Monthly Archives: February 2013

Kombi Comaraderie

A few weeks ago, on my way home from visiting some friends in the northern part of the country, I had my first experience riding the bus that runs from Maseru to Qacha’s Nek. I had realized immediately, with a heavy heart, that my iPod was dead. An embarrassingly rookie PCV mistake to not charge it before the day-long ride could mean eight hours of blaring famu (lesotho rap music) with no respite. Don’t get me wrong. I love experiencing Basotho culture, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I can find value in almost anything with a melody or beat. However, famu is altogether a different beast, and one that I can only appreciate in small doses.

A typical famu tune usually begins with a few bars of solo accordion, which acts as a fair warning for the onslaught of thumping bass, a pattern of the same three to four measures of accordion on repeat, and then what sounds like one angry masotho shouting at the neighborhood kids for disturbing his begonias. Truthfully, the lyrics are always rapid Sesotho, and I am told they have deep political or emotional meaning, but all I can imagine is the impassioned rapper yelling, “GET OFF MY GRASS, YOU CRAZY KIDS, BEFORE I TELL YOUR MOTHER!”. If you’re lucky, you may get a chorus somewhere in there of slightly slurred Bo Ntate (basotho men) singing almost in unison, which gives the listener a feeling of camaraderie, nationality, and maybe an outdoor beer garden during the World Cup finals. Public transport drivers love their famu.

All joking aside, Basotho culture is rich with traditional music that I usually cannot get enough of. They use song (usually hymns) in every type of gathering, ceremony, celebration, and custom, and I don’t know any other country in which every citizen seems to know how to sing a plethora of songs, on the spot, in perfect harmony. Which is why, when the bus’s sound system miraculously switched gears from abrasive lesotho rap to soothing hymns sung by Zahara (Lesotho’s Whitney Houston!), I was shocked and intrigued to find the one masotho who could not carry a tune.

A typically unpredictable Lesotho transport experience was made even more special by the enthusiastic (that may be an understatement) ‘M’e sitting behind me who, for the duration of the eight hour excursion, could not sit still. It’s one of my favorite parts of traveling through this country, to hear Bo’M’e (basotho women) singing along reverently to hymns on the radio. Like most of the women around her, my antzy bus buddy knew every word to Zahara’s ballads. Unlike the rest of the surrounding chorus, she could not match pitch to save her life. The intensity of her tone deafness was matched only by the intensity of her enthusiasm. Every time a new song came on she’d stand up, throw her arms over the seat in front of her (which happened to be mine), and let out a few “Ey!”s and “Yaebo!”s. Her excitement never even wavered on the slower jams. This was the equivalent of yelling “Whoooohoooo!” during the intro of “Pachelbel’s Cannon”.

The added musical entertainment made the time fly faster as we twisted through the mountains of southern Lesotho. It took my mind off of the more unsettling aspects of public transportation. An hour in to the journey, I’d watched out the window as two men loaded a live goat in to the baggage carriage under the bus. My concern for the bewildered animal (and everyone’s luggage next to a goat with an anxious bladder….eeeew!) ebbed with the musical distraction, and before I knew it the goat was off-loaded, bleating and unsteady, but no worse for wear.

The unpredictability that is typical of public transportation continued after I arrived in Qacha’s Nek’s main town, and started the last leg of my ten hour journey on the taxi from town to my village. The rule for most Lesotho kombis (large, mini van, taxis equipped with comfortable seating for about fifteen people) is “We can always fit one more!”. You learn to get used to it, so I was not surprised or frustrated to be smooshed in between two large BoNtate, one ‘M’e, and three sacks of flour among my own luggage. In fact, I was content to not be carrying a live chicken, leaking paraffin container, or screaming child on my lap, and was settled in for the next two hour trip down the bumpy dirt road to home.

Just as we were about to turn off the main road from town, and on to the dirt one to the more remote villages of Qacha’s Nek, we were routinely stopped by a Lesotho police check point. Miffed by the extra two passengers in our vehicle, they made the driver get out and decide which two passengers would have to find alternate methods of transportation. Justly, the driver asked the last passenger who had boarded, as well as his own conductor (this is the young man, and business partner, responsible for collecting passengers’ fares, opening and shutting the kombi’s sliding door, and knowing where passengers need to get off) to get out. After the load was lightened, the police let us on our merry way with no more than a warning.

I was enjoying the extra leg room, but feeling sorry for the two men who now had to find their own way home, as we trudged up the first slope of the mountain road. Just as we were reaching the top, shouts went up from the back of the taxi. The car came to a sudden halt, then began backing slowly down the mountain. Following the other passengers’ gazes, I saw them. Two dark shapes were moving quickly on the road about half a mile behind us. They were sprinting. The two men who had been ejected a mile ago, were barreling down the dirt to catch us again.

Out of police check point range, they reached our taxi breathless and laughing and were greeted by the open car door and giggles from the already packed vehicle. That’s when it hit me. No one complained about the cramped space or the twenty extra minutes the whole ordeal had taken. Though at risk of a traffic fine, the driver never refused to let them back on. The runners were met with “welcome back” smiles and no hesitations. In Lesotho, there is a sense of camaraderie among complete strangers in confined spaces, knowing that at some point along the journey, you will most likely hit a few bumps in the road ahead.

Coincidentally, our fated taxi hit more of our own road bumps. So many, in fact, that our driver had to pull over to change a tire fifteen minutes before we reached home. I searched for rolling eyes, crossed arms, and disgruntled insults under passengers’ breaths, but I saw none of those things. What I saw were several of the male passengers patting each other on the back as they lent hands to help lift the car and steady the wheels. I saw women helping to pass a sleeping baby as his mother climbed out of the back seat to stand, watch, and joke about “the men at work”.

