Year of the Horse

In January, 2014, my wife Amy, our daughter Nyana (age 1 1/2), and I embarked on a 3-week trip to Lesotho to oversee the installation of 4 solar panels and a battery storage system on a community hall in the village of Malealea.  The installation was the product of our long relationship with the local Malealea Development Trust (MDT), which in turn grew from Amy’s extensive experience traveling Africa in her 20s.  The system was commissioned in Nyana’s name and supported with funds given from friends and family upon her birth.  It was only my second trip to Africa, but through Amy’s connections and the local Trust I had about as extensive an immersion in African culture as can be expected from three weeks.  A lot of things bubbled to the surface, and I tried to write some down.  – Fred

Aleks wanders in the bar as rain lashes against the tin roof of the Malealea Lodge – thrum ta ta thrum ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta.

“Hey Happy New Year everyone,” he exclaims, “It is the New Year, ya?  Only fools celebrate the first of January.  Tomorrow is the first of the Chinese New Year, the year of the horse – right now, you can hear the snake sliding out.”

With that, he languorously descends into the wood dining chair in the subdued gaslit dining hall.  The Russian-by-way-of-Turkey pours out the last of a bottle of cheap South African shiraz, mutters something about the lack of vodka and slugs the glass down in one gulp.

Now he leans in close to me, serious. “You know what I say?  Fuck the Olympics.” Now, leaning back, exclaims, “Putin has fucked our country, and for that, I say, fuck his Olympics!” He waves two middle fingers in the air wildly to emphasize his message to his president.
I’m not sure he understands how offensive the word ‘Fuck’ is in English.

“Let me tell you about the horses in this valley,” he says, “They are the most beautiful horses in the whole world! These horses – they are as beautiful as horses as the girls are in Seychelles.  Oh, Seychelles, it is a paradise…”

We are volunteers here installing solar panels.  The great white saviors coming from the West to bring power to an African village.  At least, that’s my impression of what people back home think we’re doing. It’s not an impression that sits well.

“Say you ever visit Seychelles, man?  I tell you, it is like a paradise.  I’m staying away from Russia until better times.  Hoo.  I may be traveling a long time.”

***

The Year of the Horse arrives with sunlight breaking through heavy clouds in Malealea.  The ground is sodden with much-needed rain – the first in months – and the fields drink thirstily.
First light is at 4:30am and I’ve taken to pouring a cup of the nasty instant coffee so popular in this land and walking up to the Lodge’s veranda, which commands a stately view of the Maluti mountains and the village below.  In the purples and reds of morning I watch the sun crest the mountains and hope its shining light pierces the grogginess in my mind.

I stare at a mercilessly blank laptop screen.  There is so much to say that I struggle to get down a single word.

The Lodge is a sanctuary of Western-ness in this remote African village.  There is a gate and security fence and 24-hour watch-guard.  There is a curfew, and generator-power (and hence, all lights) go out at 10.  Each night when that happens, I expect there to be complete and utter stillness.  Instead, you hear a wild yowling world of angry dogs and donkeys beyond the gate.  On some nights, the uhn-uhn-uhn throbbing bass of the local shabeen or bush pub.

So it is not peace and quiet and serenity in the middle of Africa, it is a vibrant and noisy place.  Within these walls, you have peacocks and lizards and Chester the donkey (infamous for biting tourists) plus the ever-rotating cast of characters – the Japanese tourists with their huge sunglasses who always seem to travel solo and in my experience are among the sturdiest of travelers, the Europeans who roll their eyes when they hear you’re from America, and the Americans, who – if you meet any – are the toughest the country can pump out.

There was also the group of Afrikaner dirt-bikers, one of whom nearly punched me in the face because he thought I was making a weird look at him, but bought me three Jäger-bombs instead.
We’re of the cast of bleeding hearts trying to make sense of and do some good in this part of the world, and the longer we’re here the harder it is to say what exactly is right, what is wrong.  Bad and good are not really relevant once you understand that everything is colored by your context.  Instead, we’re struggling to see ‘what is’ and withhold judgment for wiser minds.

There is quite a vacation to be had within the comfortable confines of the Lodge.  The bar is well-stocked, and cheap, and the swimming pool is welcoming.  There are people to chat with and breathtaking views of the mountains.  But we did not fly half-way across the world to stay in these safe walls.  Each day, we walk down into the village, trying to experience a little bit of real life.

***

Real life.  That is a good start.  What is real life in this village?

Real life is a chorus of clanking bells at 7-in-the-morning as cows, sheep, and goats are taken to pasture. There is a human chorus, too, the language of a village stretching its arms to greet the day. A conversation between two lonely herdboys shouted from one mountaintop to another.

