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I leave my house for work and get called over by two village women awaiting their chance to do business with the chief. The first smiles...

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Donkey, a Rat, and a Herd of Bovine...

Over the last month or two, I have been glowing with joy over my life in my village in Butha Buthe. Recently, I spent a wonderful week at PST [Pre-Service Training] for the incoming Healthy Youth volunteers. During a session on volunteer mental health and resiliency, I confessed I rarely have bad days.

I returned home from PST on Monday, exhausted from travel and a few late nights chatting with various volunteers I connected with during my travels. Although I desperately wanted to be alone for a bit, I allowed my oldest brother to visit for the two hours I had before my counterpart came for a meeting. I had not seen him since my site visit in July, as he has been trying to work in South Africa.

After my meeting with my counterpart, I noticed the local “free-range” ass had eaten most of my garden, leaving behind only a few carrots (though he'd dined on the greens), a tomato plant, and my precious spaghetti squash that had just reached reproductive maturity. I was a little bummed, but because the squash was intact—we don't have spaghetti squash in Lesotho, these seeds came from a care package—it did not matter too much.

That night, while my brothers were visiting, there was a rustling in the “kitchen” corner of my hut. Abuti Thabo jumped up to investigate and announced I had a rat. I did not believe him until I saw the holes it had gnawed in a bag of sorghum. Apparently, the rat had moved in during my absence.

Somehow more skittish than usual, I pulled down the mosquito net for the first time in months, carefully tucking into my mattress. I did not want to cuddle with my new roomie! Despite my net fortress, I did not sleep well as he partied late into the night.

Tuesday morning, as I ate my breakfast, my new roommate made a dash from the kitchen corner to the wardrobe corner, giving my visual confirmation of his impressive size, species, and speed.

Just before I left for work, I walked into the backyard, stopping short. Instead of tall weeds and my tiny garden, there was a herd of cattle enjoying a feast. My 5-6 foot long spaghetti squash was gone! I talked two cows out of my path as I stomped to my latrine. When I came out, a huge heifer was blocking the only way back to the house and was uninterested in moving. The molisana (mow-dee-sauna or herdboy) was paying no attention. Culturally, women in Lesotho are not supposed to walk through the middle of a herd and usually molisana are quick to move cows that are blocking the path. Fighting tears, I prodded the unwilling bovine out of my way.

I was so devastated by the loss of my spaghetti squash that I could not even fake being my usual positive self. I sadly told my visiting oldest brother that the cows had finished off my garden, knowing that he had asked the to have the cows clear the yard. He, of course, apologized and tried to cheer me up with promises of a new plot and the long awaited fence to keep the ass and other animals out of the yard. Despite his apologies, I was still bereft, pointing out that it is winter and too late to plant more squash. Plus, I noted, we cannot buy spaghetti squash here so I now cannot test harvesting a squash and planting the seeds to share with villagers in my two years here.

As I finished gathering what I needed for work, he came to my door to apologize again. I wanted so badly to tell him it was fine and to give him a smile to reassure him, but I was incapable of it. I reassured him that I understood and was not actually upset with him, but that I was still upset.

Walking the 25 minutes to work, I struggled to hold back tears and wondered repeatedly what I am doing here. At the same time, the rational part of me questioned how a squash plant could affect me so much that it was temporarily erasing all the joy I usually feel for all the aspects of my life here.

When I arrived at work, one of the women gave me dried sugar beans from her garden, but mostly the ten women present gave me space as they could tell I was not my usual cheerful self. While we waited for more members of the organization to arrive, I tried to perk up. I knocked out nearly a dozen phone calls; scheduling a variety of important meetings over the next two weeks.

Eventually, we started our meeting but quickly rescheduled it for the next week as many critical individuals were missing. As we prepared to depart, I had my counterpart ask everyone how to get rid of my new roommate. One woman offered me poison and we began the slow paced walk to her home. On our way, we connected with another woman who said she and my supervisor would deliver some later so I did not have to travel so far.

Thus, my counterpart and I continued towards my home. Before we parted, I shared what had happened and she mentioned that the women had asked her if I was okay. I assured her that I would be fine and back to smiling in no time. When I finally got home, the tears I had held off for three hours overwhelmed me. For the second time since arriving in Lesotho nearly a year ago, I locked myself in my home for ten minutes of sobbing while saying lies like “I don't want to do this anymore.”

Then, I was mostly better. I started cleaning and working. I made a few more phone calls and had a great conversation with the Country Director about the GLOW camp I am working on.

In reality, despite my out of character and dramatically out of proportion reaction to the loss of my potential squash, it was one of the most efficient and productive days in recent months. I literally connected with every person I needed to and was able to check off over twenty items on my “to-do” list.

A homemade rap trap baited with a seed.
The misery I felt does bring me back to the topic of volunteer mental health and resiliency. How is it that something as unimportant in the scope of my service, my life, and the world impact my entire day and my interactions so greatly? Obviously, exhaustion played a role as did the rat and ass interactions in the preceding sixteen hours. But how can one or even three negative experiences overshadow dozens of positive ones so profoundly?

I can look at the empty garden without choking up now. And Tuesday night I slept through the sounds my rat roommate made. Wednesday night my brothers caught the rat with a trap one of their friend's made. I am sure in a week or so I will laugh at the tears I shed over a plant.

And, I now know that the Sesotho word for poison is the same as medicine: moriana (mow-ree-ana). You can think about that the next time you sing “a spoonful of sugar helps the moriana go down.”

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