Hey Anne fans! A little prologue to this next post is in order as it’s not as light and happy as some of my previous ones. It deals with the death of a young man in our village and some of the heavier topics in this great adventure. While it’s a part of my service I felt necessary to share, please feel free to skip it or save it for another time. As always, thanks a bunch for all the support! You guys are the best.
It was one of the first days of the new school year here in village. A typical Qacha’s Nek day in summer, we were experiencing three seasons in one day. The morning was beautiful and perfectly sunny; the kind of weather you want to lay out in and soak up. By noon, it was bordering on unbearably hot, when shade and the frequent mountain breeze are welcome friends, bringing relief and restoring the perfection of the sunny day. Then, by 2 o’clock, the clouds had begun to roll in, darkening the sky with the foreshadowing of the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm. By bedtime, after the storm had passed and the post-storm sunset had splashed the sky with a portrait of oranges, pinks, and purples, I’d be wearing three layers and cozying up with hot tea and a blanket for the chill of evening.
On this particular day, around 6pm, I was still weathering the summer day storm. It was a doozy. I know most of you think of me as Wonder Woman tough, Janis Joplin fearless, with maybe the perseverance of Katniss Everdeen (am I right?!), but some of you know that I turn into a hopeless, spineless, nail-biter at the sight of lightning. Even before this awful day, my fear of lightning was one of my biggest challenges as a volunteer in Lesotho. Lightning in the mountains of this country is no sparklers show. It’s an awe-inspiring, goose bump raising, spiritual experience to watch the panorama of strikes against surrounding sky and mountains….one that I watch dutifully from inside…in my bed…under the covers. While the chances of being struck by lightning are still low, thunderstorms are a serious safety concern in this part of the world, and are to be wary and wise of always. With high elevations and the lack of taller conductors, like trees, it’s a good idea to be inside when a storm strikes. Which brings us to the telling of a very sad event that brought me face to face with the reality of death and grief in Lesotho.
The rain was still falling and the thunder still crackling when I got the news. The teenage son of close friends was walking home in the storm, and had been struck and killed by lightning, not far down the road from his house. A well-known and well-loved family in the community, it was a tragic night for everyone in our small village as we tried to wrap our heads around the instantaneous loss of someone so young and full of life. The boy had been a member of the high school futbol team, and that evening, after breaking the news to my own family and neighbors, I was comforted to sit in my host family’s cooking rondavel with them and some of the teams’ players who lived nearby.
Basotho are no strangers to loss and death. In a country where the life expectancy hovers between 30 and 40 years, most teenagers have attended more funerals than some Americans do in their entire lifetimes. In pre-service training, we are told that most people of Lesotho have a cultural stoicism that makes them more resilient to tears and less likely to show the pain of such loss on their faces. We were even warned of possible reactions from Basotho in the case that we, as volunteers, may have public displays of emotion (the inopportune PCV meltdown is a necessary part of the volunteer’s experience; like gastrointestinal issues, peeing in a bucket in front of your peers, and going at least five days without bathing, it could be considered a right of passage in service). Possible reactions include surprise, confusion, awkward back pats, and slow exit strategies. This is not to say that they hurt or struggle any less with the deaths of loved ones, but showing grief in public is not usual. So now, while I melted in to hysterics and struggled to gain composure at the news of tragedy for a family I had come to love for eight months, the people around me, who had known and loved them for their entire lives, sat quietly, spoke in hushed voices, said prayers, and discussed the family’s future.