Real life is hard work, gratitude for what you have, frustration for what you don’t. Dreams of a different life. Not so unlike the ‘real life’ I know.  Just like in the U.S., most people have enough to get by, but strive for more.

Real life is rampant HIV, with orphans in every home, stressing the already tight household budgets.

Real life is fretting about “free” education provided by the government, which doesn’t cover the costs of uniforms, books, housing and meals at school.  School is often far from home, and when students are away that means lost wages and lost labor that the family would otherwise get from a productive child.

Real life is ten months without rain.  Seeing crops struggle to scratch out of the ground and trees crisp red.  The first day we talked about our solar panels it was sobering.  For all the electricity we were bringing to the village, none of it could make a drop of water appear.  And without water, what good is power?

***

On my first tour of the village there is a government-mandated registry taking place.  Marion, the director of the local development Trust we’re working with, tells me that everyone needs a birth certificate to be part of the census.  Of course, hardly anyone has a birth certificate, so there is another bureaucratic process taking place creating those.  They have one printer going (sucking up the Trust’s one printer and solar power) and the line snakes out and around the community hall and onto the main road.  Mothers and children sit in the baking sun waiting their turn. Some have been waiting two days.

“A whole lot of paperwork for a country without computers,” I say.  Marion nods.  This is hardly news.

On this day, the drought is on everyone’s minds.  Marion chats with a local, who talks about his desperation as he is not sure where next to graze his cows.  She shares a sentiment with him in Sesotho, and they both laugh.   I look on, dumb.  Marion translates.  “I said, we pray for rain, but God is not listening.”

We walk around the community hall as we figure out where the solar panels and their accompanying pile of batteries and equipment will go.  At least the solar part is easy.  The wide-open roof faces north, has a nice attic access, and there is a locked storage closet in back to house all the equipment.

I try to make small talk with the project liaison for the solar, a Masotho named Ledimo.  “How is
the solar business in Lesotho?” I ask.

“It is good,” he says, “But solar is for the rich.  I wish it were for the people.”

***

The much-needed rains came three days later, ironically just as the solar installers arrived.  And rain it did.  A lashing, ferocious, angry rain that spanned four days and washed crops and roads away.  “We need rain but no so much, so quickly,” people tell us.  But this is the weather you get.
People say the same sorts of things here as they do back home.  They remember a more stable climate.  They remember bigger, stronger crops and seasons that were predictable.  In those times, it was a fine job to be a farmer and provide for your family.  In these times, as you watch your crops wash into the gulley, the temptation to leave the farm, to go seeking elusive riches in the city, or maybe the mines of South Africa, is ever more tempting.

Nothing is predictable any more.

The solar crew consists of seven hard-working men who get to work at sunrise and hardly stop until it sets.  They finish the job in a day.

I didn’t think it could happen, and it’s hardly the standard in the country.  Nothing moves quickly in Africa.  Except, I guess, for this intrepid group of workers from the Bethel Business & Development Centre.

In the late afternoon we force the installers to break from their work.  Amy and I dump out a pile of t-shirts from my employer back home, ReVision Energy.  On the back of these is a slogan, which feels trite in the states, but when the crew here sees it, their faces light up.

“Power to the people,” someone says.

They all chuckle, then you hear it spread from one installer to the next, “Power to the people” – “Yeah!” – “Power to the people.”

This simple phrase translates well across continents.

***

The next day is the Library Hour, when children come to hear a story and play games.  It is still raining, this time the persistent, soggy stuff you’d expect in London or Seattle.

I’m in the next room of the community hall, configuring a pile of tablets and laptop computers.

The internet is agonizing and I’ve spent the better part of 4 hours trying to download a 15MB file to install free office software.

When I hear the children arrive I am ready for a break.  This is the first time anyone has been down to the community hall since it was wired for power and as close as we’ll get to a ribbon-cutting.  Marion flips through her ring of keys and gets the front door unlocked, and the children flood into the dark hall. On a sunny day, the large windows keep the room well lit for the afternoon Library time, but on this dreary day the room is a gloomy cave.

“Hey, do you think we have lights?” she asks.

“Let’s try it,” I say.

A quick flash of delight skirts across her face and she nods to our friend Kuti, one of the locals who is a musician and staff member with the Trust, and he hits a switch.  Lights flick on and the children erupt into cheers.

And at that moment I appreciate what an exciting thing we’ve done.

