The voices and sawing outside my door had been going for sometime, but it was 20-past 5 a.m. when I opened my eyes. I should have known at that point something big was happening today, instead I cursed the chatty herd boys and I tried to find a few more moments of slumber.
A while later, I relinquished sleep and prepared for a run. The sawing, I discovered when I opened my door, was kindling for a fire and two large pots were smoking in the still-early morning air. I went inside my host family’s house to charge my computer and when I greeted my mme she was bent over a large aluminum pot stirring samp (sort of like a chunkier cream corn). I asked Moroana, my host sister, what all the food was for and she said “prayer” while pointing in the direction of the house of my host uncle, who is a Roman Catholic priest. My thoughts immediately started to speed – Should I go? Do I want to go? Do they want me to go? Would I feel guilty if I didn’t go?
Outside, as I strapped my phone to my arm and plugged in the earphones for my run, I asked my ntate the same question about the food, like I hadn’t been told the answer two minutes before. He sat near the cooking pots, nibbling on a piece of sheep that was slaughtered the day before and told me that the second day of November is when they honor their deceased loved ones. He said that actually the whole month is meant to remember them, but this particular day is when they feast.
The entire family was going, I knew that, and I am sure they wouldn’t have thought another thing if I just stayed in my house and read all morning. There was a point where I would have preferred to stay home instead of sitting through a lengthy service in a language I don’t know and trying to disregard children’s unwavering stares. Or, if I did want to go, I would have waited for an invitation, accepting the situation when one didn’t come.
Today, though, I did want to go. I’ve been getting a little antsy lately so this would be something to do and it would be a nice cultural thing to attend. Mostly, I wanted to feel apart of my family, honoring their pasted loved ones as well as my own. Instead of waiting for an invitation, I simply asked my host father if I could attend. Of course, he said yes.
I decided to run six miles instead of the planned 10, giving me plenty of time to bath and eat breakfast before the service. Since I recently mailed my traditional Basotho dress, I wore an orange tunic dress that I had made in Niger. My mme is rarely on time for these things but I wanted to go with her and I could hear the service’s gospel music from my porch long before we left.
When we arrived, a group of about 20 people, plus children, were seated before an altar outside on a slap of concrete. A boy draped in a red cloth and a nun sat on either side of the table, each wearing a crown of thorns, as the priest offered prayers in Sesotho. There were four pictures, two of them depicting a bloody Jesus nailed to the cross, hung on a purple banner above the altar and a cross with large beads around the stem sat in the front. The table was adorned with large statues of Jesus and Mary and a few candles. The women and men in the congregation recited hymns from memory and I rocked back and forth to the sweet tunes.
Only what seemed like minutes after we arrived, the priest, boy and nun started to disassemble the altar and my host father gave a small speech followed by an elderly woman wearing a purple cloak, similar to the one my mme wears to Sunday mass. The remembrance was over.
My mme rushed off to kitchen duties and ntate lead me into the nearby house. We sat down in a paneled-covered living room and he told me that was the home he grew up in before he married mme and they settled into the house down the hill. Ntate has three brothers (one is now deceased) and two sisters. It seems that their mother raised them all as their father passed away in 1963, he told me. As we chatted, bo-ntate and a mme filled all the seats’ rooms. The rapid Sesotho passed by me and I picked up a few phrases here and there but mostly I just observed the situation, flipping through random thoughts and wondering what they were discussing. Eventually, a younger woman brought out plates of samp, sheep, chicken and carrot salad and large glasses of guava juice. I slowly picked at my food – usually in these situations, the conversation is in Sesotho and I have nothing to contribute so I tend to plow through my food – and thinking about what a gift it is to be apart of such a celebration
“See, these are my parents,” ntate said between helpings of chicken. “This is how we feast.”
Midway through the meal, my host sister Maseeng arrived from Maseru and came to us to retrieve her baby boy. Once we finished eating, my mme led me back down to our compound and we went into the main house to see Maseeng and play with the baby. I was tired after the heavy meal, but sat with them, mostly in silence, just watching and listening. There were other people in the house as family was scattered between the two homes for this occasion and so I smiled and greeted everyone but was content in offering little to the gathering. My presence was enough.
It occurred to me how this felt like a holiday at home: mass, followed by a meal then sitting around, watching children, making small comments on life, enjoying each other’s company. There was one moment when a man gestured to his wife and then they announced they were leaving and told their son to grab his things. Although there was nothing significant about this, it was comforting to me that I had experienced the same casual glance between my parents and then the instructions to say goodbye when celebrating with my own family. It’s what families do. For an instant, I forgot that I was a temporary attachment to this Basotho family and it felt like I had been with them all along.
That’s why I wanted to go today, to experience, as much I can in these final weeks, that togetherness and bond that defines family. I am so excited to spend the holidays with my blood family and, while I’ve had and will have many holidays with them, this is all I get with my Basotho family. I want to make it count.