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.