***

I’m still struggling with the tablets a day or two later, on an afternoon when the clouds are clearing up.  Mikal, a permaculturist and development advisor, is sitting nearby reading a book.  A South African who has visited this community several times before, he has been here for two weeks after his contracted work wrapped up, observing.  Why observing?  “You can’t get grants to observe,” he says, “But if you do not observe, how do you know what to do?”

About an hour later I am trying to wrap up and two English women enter, one a volunteer here for three months and the other one of her friends, a woman’s development advocate here on a side-trip before a conference in Joburg.  A fast-moving and wonderful discussion soon unfolds between them and Mikal, with Mikal talking about his hands-off approach to teaching and working with locals.

“If I tell you to do something, you do not wish to do it.  Aish, but if it is your idea, you are excited,” says, “You say maybe, I do not wish to give plants to feed the soil, why would I do that?  But then you see your neighbor doing it, and his corn is growing twice as tall as yours, and then maybe you are thinking, ‘I should be feeding the soil too.’”

He goes on to talk about teaching.  “I lead a workshop and they all look to me as I am the teacher.  But I show to them that I am not.  I have all the people in the class write out their questions and they do not give them to me, but they give them to the next group.  And each group answers all of the questions.  At the end they see that they have all of the answers, and I am not necessary.  They have the answers to their own problems if they choose to look for them.”

The conversation is fascinating but I need to get back to Amy and Nyana, who is probably just about to wake from a nap.  But the woman fresh in from London pulls me into the conversation.
“So you put up all those solar panels?”

“Yes,” I answer, sensing I am headed into some sort of trap.  “Well, this local group did…”

“And what assurance do you have that they are going to work 5, 10 years from now?”

“Well, we’ve contracted the installers to check in-“

“You have a local person who knows how to run them?”

“Well, actually, they are in Mohales Hoek-”

“You really should have a local –”

“Look, I’m not sure that is possible.  We have done the best that we can.  There is an incredible group of people with this school down south and they’ll check on it once a year.  I am going to do as much training as I can with the folks here in the village before I go home.  Apart from that, I can’t really say.”

And now the real question.

“And you think it will do good, this solar?”

“I hope it will,” I say, and now I have to articulate everything that’s been running through my head that I’ve not wanted to acknowledge, “Honestly we have no idea what will happen.  Maybe it will be used for six months and then it will break or someone will steal some parts.  Maybe all they will ever use it for is to watch football.  Or maybe it will be used to bring in learning tools and workshops and really change lives.  At this point, it is out of our hands.  We are trying not to make the same development mistakes that have been made, but, ultimately it is for the people to use.  It is a community hall.”

The woman from London seems – not satisfied, but that she knows she got as much of an answer as she’ll get.

“Well good luck.”

***

Top ten things that Nyana finds bewildering about Lesotho:

  1. Strange women come and pick me up and carry me off
  2. Strange children come and pick me up and carry me off
  3. I am not allowed to play with the dogs
  4. I am not allowed to play with the donkeys
  5. I am not allowed to chase the peacocks into the reed fronds
  6. I was allowed to ride a horse
  7. I am forced to put weird goop on my skin before I can go out into the sun
  8. Seriously – a 19-hour plane ride?
  9. Just when I mastered ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ I am told I should be saying ‘Dumela’ and ‘Tsamaya Hantle’
  10. There are birds everywhere and I cannot catch any of them

Not on this list is anything about skin color.  She has not yet learned to notice a difference.

***

On the last weekend of the trip, I arrange to go out to the shabeen.  The thrumming noise of the bass haunts me with its otherness.  While the rest of white-land sleeps peacefully within the confines of the gate, I yearn to see what constitutes nightlife in the village.

Kuti is a handmade guitar picker, and manager of the local band Sotho Sounds which plays spectacular, life-affirming music.  They have traveled to Scotland on tour but were burned by a bad manager and prefer to stay local these days.  But he and his band still have aspirations.
Kuti is my guide tonight, and I have felt like we have had good discussions in the last few days but during this night I start to realize how different culturally we really are.  There are so many questions I still want answered – how and why did you get started in music? What is all this I have heard about initiation school?  How many of the old traditions are still alive? Will having access to the internet – to YouTube, to online courses, to Facebook – change anything here?

Instead I find that just figuring out how to buy a beer is among the more challenging things I’ll experience tonight.  It’s a quiet night at the shabeen, but the noise inside is deafening.   The place is running off raucous power from a small petrol genset, and inside there is simultaneously the roar of a game of football, the ­­thrum-thrum-thrum of the heavy bass music I expected, and the jeers, cheers, and heckling of the dozen or so Basotho within.  Several people accost me immediately, probably asking for drinks, but I can’t understand their Sesotho, and Kuti wards them off.

