Every day, except for Friday, classes are interrupted for an hour lunch.
Not all schools serve lunch in Lesotho, fortunately, mine does. I am sure I do not have to go into detail about how empty stomachs hinder learning, but it is a problem for many schools throughout the country. Students do not have the energy to muster through six hours of classes without nutrients and, sadly, some live too far away to go home for lunch or can’t afford to bring their own food.
Although my school does offer lunch and costs to do so are included in term fees, it isn’t often a great lunch. Two days a week the students are served papa and merreho – cornmeal and vegetables – and the other two they get samp – sort of like creamed corn, but chunkier and without much taste. Once and awhile we are dished beans, but not enough to put it on the schedule regularly. The students often complain that they are “not satisfied.” I don’t blame them. I too find little to be excited over the lunch.
But it is food and the only meal for some students. They may not like it but they usually finish their plates.
At 1 p.m. the handheld bell is rung to end classes and start the lunch line. Students bring their own plates or bowls, sometimes it’s an empty butter container. They line up and wait for their turn. Inside, the head students assist the cooks in dishing up the gruel for the day. Students hand their plates inside and, after a few minutes, they are handed back.
One day I sat inside the kitchen and watched this process. The kitchen is rectangular building with three large fire kettles and three large gasoline burners. The cooks – two women from nearby villages – usually cook the papa and samp in the fire kettles and the vegetables on the stove. On papa and merreho days, for example, one student will stand at the door and take the plate from the line of students outside. He passes it to the student near the papa who holds the dish as the cook slops two spoonfuls of papa onto it. He hands back to the first student who waits for a helping of merreho and then passes it back to the owner.
The girls often eat near the classroom while the boys like to hide in the bushes. They are as noisy and chatty as an high school lunchroom in America. Once finished, they go to the tap and wash off their dish.
Watching this reminds me of my days in the cafeteria. By my junior and senior year, I had stopped eating lunch at school, actually I had stopped eating lunch all together. Before that though, I would line up like the other students and hold out my tray to get whatever was being served that day. At my school, pizza was an option every other day. Every other day. Very healthy. But, we liked it. I could also buy a cookie or Little Debbie bar if I wanted extra sweets. We used to think the food was terrible but I would trade the worst meal – chicken fried steak – for samp any day.
I too eat at school. Before the students are served, a few plates are sent to the staff room for the teachers. Most days it is exactly what the students are eating, but sometimes there is a piece of meat. Or, if there is a board meeting that day with important people, we can a few types of vegetables and meat.
Because I can see the papa and samp on my hips these days, I’ve tried to cut back on the oil, salty starches. On samp days, I usually don’t eat and bring my own lunch. On papa and merreho days, I bring homemade wheat flour tortillas and eat them with the vegetables. The other teachers find it funny that I don’t eat papa, but I’m not bothered by their smirks anymore.
I usually sit with the teachers in the staff room as they speak in Sesotho. Sometimes they engage me, sometimes not. At first, I was hurt, thinking it meant they didn’t want anything to do with me. Now, I realize they forget that I don’t speak Sesotho and I like being able to zone out. Sometimes we do have a nice conversation about the school or Basotho and American culture.
At 2 p.m. the bell rings again and classes are to start again. The students put their plates back into their bags and the empty teachers’ plates are returned for cleaning.
Lunch at school is such a universal thing that it shouldn’t feel special, but it does. When I watch the students line up for their food, I often see them only as my students. This is our school and this our lunchtime. It’s at this time the students joke with me more and we are no longer students in different grades and teachers of different subjects. We are just one school at lunch.