I’ll probably never see them again, but I’ll always remember the way they were.

Overall, it was an incredible experience and I feel both lucky and bewildered to have participated in it  - emotional adjectives that describe most of my time here. Thank G-d  I have pictures to prove it.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fashion Translation

            What do you get when you slaughter three pigs, two sheep, and invite relatives from all over Lesotho and South Africa to spend a weekend sleeping on your couch? A wedding party Basotho-style, of course!

            Last night I went to my first African wedding, or rather it came to me, as it was celebrated at my host house. The nuptials had actually been exchanged months earlier in Johannesburg with the whole family in attendance, but the bridegroom hails from Maseru and was obligated to bring his bride home for a sort of show and tell occasion that was really just a front for what everyone really loves about family gatherings – good beer, good food, and good company.  Combine all of that with good dancing and good singing and you’ve got yourself the ultimate Basotho good time.

            I heard about the impending party on Tuesday, when my host sister-in-law yanked me into her house on my way home. My Sesotho isn’t quite up to snuff yet and not everyone here is delighted to constantly delighted to use their English, so we tend to communicate in a dialect that incorporates Sesotho and English but makes greatest use of wildly improvised sign language accompanied by intermittent yelling at me for not ever understanding anything, and dotted with my profuse apologies. Anyway, Tuesday afternoon I got called inside my host grandmother’s living room to find that my host brother-in-law had magically transformed from that vaguely employed guy who hangs around the house into a nationalistic seamstress, apparently capable of spitting out traditional dresses at a rate that rivals any Chinese manufacturer here.

            He gestured toward the pile of clothing he’d miraculously accrued in the 24 hours since I’d last seen him and then pointed at me, all without looking up from his machine. “You need a dress,” he said. From this I now believe I was supposed to infer everything that followed, but I here must admit my stunning inabilities when it comes to mind reading, and so I balked - first in broken Sesotho and then in English. I’ll spare you my pathetic language attempts.

            “Thank you very much, Ntate (Mr.), but I do not need a dress right now but I promise I will get one before I leave.” I should have known that this would be considered unacceptable, but at the time I really believed I was being logical. We trudged on.

He sighed impatiently before responding, “It’s King’s Birthday tomorrow. Go to town, get fabric, and I will make you a dress.” I cocked my head to the side the way my dog some times does when I attempt to engage him in human conversation

            “Oh, yes Ntate, I know of the King's Birthday, but I can not attend the celebration. Aussie (Ms.) Grace, my friend who works with me, is leaving for America that day and I am helping her to pack.” Unacceptable. Another impatient sigh, still devoid of eye contact but with the colorful addition of every other family member in the house having come to witness my stupidity. Because I have turned out to be merely another person and neither a super human nor a total oddity, sometimes when my host family watches me do things that are theoretically simple, I think for them it's like going to see an opera and instead finding a poorly trained mime on stage. They expected me to be interesting, but really it's just awkward. 

“We have a wedding Saturday. You need a dress.” My inability to comprehend simple facts so painfully obvious to everyone else was clearly annoying him.

            Finally, my twelve-year-old host something-that-I-still-can’t-figure-out took pity on me and stepped in to translate. “They are saying that our family from South Africa is coming and there will be a huge party. See all the pig’s heads?” From her tween-aged hip stance and attitude I gathered that I was really supposed to know this. A gander at the corner of the room revealed that indeed, there sat a pile of raw pig heads just waiting to be I-don’t-know-what. Sensing a trend?

“We are all getting dresses made and so you must have one. They want you to go into town and buy the fabric and they will take your measurements and you will pay them. Don’t you want a siseshwe?”

           A word here about siseshwe. It is the Sesotho (in English it’s Calico)  name for the fabric used to make traditional clothing in Lesotho, worn by city-dwellers for special occasions and on an everyday basis by people living in rural areas. Pre-missionary days, girls wore short grass skirts sans tops, women something similar, and men a variation of homemade leather clothing. But all that changed when the French showed up and decided it was unacceptable to do as people had done for centuries. And so they introduced calico, sewn in imitation of their pioneer clothing, and the style was adopted by the Basotho as standard national fashion and is still so today. (Another ingredient tossed into Lesotho’s style mix is the Basotho blanket – produced in England and imported for similar reasons as Siseshwe - worn by rural people in lieu of jackets. I have yet you meet a Basotho rural or metropolitan who does not own at least one.)