In all my months in country, I had yet to see a reaction to death that I was familiar with. I had attended funerals and sung hymns with stone-faced grievers, and was certain that Basotho never cried. I was also familiar with certain mourning customs. In training, one of my fellow volunteers was staying with a woman who had recently lost her husband. She was expected to wear black for four months, and not touch, not even to shake hands with, another man during this time. After these months, the family hosted a party for their whole village to signify the end of their mourning. The widow wore her brightest colors and shook hands with her male friends. They slaughtered a cow, ate a large feast, and danced well into the night. It was also at this time that the family was allowed to sell or move the deceased’s possessions. I remember the sounds of celebration as men drove the husband’s car away to be sold. There were certain mourning protocol to follow depending on the person who had passed and their relationship to you. To me, grief in Lesotho seemed so controlled and organized. It was hard for me to fathom putting a set time-frame on a person’s mourning. I couldn’t understand how everyone stayed so calm while experiencing such pain, and I was concerned about what the physical or mental effects might be for such intense emotions left unexpressed.
Then, the day following my village’s tragedy, my ‘M’e and I walked to the family’s home to visit. At a loss for what to do or how to help, I decided to follow my own cultural instincts. I brought food, and arrived with the intention of doing household chores or running errands as needed. It was here that a new window into the grief and loss of Basotho was opened, and so many of my misunderstandings of their culture were clarified. Expecting stoic family members and quiet prayers, I entered the house, and was completely blindsided with emotional disorder. The boy’s grandmother, who had treated me like her own daughter since my first day at site, was so wrought with tears that it was difficult to even pull her in to a hug. The boy’s mother, unable to control her grief, was hidden, her wails muffled under blankets on a mattress on the floor. A few close friends hovered near to the women, praying and weeping openly. I was dumbfounded, all at once feeling over-assuming and ignorant. I had been so convinced that Basotho never showed emotion, yet here I was in a room so dense with grief, that it was impossible to feel anything but sorrow.
Extended family, friends, neighbors, and even less known acquaintances came to cry with the family. The whole community took turns knocking on the door to come in, sit, and grieve. For three days from sun up to sun down, the family was flooded with visitors, wails, tears, and mournful prayers. That first day, overwhelmed and heartbroken, I sat briefly with my hands in my lap and searched for a way to react. My eyes drifted in to the kitchen to the sink filled with empty dishes and the stove top filled with food untouched. “Have either of you eaten?” was all I could think to say to the boy’s grandmother. She shook her head. I went into action mode to deal with a loved one’s pain the way our culture tends to deal with it…by staying as busy as possible. I reheated the old soup on the stove and made tea. I helped the boy’s mother sit up and steadied her while she ate. I washed the pile of dishes, and tidied the kitchen counters. My own ‘M’e helped me by washing the family’s clothes and blankets and hanging them out to dry in the sun. I wish I could say I only did these things to help, but the truth is that I selfishly couldn’t sit still in a room so saturated with anguish. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Looking at the other visitors, I was frustrated that no one seemed to be doing anything but sustaining the family’s sadness. I kept hearing my own mother’s voice in my head saying, “They need rest. They need food.” Why wasn’t anyone helping them? It took the rest of the month for me to realize that they actually had been helping, in a way that I was not capable of doing myself.
In a few short days, the family would attend their young son’s funeral with composure and strength. After only two weeks, one woman would be back to teaching a room full of ten year-olds, and the other would be attending school again to continue a much needed education. With only a short time allotted to dwell on the pain and the loss of a loved one, the community had come together to make sure it was properly and thoroughly expressed. Help didn’t come in the form of cooking or cleaning. It came in cathartic encouragement and the ability to lay their grief to rest with the one they had lost, so that they would be able to resume their lives, do their own laundry, and make their own meals. In the days following his funeral, I was humbled to see the boy’s mother and grandmother back to their usual routines and positive outlooks. My frequent visits would find them tending their gardens, grading papers, or even helping their neighbors with their own losses and struggles. I was greeted with smiles and inquiries about how my life was going. Life is short, but it is shorter in Lesotho. I am certain that while his family is no longer in mourning, the boy’s loss will be painful for a very long time. I know that he is missed each and every day, but I have also come to realize that Basotho mourning customs and traditions are not ways of forcing families to quickly forget those they have lost, but to help them to remember to live.