The same was true of the passengers sitting around my ballad-butchering, bus buddy. No one’s teeth were clenched and grinding. No one’s patience seemed to be tested, and no one glared at her intently before yelling, “Goodness, lady! Wouldja shut up already?!”. And why should they? After all, eight hours is a long time to be sitting in a small space filled with that kind of negativity. So what if she sounded like Scuttle, the seagull, singing “Kiss the Girl”? Her joy was infectious if you uncrossed your arms and let it wash over you. Besides, one voice hitting all the wrong notes is no big deal when fifteen others, with perfect pitch, join in to sing along.

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Anne of Green…Spinach!

The work of Peace Corps volunteers is varied and never predictable. No two volunteers are likely to have the same experiences, especially in the Community Health and Economic Development project. We arrive at our sites with assigned supervisors and counterparts (local community or organization members who work side by side with volunteers to make sure projects are sustainable after we leave the country), but most volunteers end up finding new projects and other people to work with. As we become integrated, build our own relationships, and discover the true needs of our communities and organizations, we find potential for development in places we may not have previously considered.

I was lucky to start my service with an organization ready and willing to get to work. The Kopanang Basotho Support Group is a collective of ten women and three men from my community, who meet once a month with a goal of supporting vulnerable populations in their villages. They especially hope to help orphans and children effected by HIV and AIDS. As a group with no money, and no previous project experience, I went in to our first planning meeting unsure of what to expect. What I found was an amazing group of citizens who genuinely care for their community, and who have a resource more valuable than money in the development world. They have motivation!

I know it sounds hokey, but no project is possible without people who are willing to work toward a common goal. In places where loss and disappointment are so common, motivation is not always so easy to find. We started a conversation about our goals and mission at that first meeting, and I was relieved to see the determination on each of their faces, but when we talked about the groups’ current resources, they laughed and said they had none. Then one elderly woman got very quiet, looked at me (not unlike the way your own grandmother might look at you before she told you, sincerely, that you really ought to get your sh*t together), and said in Sesotho, “‘M’e Thato…” (that’s me!) “…We have the hands. We have the strength. We need eyes.” She pointed at the center of my chest with her weathered forefinger and said, in perfect english, “We need you!”.

BADA BING! I was in love! I have heard in development work, and specifically in Peace Corps, that people lose steam and motivation doesn’t last. No matter what happens in the next two years of my service, I hope I never forget the initial spark in that room. In the months to follow, we moved forward to do great things as a new group. On their own accord (motivation!), the members invited a representative from the Ministry of Agriculture to come and discuss “how to be better support group members”, as well as ways to improve nutrition in their communities. Two other support groups from other villages in our area were also invited, initiating a unified support group network. Talk about a good start!

The groups discussed the importance of home grown and self-prepared meals with balanced, nutrient rich, ingredients. They talked about traditional recipes that were more nutritional, but had been discarded from the dinner table for more modern, processed dishes that had little nutritional value. They decided to organize a Basotho Cultural Food Day, where they gathered for a potluck style feast! Everyone brought foods made from traditional recipes (I thought my “traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich” recipe wouldn’t be appropriate, so I helped my ‘M’e make some basotho style bread instead…), to teach each other, and to take back to their own communities (You can see photos of this event on my photos page!). The event was a huge hit, and we all went home with inspiringly full tummies.

Following the Ministry of Agriculture’s first visit, and the discussion of how vulnerable children needed better access to better foods, the support group decided to begin a keyhole garden project in our community. A keyhole garden is a raised plot, constructed with a stone wall (about waist high), with an indent in one side where someone can stand and reach their plants with ease. It’s built this way, so the gardner does not have to bend or struggle to tend the garden. In this way, it’s easier for children, the elderly, and the sick, to grow fresh produce. The group set a goal of building gardens for the orphaned families in their community. Keyhole garden construction was part of our training as Peace Corps volunteers, so I was ecstatic when they asked me to help organize the project and teach garden construction!

From the end of September through the beginning of December, we constructed twenty new gardens in our community! More impressive than the perfectly shaped, perfectly planted keyholes (they were beeeeeautiful, folks!) was the pride and community volunteerism that went in to the building of each garden. Sometimes we would have fifteen volunteers, while other times we would only have three, but the garden was always finished, and always perfect. One day, we made a garden for an elderly woman and her two orphaned grandchildren. Only two other women showed up to help on what was one of the hottest days of the year. It took us twice as long as any other garden, but sweaty, dirty, and thirsty, we finished the whole thing, just the three of us, with smiles on our faces.

And then an amazing thing happened. Keyhole gardens began popping up in places we hadn’t built them! People were modeling their own gardens after ours. What’s more, members of the community, that weren’t even in the support group, began to show up to help. They donated their own seeds, their hands, and their time. One of my favorite gardens, built for a high school aged boy living on his own, was primarily built by three of his friends on the futbol team. When the garden was finished and it was time to plant seeds, we realized no one had brought any. One of the futbol players who was also a double orphan, living on his own, was hot and tired from shoveling all afternoon, but took off in a sprint towards his own house across the village. He came back, still sprinting, with three bags of his own seeds in his hands.

I never thought I’d come to Africa and spend so much time under a farmer’s hat, but it’s been one of the more therapeutic and pleasant surprises of my journey so far. I even have my own keyhole garden at home, where my spinach, kale, beet root, and carrots are thrivin’! (This is largely due to the fact that I get butt swats from my ‘M’e when I forget to weed and water…) To learn so much about growing what I eat, and to do it with such an engaged community, has been a real treat. Now, as harvest season begins and planting season is at an end, we are looking forward to new projects and ideas of how to help our community. Through the garden project came forward other motivated groups and individuals. I don’t want to give away future stories before they are ready to be told, but stay tuned to see what hat I wear next!

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