This is part 1 of two parts, due to length.
I was on my way out of the staff room, as usual, in a hurry. I quickly greeted Ken, a fellow teacher, and reminded him of the meeting we were supposed to have that day. He started to sputter and I rolled me eyes.
We have been working on a project with a group of villagers and the last few times Ken, not his real name, hasn’t been able to meet with us. It normally wouldn’t be a problem, except for he is the only person in the group who speaks both Sesotho and English and he doesn’t tell me about his other affairs until the day of our meeting.
“Ntate, it is really important that we have this meeting,” I said with strong annoyance.
“’M’e, did you here what happened?” he asked quietly.
He told me that his grandmother died that weekend, along with the village chief, in a family altercation, which I won’t go into depth about on this blog for the sake of those involved. My mouth dropped open. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what is appropriate to say in this culture. All I could muster was, “I am sorry” and “I will pray for you.”
Ken was in a funk for the next few days, a short time compared to the wreck I would be if I was in his situation. He popped out of it and began acing like himself. I knew, though, he wouldn’t be able to truly move on until after the funeral.
Basotho funerals are a prized part of the culture. In many ways, it is the biggest event of a person’s life. And, with high HIV and tuberculosis rates and a life expectancy of about 40, there are many. Saturday is funeral day in Lesotho. It is not wise to schedule a meeting or event before 3 p.m. on Saturday because of people’s desire and obligation to say goodbye. It is the best day of the week to a hitch because people are generally going to or coming from a funeral.
Up until Saturday, I had not been to one. I knew that the time would come, and I’ve had numerous opportunities to attend funerals of people I didn’t know, but decided to wait until it seemed appropriate. Other volunteers have lost students, host family members and beloved villagers in the 11 months we’ve been in country. I knew my time was coming.
But for the grandmother of a fellow teacher? I wasn’t sure. When he first told me of the death, I knew I would have to decide whether to attend or not. I ignored any answer until the week of the funeral. I asked my fellow teachers if it was appropriate and necessary that I go and, already knowing what they would say, of course, yes. I even ran the situation by another volunteer who also was unsure what to do in this type of situation.
It was a rare Saturday that I would be in village and I was unsure if that was how I wanted to spend it. My reasons for being wary was that if I go to one I will now be expected to go to all. Also, funerals typically last all day and my Saturdays hanging out at home are precious. Still, I had the feeling this was important. And, it was slow at school, so I had plenty of time during the week to relax and catch up on chores. I asked another teacher if I could accompany her to the funeral and was set on going.
The night before the funeral, I was agitated. I wasn’t looking forward to the funeral. I wouldn’t be able to understand any of it and my status as a foreigner would be greatly accentuated at a place foreigners do not go. I told myself that I didn’t come to Lesotho to sit in my house all day, but to experience the culture. This was an experience. By the next morning, I felt better and went for a run. Came home, bathed and made breakfast before I was supposed to meet the other teacher. During this time, the sky opened up, the clouds thundered and the rain poured for two hours.
I was unsure of rain protocol for funerals but couldn’t imagine anyone being outside in that kind of weather. I waited until I saw the sun and ventured out.
When I arrived at the teacher’s house, a driver told me she already had left. This was annoying. And hurtful. One of the challenges in living in another culture is that manners and what causes hurt feelings differ. Going without someone to an event after making plans to go together is rude in America. It is not in Lesotho. My teacher likely had no idea that this upsets me because her culture just says, Oh well, and goes on. I tried to push out these emotions and started the journey on my own.
Not far from my village, a woman wearing a maroon hat and dress caught up to me. She unsuccessfully tried to have a conversation with me, but I didn’t understand much of what she said. Instead, we smiled and laughed and walked along the muddy road.
The funeral was already in processes when we arrived. I spotted two of my teachers immediately and stood next to them. There were two tents set up at the family’s home. Funerals always take place at the home and the burial isn’t far. There are small graveyards spread throughout villages, sometimes right near homes. There was a group of chairs directed at the main tent – a green and white striped structure with a circus-like quality – and I stood behind the tent, staring into the crowd. Occasionally, the group would join in a hymn (they all know all of the words) but most of the service was an array of speakers. I tried to picture what they were saying. She was a good mother. She loved the Lord. She was a proud Mosotho woman.
The rest of this essay will continue in another post.