For years, I’ve admired the owners of every bumper, laptop, and water bottle that have sported the sticker that boldly inquires, “What if the Hokey Pokey really IS what it’s all about?!”. As a Peace Corps volunteer, we are told that during our first three months at site, we should focus on the single and overwhelming task of integration into our communities. Now, at the end of my second month in the mountains of Qacha’s Nek, the Hokey Pokey question has taken on a whole new sillyness, and a surprising amount of appropriateness, as I’m realizing what an incredibly valuable tool this hand clapping, rump shaking, fool-of-myself-making, song has been to the first few weeks of my service.
Surrounded by seven children under the age of fifteen, on winter break from school, it took less than one day for the Hokey Pokey to be introduced, and all of five minutes for it to become the new favorite pass-time of the kiddie clan. It turns out shaking it all about and turning ourselves around is wildly entertaining in any language. It was an instant hit, and the perfect ice breaker, leading to other songs, dances, and games of futbol (that’s soccer, for all yee Harrisburg Heat fans), volleyball, and cards, that even the older kids could get in to (ok… so the Hokey Pokey is NOT what it’s all about for cool, high school boys). Dancing, singing, and playing led to high-fives, hugs, and small talk. Small talk and hugs led to conversations and trust. In the first five weeks, my Lesotho family and I busted through the awkwardness of the language barrier and started to get comfy. When I felt homesick or out of place, I needed only to open my front door to the yard full of kids, and my attitude changed immediately. By the time the children were returning to school, I was feeling more than accepted as a new member of the family. I was welcomed by all…. except for one…
It took a few days to get used to the new sounds of home once the kids went back to their studies. Shouting, laughing, and the occasional tantrum (they have those in Lesotho too!) were replaced by the ebb and flow of wind gusts, the clump of four year-old Thabang running or falling in the dirt, his lone, high pitched voice yelling, “Koko!” while knocking on my door, and his adorable one-sided conversations with his one year-old cousin, Lerato…who stayed as far away from my house as possible. The poor girl did NOT trust this new caucasian stranger who was all of a sudden part of her home. She screamed and cried when I picked her up, and actively ran away (you have to be motivated by real fear to run when you’re on wobbly one year-old legs!) when I talked to her with soft, friendly peace offerings. I was heart broken and perplexed. Yeah, okay, the first white person sighting was probably a little overwhelming, but I wasn’t used to having this effect on kiddos. It was a huge obstacle in my full family integration plan.
The magic started on one of the first warm mornings of the year, a couple hours after her older cousins had gone to school. I had just solved the mystery of a brand new kind of silence. At the realization of the absence of clumps, giggles, and “koko”s, I went in search of Thabang, praying he hadn’t been trampled by one of the animals he LOVES to chase out of our yard (seriously… every foreign cow, horse, and goat be warned. The kid may be small, but he is a territorial terror, and he and his stick mean BUSINESS.) I found him passed out in the sun, comatose, with all but his dust covered toes under a blanket. Yard guarding is exhausting stuff. Relieved I headed back to my house, to find a surprising and, not so subtly, shocked visitor. Lerato’s face fell at the sight of me, ready to unleash the fury of tears, as she realized she was alone and defenseless in the enemy’s own hut. Here was my chance… make or break time… I reached for the only weapon I could think of in desperation.
Here goes…“You put your right hand in…You put your right hand out…” No tears yet… “You put your right hand in, and you shake it all about” Wait, was that a smile? “You do the Hokey Pokey, and you turn yourself around…” Is she really taking steps TOWARDS me?! “That’s what it’s all about!” (Clap clap clap clap clap clap) Are those HER giggles?! Is that HER clapping?!
Too afraid the spell would break if I stopped, I kept going through both arms, legs, hips, backside (that’s the politically and one year-old appropriate term), head, and whole self with Lerato clapping and giggling right along. The song ended and I pushed my luck, reaching out my hand to forge the final truce. Her tiny fingers held on to mine as we walked the whole length of the yard, hand in hand, to my ‘M’e, working in her garden. “Jooeeey!” ‘M’e’s smile and relief spread across her face as she sighed the celebratory Basotho expression in disbelief. I was officially accepted by one and all.
While that was my most defining Hokey Pokey moment, it was not my last! The song and dance proved even more valuable in many other community “firsts” including the day that my site mate and Peace Corps partner in crime, Peggy, (hey, Peggy) decided to initiate me into the wonderful world of Lesotho Primary School by leaving me alone, for ten WHOLE minutes, in a room with 50 first and second graders. The Hokey Pokey was my only chance at survival. It proved valuable as well, in my first day at the local health clinic. On Tuesdays, the staff hosts HIV testing, CD4* count collection, and ARV* distribution days. I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to help the staff with administrative and organizational duties, to meet more of my community members, and to see, first-hand, how the HIV epidemic is effecting so many families in my area.
*HIV 101: The CD4 cell is the white blood cell, and crucial component of your immune system, that is attacked by the HIV virus. When the virus lowers the amount of CD4 cells in your blood to a dangerously low amount, you are at higher risk of terminal infections from any other virus or bacteria that may enter your body because your immune system cannot fight them off. When the count is this low, your status progresses to AIDS. Thus the importance, if you are HIV positive, of having your CD4 count checked regularly. ARVs are the medications used to keep CD4 counts high, and keep the virus from destroying the immune system. They do not cure HIV, but they keep the virus at bay. Many HIV positive people are able to live long, healthy lives by taking these medications regularly.
One of the hardest of my experiences so far as a volunteer, was discovering how young so many of the HIV positive patients are. One patient in particular, a young girl still in primary school, arrived to have her blood drawn for a CD4 count. The recently diagnosed pre-teen sat in the exam room with a straight face and a positive attitude. Given what most people in her culture consider a death sentence, she was calm and collected, digesting the information, and learning how to fight and live. I was so touched by her strength and outward fearlessness, that I almost forgot she was just a child, until the nurse pulled out the needle to start the blood collection. Tears welled up immediately, and when the nurse moved forward, she leapt away. You can guess what provided the perfect distraction. There were no giggles and no clapping along this time, but the blond lady twirling and shaking herself around the small room was enough to pull some attention away from the needle in our brave girl’s arm, and complete the collection with the strength back in her face.
That’s what it’s all about (clap clap clap clap clap clap).