BootsnAll Travel Network

News from Lesotho

I dreamed about M’e Mpho Nthunya last night, so I got up early, went online to get an African phone card, and called her. I hadn’t talked to her since November, and she whooped aloud when she heard my voice. “M’e Makie,” she cried out, “is it you, ke nete [truly]?” Yes, M’e, I answered, laughing with her at the wonder that we can talk to each other from worlds apart. She went on, “I dreamed about you last night, and we were talking about you with Ntsoaki [her granddaughter] all the morning. I was afraid you were dead because we didn’t hear from you in so long. I didn’t think you could hear us.” So that connection still works.

The best news is that M’e Mpho is well and sounds as strong and clear as she did fifteen years ago when we met. Her beautiful speaking voice is still resonant like a bell, and she remembers enough English to talk with ease. For a woman born in 1930 and subject to indescribably hard times and more grief than any human should have to bear, she is a walking miracle of health and vitality. Her back and neck hurt sometimes, and she gets short of breath when she walks far, but my friend Katt, who has visited Lesotho several times as a Fulbright Scholar in the last couple of years, keeps her supplied with Advil, which is the only drug she takes other than holy water. She’s still a member of the Zionist Christian Church (the largest independent church in southern Africa, started by African-American missionaries of the AME Zion Church), which meets at her house on Sundays to sing, dance, and bless water for the healing of all its members.

M’e Mpho and her extended family live in the three-room cinderblock house with no plumbing and no electricity that she built in 1993 with contributions from my friends in the USA. I asked her how many people are living in that house now and she paused, laughed, and answered, “Really, I don’t know. We are many in this house. Some of the children come here when they have no work, or they leave their children with me when they go to work for a year or two in another place, so I don’t know how to say who lives here and who doesn’t live here, but we are many here in this house, and we are eating papa [cornmeal porridge] with each other.”

They had sorrow at Christmas. They buried the baby of Mahamo, M’e Mpho’s daughter’s second son, during Christmas week, and then right after New Year’s they buried Mahamo’s wife. AIDS. So far Mahamo is negative, but he goes to the clinic for checkups. His four-year-old lives with M’e Mpho now.

Every time I talk to her, more people in the family and the village have died of AIDS. But there is also life and promise. Ntsoaki, who went to hair-braiding school with my elder daughter Palesa in 2001-2002, is working in a hair salon and saving to open her own place–maybe next year. (No word from Palesa, who was in Johannesburg with her birth-mother the last they knew.) Tumisang, Mahamo’s little brother, is a senior at Christ the King High School in Roma. My younger daughter Manko’s nephew, Tsepang, finished high school and is now married and has a baby, and he has a job in Maseru, the capital city about forty minutes away by bus. M’e MaNthabiseng, the cover girl for Basali!, is still alive and well; and M’e MaAnna, the shrine-builder whose portrait appears in the photo essay at the back of Basali! is also, despite a long life of hard times and hunger, vibrantly alive. People still think she’s a witch, but they have given up trying to kill her, and they leave her to her own creative devices. She must be nearly ninety years old now, still living down the hill from M’e Mpho in a little hovel built of masonite panels attached to branches, with a corrugated tin roof held in place by rocks and old tires.

M’e Mpho’s royalties for Singing Away the Hunger have dwindled each year since its international debut in 1997, but she still gets a little something every June, just before winter comes, and she uses it for new blankets and for coal. She gets the occasional fan letter, usually from the UK or the USA, but people in Lesotho have forgotten (and forgiven) her fifteen minutes of fame. The Queen who hosted the party celebrating M’e Mpho for telling her story and the story of Lesotho to the world, passed away several years ago.

M’e Mpho tells me that M’e MaAnna always asks, “When is M’e Makie coming back?”

“And what do you tell her when she asks that, M’e Mpho?”

“I say that we will not see you again in this life, M’e Makie. I say that you are far, far away, and you have no money to come to Lesotho. You spent all your money taking care of us, and taking care of your Basotho children. I tell her this, but M’e MaAnna thinks no American can spend all their money; she thinks you are only in Johannesburg. She cannot think anywhere in the world is farther away than Johannesburg. That is all she knows.”

“But you know.”

“Yes, M’e Makie. I know America is very, very far. And you are not rich.”

“No, M’e.”

“Have you stopped to work?”

“No, I am thinking I will stop in December.”

“And then what, M’e Makie?” Her voice was full of tenderness and concern.

“Then I hope to go to a Buddhist center.” M’e Mpho visited the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo, South Africa, with me several times. She went with me to a Buddhist sitting group in Pietermaritzburg every week for two years. Her voice perked up immediately.

“A Buddhist centre can be good for you. There will be people there, and you will not be an old woman alone. I hope it can be, M’e Makie. I am always afraid because you have no house. I don’t want you to be alone with no house when you are old. I always think about my house, that I would not have this house without you, but you have no house. Sometimes I feel shame for that.”

The hardest thing for M’e Mpho to imagine is how anybody can desire to live alone. She found Texas desperately lonely. When she lived here with me, she marveled that people don’t walk in the streets; people don’t sit outside and talk with their neighbors. They live inside their houses or apartments, with their air conditioners on, and they watch TV or talk on their computers. She once observed, “People in America talk to their cats and dogs more than they talk to other people.” She missed the lively chaos and flux of children and grandchildren, the company of people who are witnesses to her whole life, the languages and sounds and smells of Lesotho. Finally, after six months, she could bear life in the USA no longer. She went home, choosing whatever hardships that might mean over the empty comforts of life in the USA. She has worried about me all these years, as I have been here, an ocean and half a continent away, worrying about her.

This conversation eased both our worries. I hear the joy in her voice and know she is happy with her children, grandchildren, and great-grands. They are eating papa together in her little house. She can imagine me in a Buddhist center with a little space of my own, surrounded by other people, silent in good company. The phone card ran out and cut us off before we had said all we wanted to say, but I put down the phone with a great feeling of peace. M’e Mpho is well. The winter is coming, and she says the signs tell them it will be a bitterly cold winter, with much snow (what are these signs? I wonder)–but she will sleep in a bed with many small bodies huddled next to hers for warmth. She is where she wants to be, living as she loves to live. I’m not worried now.


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