I scream over the tumult, “Two Malutis!”

The bartender, confused either by a white American being in her bar, or my accented English, or both, looks at me quizzically.  I point towards the green quart bottle, the pride of Lesotho, the not-so-bad lager beer made with maize and barley with the iconic Basotho hat on front.

I hold up two fingers, “Maluti beer!”

This time she gets it, I hand over 26 rand ($2.50 or so USD) and Kuti and I retreat to the back, where the madness is down to a dull roar.  It is a square concrete box with a flickering dull compact fluorescent light, the kind of room where in the movies the mob takes their victims to be tortured.  We tip over two empty crates of Maluti bottles and make seats.

We have hardly enough time to cheer, clank bottles, and take a swig before the door to the main room bursts open and a broad-shouldered Masotho steps in.   “Yes, I thought that was you!”

He looks at me with recognition and I’m at a loss for words.

“You remember me?  We, you know, we had that weed behind the community hall?”

Oh yes, it comes right back to me.  He was smoking a joint made up of rolled up newspaper with a group of other shepherds outside the hall one night when I was headed home.  Last time I saw him he was swathed in one of the traditional wool Basotho blankets (another question: How do you wear all that wool when it is so hot out?) and waiting to retrieve his ponies.  In this part of the world, you use ponies to mow lawns and not gasoline.

“Yes!  Yes!  I remember,” I say, “Hey, take a seat.”

I gesture at the stack of crates filled with empty beer bottles, and he turns one over as well.  He doesn’t have a beer so I offer him mine, and we start taking turns passing around the Maluti.
We have broken English conversations about the weather, the United States, and the gripes of the working man.

“My brother, he is big man with the license and he charges people 15,000 rand to put on their roof!  Me, I do all the work, and he gives me only 1,500.  1,500 and I do all the work!  I am going to be a big man, too, I am going to go to school and get my license, then it will be me getting the 15,000 rand and giving out the 1,500.”

Drinking lager beer and talking about how tough it is to be blue collar.  We could be at a bar in Boston.

***

On our last day in Lesotho, Marion takes us on a tour of the local villages and the projects the Trust is working on.  Food gardens by and for the children, preschools which they build without funding from the government, water catchment systems to retrieve overspill from the wells.
We look at this beautiful country and wonder what the future holds.  Many people aspire for great things here, but see their future outside the valley.  Many are waiting for the government to bring in electricity, eager to watch football and have some lights.  I see that this is a place where a sustainable grid can leapfrog the mistakes of us in the West with our clunky infrastructure and polluting coal plants.  But this is not a place to wait around with baited breath for the government.

As we make our tour through the villages, the back of Marion’s truck gradually fills with local kids who hop along for the adventure.  Seeing a white family and most especially a white baby is an exciting event in this part of the world.   I play the tourist, snapping pictures and video and asking Marion questions about their projects and mission.  These projects give us faith about what can be done on the small scale.  While the government seems inept, this small nonprofit with no red tape can make so many things happen for people with limited resources.  Yet somehow when you try to increase the scale, it all becomes bureaucracy and waste.

Midway through the tour, a kid in a scrappy shirt and boots with a hole in the middle comes up and grabs my camera out of my hands.  I look at him quizzically, but he throws it over his shoulder and snaps a picture of me.  I ask, “You want to take some shots?” and he nods enthusiastically.  We walk through our next site – the construction of a rondavel – and he snaps pictures avidly of the windows, the walls, the floor, the ceiling.  Hardly an artist, but he’s having fun.

I hate to kill the fun but I ask for my camera back, and he gives it.  My heart is torn with the reality of the whole situation.  Is this the kid that is going to benefit from our solar power?  Will he be able to get books to read and websites to learn from thanks to what we’ve done here?  Or are we just humoring ourselves?

“That one, he’s had a tough lot,” Marion says, “His mother is known as ‘Mother who is not around’ and his father is known for fathering children with many women.  He lives with his grandmother, and he is not technically an orphan so we cannot give him aid through our orphans program.  You can see that he is looking for a place where he belongs, so we do our best.”
This is when it really hits me in the gut.  This is ‘real life’ – no longer statistics or headlines or TV news, but a real human being in front of me with a single story.  A single story that is emblematic of so many more.  A single life, with a situation not so different from America – how many kids in the US also have to suffer through negligent parents? – yet the odds are stacked so differently simply by virtue of where you’ve been born.

