My latest column for the Capital Journal
Living in Africa has taught me several lessons.
Always carry toilet paper and an umbrella. Never go to the well on Saturdays. Don’t turn your flashlight on at night – it’s better not to know what critters are flying around your house. And the answer to any problem is a good sense of humor.
Being the outsider in a foreign place comes with lots of awkward moments. You will say the wrong thing. You will look like a fool. People will laugh at you, however, it is rarely mean spirited. The only thing you can do is laugh with them.
I do not take criticism well and find even helpful suggestions as attack on my character. When my host mother in training would re-mop my room after I already did, I cringed in thoughts of failure. When I couldn’t I tell the shopkeeper that I wanted soap and candles, I would nearly cry. But my frustration was usually one-sided, so I’ve learned to laugh at my mistakes against the Basotho culture and the other person joins along. Instead of creating a hostile moment, we have an endearing one.
Laughter has also helped me deflect strange moments when I am not sure how to respond. When an old man says he wants to marry me or my host mother says I am too fat (which is actually a compliment in Lesotho), I giggle. They may have not meant it as a joke but I turn it into one and we can bond over that instead of other ways, like holy matrimony.
Because my Sesotho is limited, I have found that being silly is the best way to communicate. I can’t have a full conversation with my host mother, who speaks little English, but I can say the Sesotho phrases and words I know in a variety of Muppet voices. She responds in her own goofy tones and we have a genuine interaction without really saying anything.
It’s the same with village children. Most are too nervous to talk to me because of the language barrier so they don’t say anything. It bothered me at first, then I learned to use wacky dancing to say hi. I run up to them, flail my arms and they join in with fits of giggles. Before coming to Lesotho, I would’ve never allowed myself at 27 to dance like that in public, but if it gets the kids to laugh it doesn’t matter.
Most days I do at least one thing that my villagers find awkward. Going for a run, wearing socks to my knees or singing out loud the song that is stuck in my head. Instead of getting defensive I laugh with them and understand that they mean no harm by it.
Learning to laugh at myself has completely changed my day-to-day life. It’s allowed me to do the things that I want, within respects of the culture, and not live behind some eggshell version, afraid to look foolish. I am happier and, more importantly, my villagers get to know the real me.