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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, July 13, 2015

Litolobonya: a camera free cultural moment

After a longer than usual day at teen club and accidentally enjoying time with two other PCVs I bumped into in town, I was officially late, even by Basotho standards.

As I approached the mokete (mow-ket-ee or party), I greeted over a dozen women leaving for home. 'M'e Matsepo greeted me warmly and walked me into the yard. We passed two tables cluttered with used plates sitting just in front of the remains of the two cows my brother had helped slaughter the day before. The yard was full of men. Seeing few women made me question whether I should go in the direction of the women I had previously greeted. Arriving only an hour before sunset may be too late. Perhaps I should have simply stayed home.

Finally I spotted two women I know and started walking towards the cooking fire to greet them. 'M'e Matsepo stopped me, pulling me to the door of the small tin cooking shack. As she pushed the door partway open, I realized two things: the shack was incredibly full of women and they were responsible for the singing and drums I had assumed were coming from somewhere else on the compound.

At 'M'e's prompting, I squeezed my way into the shack. With the sun sinking low, very little light was reaching the one window. The room was packed full of women, all of whom were singing and clapping. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that two of the women were wearing only bright red bras, their underwear, and the skirts used for litolobonya (dee-tow-low-bow-ne-yah).

This photo shows young women dancing litolobonya
at the Cultural Day I attended earlier this year. The
dance was historically used by women a few months
after childbirth to confirm her core was strong enough
to return to the physically demanding Basotho woman's 
role, including carrying water on her head. It involves
popping the butt out without moving the front of the body.
The skirts accentuate the movement profoundly. See my
blog on the Cultural Day for a video of this dance.
As the two danced to the rhythm of the song, clapping, and bucket turned drum, women started pushing me toward the center. Smiling and trying to appear more confident than I felt, a moved forward hoping them just wanted me to see the dance rather than joining it. Suddenly, my host mother came forward and grabbed my hand telling me there was a seat for me. Relieved, I found myself sitting on a stump along the back wall of the shack watching the women dance and clapping along.

My mother asked if I had my camera and I found myself denying the phone in my pocket. Somehow, this moment felt like it was meant to be experienced rather than photographed. I continued smiling and clapping along, gradually learning songs much different than those sung at church.

Eventually the two women removed their skirts and stunned me by pulling their underwear down in the back to do another dance while showing off their buttocks. Around me, the women went wild with cheers. I smiled, laughed, and cheered along as each of them shook their now naked buns in our faces.

When the original women tired, other women-fulling clothed-donned the litolobonya skirts and the fun continued. This moment highlights one of my favorite aspects of Basotho culture. Women are celebrated regardless of their shape or size. The only negative remark I heard in the hut was that one of the women was using her upper body to pop her booty out instead of using her legs and hips. This activity was for married women and a lucky PCV only, most of the women had nursed, grew up without bras, and have a little extra padding as being big is celebrate, however, modesty around other women does not exist and each person's body is celebrated for what it can do instead of knocked down for not being magazine quality. In America, most women would be too modest or insecure to start shaking their nude booties in the faces of their friends.

Finally the women and I moved outside, the special women only part of the party concluded. As it was nearly sunset, I took a few minutes to speak with the men I knew, being careful to stay in the presence and women. As parties are accompanied by beer and joala-a homebrew made from sorghum-some of the men had been drinking most of the day and were more likely to forget the respect they usually show me. Additionally, parties bring in people from outside of my village and those guests are not used to a white person living amongst the Basotho as part of the community.

Just before I was given a plate of beef and bread, a man was trying to speak with me about marriage but slurring his words together enough that I was not exaggerating much when I repeatedly told him I did not understand his Sesotho. A grandfather came over, also clearly drunk, wanting to know who I was at the party with. Despite knowing I spoke correct and clear Sesotho, he could not understand as I explained that I was there with my brother and mother and that I lived in this space. He called my brother over and gave him a lengthy speech about how I needed to be taken home because it was nearly dark and unsafe for me to be out.

He apparently was from a neighboring village that just got its first PCV two weeks ago and was taking the Peace Corps safety and security instructions incredibly seriously. This is, of course, a great thing, but it made me laugh to think about how things change in a year. I am never out alone at night in my village and a year ago I would never have even considered attending a party near dark if I considered it all. The two times my transportation had returned at night, my brother has met me at the taxi stop to walk home with me. But this party was not only in my village, but in my neighborhood. The only thing between the party and my own hut was the chief's house. My brother and my mother were there with me along with numerous other villagers who would protect me from any harm.

'M'e Matsepo brought me a plate of food, which seemed to stop the man's lecture. He left to walk home and my mother joined me as I ate. When I was full, I begged her to finish my plate as we sat and chatted with 'M'e Matsepo. My other brother and his best friend stopped by to say hello. Then, with some food packed up to go, my mother and I walked the short distance home together.

I absolutely cherish moments like this party. Despite arriving late because of more traditional work and cherished moments with fellow American, the chance to chat with villagers and truly experience things that most people only hear about or see at cultural day celebrations is incredible. I have also set a new goal of donning the skirts (fully clothed though) and doing litolobonya with the women before I leave Lesotho. Considering their excitement when I wear traditional clothing or admit I can cook traditional food, I know they will be ecstatic to see me trying their dances. Now to find a teacher...

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