            Because of its national heritage, I have known for some time now that eventually my family would force me into something made out of Siseshwe, possibly for amusement, but largely because they love it so much. Tales from Peace Corps Volunteers past and medical interns had warned me of my fate, but I was really hoping to put it off as long as possible. I have seen women who really rock the look, puffy sleeves, full skirts and all, but even coming from Ohio, I just couldn’t get ecstatic about getting into one.

And so I had resolved to get creative.  Numerous designs for a great, hip sundress totally suitable for the streets of Boston but made from siseshwe fabric sat ready and waiting in my notebook and I was hoping, just praying, that they would be deemed enough of an attempt to satisfy my Basotho friends and relatives. But, as usual, I was wrong. So wrong. My brother-in-law would hear none of my designs or explanations. A sundress was out – it’s winter, why was I so silly? And the cut I had in mind? Psht, no way, not at all. The only compromise we could find was a mid-thigh tunic with a v-neck collar, and if I had to be difficult, I could pick the print. The embroidery was left entirely up to him, as my suggestions had fallen far short of worthy.

Bewildered and dazed from the lightening speed with which he delivered his admonishments of my taste, stated completely in Sesotho and still with no eye contact, I gave in to all of his fashion demands. “Okay, great, tunic it is. And what color should it be? And when should I have it here? And how much does it cost? Oh, yeah, I can’t wait…”

Unexpectedly, what in my head sounded like passive-aggressive agreement sparked total joy in every one of the relatives who’d gathered around my stylized dilemma. When I finally gave up and in, they started whooping with happiness, smiling and laughing as if I had just given everyone their own pony. My measurements were quickly sized and I was shoved out the door and off to catch a taxi to town.

Too confused to question any of this, I followed all orders and four days later there I was, wrapped in a surprisingly awesome siseshwe dress and being ululated at (the kind of trilling cry of emotion that women invoke to signal pretty much anything they like at family celebrations), hugged, and petted by nearly seventy-five people I had never met. I can’t even imagine what it was like to prepare for the wedding ceremony itself.

            More to come about the party, my many offers of marriage, and hilarious drunken circle dancing that rivals any bar mitzvah I’ve ever attended.  

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Time is it Anyway?

At a public health workshop in Leribe last week (a city one hour from the capital by private car and 4 hours back by public taxi), I was standing in line waiting for coffee and sandwiches during my favorite aspect of meetings here – tea time -  when a Masotho woman behind me shed integral light on an issue I have long pondered in Lesotho. We had been waiting for 20 minutes with no explanation, as the coffee and sandwiches we were meant to enjoy sat beautifully laid out on the table, albeit covered in plastic, crying out to be eaten. We had the food, the hungry people, and the serving trays. So what was the holdup?

            “I hate to wait for food, “ I said to my line companions. “Maybe it is because I am an American and so I enjoy things to be done quickly.”

            “Mmm, Aussi (girl),” the woman responded. “In America things always work by the clock. When it is this time you do this and when it is that time you do that. In Lesotho, time isn’t counted by the hands on a clock. It is counted by events.” Her insight left me confused and intrigued.

 “So now, what we are doing is waiting?” I asked, warily peering at the coffee I so desperately wanted to just grab. “And when we are done waiting we will be eating? And when we are done eating we will be working. And then we will be going home?”

“Ah, now you’ve got it!” She said, and sat back on her heels to wait some more.

Time in Lesotho baffles me. Things get done when they get done, and if tasks are not accomplished, they will be finished… some time.  Often I suggest that we get to work, do something now, or jump the table, uncover the sandwiches, and shovel them into our mouths before anyone notices we’ve ditched the line, but these suggestions mostly garner blank stares. And when they don’t meet confusion they receive concern. An elderly woman pats my arm and tells me to relax as we wait for the public taxi to finally fill and be off. I have said nothing, but she sees the tension in my face and it deeply concerns her. 

I swear I listened when professors and friends warned me that things might work a bit differently while I was abroad, but I’m beginning to think that maybe I don’t really like to relax. Before I came to Lesotho I thought of myself as one of those laid back type A’s – you know, the one who says, “Let’s get it done, sure, but have a good time doing it. “ I never realized how much I relish checking things off my to-do lists, showing up on time, cramming meetings so tightly into my schedule that eating requires a special timeslot in my planner. I love hitting the ground running and having things done by 5pm yesterday and planning and organizing and, and, and… and that gets you nowhere in Lesotho. Well, it may get you somewhere, but you’ll be there by yourself, with everyone behind you annoyed and suffering from whiplash.