We leave Lesotho tomorrow, and so the problems of this child, of this valley, no longer have to be ours.  They are only ours because we have chosen to come here and to look at them.  They are not ours to fix but maybe there is some good to be gained by trying to understand them, and then to articulate them?

In my heart of hearts I’d like to give this child a pile of money and change his life forever.  But you can’t do that.  Trying to fix one child’s problems creates a cascade of unintended consequences – resent from those children who didn’t get the massive gift from the wealthy foreigner, which contributes to the community’s disincentive to solve their own problems.  Because ultimately, that’s the way it is – as a foreigner I cannot say what is good and bad about this valley, I can only observe.  Naming problems and resolving problems – that is the responsibility of the community itself.

I am starting to understand what Mikal was talking about.  But God, the reality sucks.
Before we leave, I do one small thing.  I took a photo of the kid and the camera with a big smile on his face.  I take this to the local ‘photo lab’ – a man in a hut with a solar panel, small battery and Canon printer.  I have the photo printed out so the kid can have it.  Something to remember us by.

boy with photo camera in lesotho

***

We leave the valley early in the morning, as the sun is just cresting the distant mountains.  We came as strangers, but leave as something a bit more than that.  Someone calls us by our Sesotho names.

“Tsamaya Hantle, Ntate Kamohelo and ‘Me Manonyana ,” (Travel well, Father ‘welcome’ and Mother of bird) calls out one of the players of Sotho Sounds, who is heading to the Lodge in the early morning to find some work guiding tourists.

In our two weeks here, all three of us have new names, new friends, and new perspectives.  That’s about as much as we could ask.  Though we wish we could have given a whole lot more.

***

Two nights later I wake up in my own bed, disoriented, feeling that home is not really home.  Where in the night is the sweet cooing of the turtle dove, the yowls of the desperate feral dogs and the chorus of insects?  The night is still, and the moon shines bright, a swath of white ribbon reflecting down on the perfect snow.  I am a stranger in my own house and rather than reject it, I grasp onto the feeling, coddle it, nurture it… for it is fleeting.  Soon my house will all be all too familiar again, and the exotic nights I’ve grown accustomed to will be warm memories.  Fading ones.

I’m already sick of America.  The freak-out-info-tainment news spindle, the vapid Facebook posts of snark and #FirstWorldProblems, the woman in line ahead of me at Dulles who was complaining about her latte.   I resent that I understand the units of measurement and currency.  America is mixed up and backward and so is Africa, but somehow the mixed-up-ness of America gets under my skin while in Africa it’s charming.

I hold onto the sounds of cheering children, the whinnying horses, the squeaky-well-pump-bray of the donkey, while trying to answer the questions everyone has for me.  “How was Africa?” as if that could be answered simply with a “Good.”  Africa is a vast and variegated continent , and even in the tiny Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho there is much more than what we experienced.  We were in just one valley, for a couple weeks, but maybe-just-maybe got a little bit more of a window into what is really happening than the typical tourists.

Home it is winter again, typical for Maine but the winter weather in the rest of the US is inspiring allusions to the apocalypse.  It’s hard to take it seriously when we have as much electricity, refrigeration, and food as we could want.  I go out into the woods a lot and relish the quiet.
The snow on this one afternoon is not cooperating.  The crust on top is too thin to support me and with each step my snowshoe crunches a foot down.  I stagger and trudge most of the way along a familiar hiking trail but Nyana is not cooperative either.  She wants to walk herself, but then gets so bogged down with her snow gear that she plants face down and starts licking the snow.

I pick her up and continue onward, but then she wriggles until I put her down again.  She face plants, and the cycle continues anew.  At last, exhausted, I collapse into a heap against a large hemlock tree just above a slope that leads down to a wetland.  The last few reeds and cattails stick out from the ice, and they dance in the late afternoon sun as a light snow-globe snow dances downwards.

I feel suddenly, staggeringly far from Africa but suddenly the beauty of the place where I do live hits me again.  The wave of discontent washes away.  I laugh at myself.  The curse of the American: to have all of the wealth in the world and to be forever dissatisfied.  This is a moment to simply bathe in the moment.  And to think of our friends 15,000 kilometers away.

Fred Greenhalgh is FinalRune’s writer/producer/director.  He has absconded with the newsletter for his production company to write occasional rants about the chaos and beauty of life as he struggles to maintain simplicity while embracing technology.  His serialized drama The Cleansed (Seasons 1 and 2) are available now internationally through AudibleAmazon.comDownpour.com and other sources thanks to a distribution agreement with Blackstone Audiobooks.  You can stream it for free on SoundCloud.