After the New Year, my host sister, Maseeng, came back to our village with her mother-in-law and several plastic bags of her things. She was moving home.
Maseeng married her love, Thabo, in June in a beautiful ceremony and celebration that I was lucky enough to participate in. Up until that point, she had been living with her family, now my family, in village, but as a married woman she moved to her husband’s house in Maseru.
We didn’t see much of her after that. Basotho tradition is that a bride must not return home until she is eight months pregnant, so she was to stay away but she cheated a bit.
A few months after the wedding, Thabo and Maseeng came here to get their wedding cake, which they didn’t eat right away for reasons I could never really get out of them. Technically, she did not come home. Instead, they parked the car at the top of the hill, where the property starts, outside the gate and, on the hood, we cut the cake and took swings of the marital champagne.
She did the same thing when my predecessor was visiting Lesotho and when Thebe, her brother, graduated from university.
We tried to stay in touch while she was away, sending gushy texts of “I love you” and “I will never forget you.” I also met her at the taxi rank one day when I was passing through Maseru.
I knew she was pregnant. Everyone knew. Her belly was protruding and her breasts doubled in size. But she refused to admit it. When I asked her such, she would say, “Stop being so silly.” I even asked my host mother and she just smiled, raised her hands and said, “Ha ke tsebe,” or I don’t know.
When she came that January day, it was the official announcement of her pregnancy. I believe the secretiveness wasn’t culture related because I’ve asked other pregnant women when they are due and they usually happily offer a month, but I am not sure. But it didn’t matter because now we all knew and we were excited.
Because she had a basketball in her stomach, Maseeng didn’t do much during the day. She often pulled out a chair from the kitchen and sat on the polished porch outside the family’s house. There, she would shout up at anyone and everyone passing by and friends would come to visit. I often would join her for a little bit and ask questions about the baby, trying to understand Basotho’s birthing traditions. We also talked about my school and some of its problems, but much of the time I would just listen as she rattled of Sesotho with a friend.
Maseeng liked to joke that I was pregnant too. Like her, I was hungry and tired all of the time and we both took naps in the afternoons. Although I am not with child, my body is going through its own changes as I prepare to run 56 K next month. As her belly grew and grew, mine became more defined with the help of speed and hill workouts. We are five years apart (me 28 and her 23) and at very different stages in our lives, but this was a physical way we could be on the same page and, besides providing an inside joke, it was comforting to me. A new way we could relate, like sisters.
On Sunday I had gotten up a little later than usual, 6 a.m., and went on my long run. I returned after a few hours, stretched, bathed, made breakfast and then settled in for a nap. I hadn’t heard anyone outside, although I didn’t think it was particularly out of the ordinary because it was raining and the village always quiets with precipitation.
I had just fallen asleep with my book dog eared next to me when I heard Maseeng call my name in such a rapid succession that I didn’t have time to respond. I wanted to ignore it and, eventually, she would assume I was asleep and give up. But I gave in and shouted back, thinking it was just a greeting. She told me to come out. She hadn’t been around the previous week and, when I inquired about her whereabouts, they told me she was at school. I assumed she returned for the day and wanted to see me, so I got out of bed. She had already gone inside the house and I followed.
“Do you want to see my baby boy?” she asked with a small grin.
My hand went to my mouth and I tried to stammer out questions in order to get the facts.
“What?” “When?” “How?”
She laughed at me, what she always does, and led me into a bedroom. Laying on the bed was a smile pile of blankets, almost as if someone put them there while making the bed and would come back for them later. She pulled back the main fleece blanket and then a pink towel to reveal a sleeping baby boy.
His face was crunched up and a light brown. Because he was encased in blankets, I couldn’t judge his size. It occurred to me that I’ve never seen a human that new before and I really had no idea what he should look like, or even be doing. All I knew was that I instantly loved him.
Maseeng was admitted into the hospital on Thursday, she said, and the family had been with her the previous day. Most of the time, if I don’t ask, I usually have no idea what is going on and, since I was in Maseru most of Saturday, I didn’t see much of my family and had no idea something was up. She gave birth that morning at 2 a.m. and was dismissed from the hospital nearly 10 hours later.
The baby is healthy and mom is tired and in a bit of pain because the boy was so large (3.3 kg) that she needed stitches. I was only able to see her and him for a minute then left to give them rest. She loves my homemade tortilla chips so I whipped up a batch for her – anyone who goes through labor earns some tortilla chips, in my opinion – and brought them to her later. She was still very tired so I just handed them to her and said, “You deserve these.” “Yes, I do,” she said while putting a few in her mouth.
My host parents went to the hospital that morning once they heard. I saw my ‘m’e just as I was leaving for my run so they must have left after that. They are very proud grandparents and ‘m’e repeats “Ke thabilla” or “I am happy” over and over. Even though the emotion is there, most Basotho tend not to show it on these big life events. My sister, Moana, 17, seemed rather indifferent about it, but she is shy with everyone all of the time. But my ntate had a permanent smile stamped on his face the whole day.
Thabo, the father, came to visit but left after 15 minutes. According to the traditions of my family’s tribe, the father is not allowed to see the baby until after a month. I asked repeatedly why this was and explained that in my culture the father is usually present when the baby is born, but I couldn’t get any answer other than, “That is just our tradition.” My teachers told me that not all Basotho practice this and it varies between the different tribes.
However, Thabo will come today to give the baby a name. Because her firstborn is a boy, Maseeng will be renamed after the baby. For example, if they call him David her name will now be ‘M’e Madavid, or mother of David. They don’t do this for girls and, again, I couldn’t get a reason as to why. (I think they tire of all my questions.)
Maseeng and the baby will be here for about six months, following tradition. I thought this had to do with the mother learning from her own mother about taking care of the baby but I was told it was more about separating the mother and father. Although Thabo loses out on the deal, I am very much OK with this. During this time, she will continue to go to school to finish up her teaching certificate and I assume ‘m’e will stay with the baby during the day. Then, after six months, they will return to their house in Maseru and Thabo.
I am honestly very lucky that I am here during such a beautiful time and that I get to experience this with the family. Our daily lives will change a bit with a baby around, but I think we are OK with that. I am trying not to think about the fact that I will never really get to know this baby and the fraction of his life I will witness will be so small, basically insignificant to a lifetime. Just like Maseeng is my sister, he is my nephew and he will likely never know me.
But that is a sad thought that is not relative to right now. Something amazing has happened and I get to be a part of it. I can’t fathom how much Maseeng’s life changed Sunday morning. There is literally nothing in my life that can compare. The day my Peace Corps invitation was big, but nothing like that this. I want to know every thought, worry and idea passing through her mind, but for now I will let her sleep. She is a new mother and just to observe that is enough to answer all of my questions.