And so I’m trying to get it. I’m starting to understand that it’s okay for greetings to take longer than conversations, can be complete conversations themselves, in fact. And I’m working to accept that waiting in line is what we’re doing, even though I thought we were in the process of getting to the food. I’m attempting to speak slowly, not because people don’t understand me but because my rapid-fire speech patterns seem to stress them out. I enjoy the time we spend simply being in one another’s presence and I have come to learn that the end of one project does not necessitate the immediate beginning of another, and that it really is okay to let things be for awhile.

More than anything, however, I am coming to understand the importance of working to respect both my culture and that of my co-workers.  Deadlines must be met and advancements made, but we don’t need to break our necks in the process. And while it’s important to let things go at their own pace, it’s also okay to make the occasional list and even to enjoy checking things off. So, for now at least, I’m just sitting at my computer, typing this blog entry, and later I will be doing something else. 

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Long Walk to Shelvedom

My previous posts have served to capture some pretty somber thoughts about Maseru and Lesotho at large, but I realize now that I have yet to paint with words the incredible joy I’ve been experiencing working for the art and literacy centre. I get to spend my time with incredible, crazy people doing incredible, crazy things, and I hope the following anecdote will show some of that to you.

The Long Walk to Shelvedom:

As a group of young girls walked in the centre Monday afternoon, another intern and I hurriedly ushered them into the art room, where they piled into tiny plastic chairs squished around tiny tables. “Okay guys, I need to teach you something incredibly important today, “ I said, fury in my eyes. “Never, and I mean NEVER, pay someone money for a job they never finished.”
Staring intently over their confused little faces, I glared at the unfinished bookshelves and cabinets that graced our walls with their offensive, unpainted presence. Months ago, the artists who run the centre had paid a local contracting firm, in full, to build a series of furnishings for the building, fixtures which had never seen their glorious completion. Despite repeated calls and trips by both foot and car to the house where the carpenters run their business, nothing had been done, and we remained utterly shelveless and annoyed as tension mounted and excuses from the cabinet-makers piled up along with our homeless drawings and books.
And so the time had come for ultimatums. Our resident painter, Peter, had called and demanded the carpenter’s immediate presence at the urging of the FALC board. Bur once again we’d been promised professionalism and delivered barely an apology. The time had come for action. We knew that a few curtly placed calls from American accents would fuel the fire to get things moving, but an intervention like that would hardly fit the goals of our centre – to instill love and passion in the children of Khubetsoana for art and literature. In order give them ownership of knowledge, change had to come from within, from our most integral members – the kids themselves.
With this in mind, we were suddenly throwing information at our wide-eyed audience. “Have you ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr?” we asked them. “Mahatma Ghandi? Nelson Mandela? Do you know what a nonviolent protest is?” Blank stares. “So you’ve never seen a union workers strike?” Confusion coupled with raised eyebrows. There was only one answer to breach this culture gap: emergency arts and crafts. “Posters!” we cried, and from there it was on.
Soon the room was abuzz with small, busy hands cranking out crayon-etched slogans reading, “We want shelves!” and “Finish your work!” Posters were taped to plastic rulers to be waved in the air and the chanting had begun. “What do we want?” “Shelves!” “When do we want ‘em?!” “Now!” Between practicing our marching formation and teaching them protest songs, another call was made to the elusive carpenters, this time on speaker phone, and shouts resumed in earnest. “Give us shelves! We want shelves!” shouted twenty Basotho children.
And suddenly, our flower-printed cardboard displayed demands were met. We went home for the evening to get the rest necessary for a true blue dry-wall revolt, but our threats of outcry had spoken for themselves. The next morning, at 10am sort of sharp, the owner and manager of the shelving business walked into the centre, tools in tow and head hung low, and she was met with the solemn faces of a good portion of the neighborhood’s children, holding their signs and warily watching her entrance. Nervously and with trepidation, her employees entered the centre, sheepishly apologizing to the crowd for their months-late arrival. I continued to narrow my eyes in their general direction, but the children of Khubetsoana, ever the glorious product of their polite and laughter-filled society, quietly thanked them for their work and peacefully headed to the reading room where rounds of ‘We shall overcome’ followed choruses of John Lennon’s ‘Revolution.’ And I have never seen such graciously extended thank-you notes.