Friday, July 01, 2016

Ho Lila: Basotho Home Maintenance

It is early on a cold Sunday morning. Unlike most women in our community, my host mother and I are not getting ready for church, doing laundry, nor warming ourselves in the sunlight.

Instead of the usual Sunday morning activities, we are using our hands to mix mobu (mow-boo). My As we mix it, my mother explains in Sesotho that today our mobu is a combination of makaka a likhomo or cow dung and water.

Once the chunks are crushed and the mobu is well mixed, she climbs up on a bench and begins smearing it in large sections on the outside of my house.

My house, a heise (hay-see), is the rectangular variety of traditional Basotho dwellings. It is made of rocks and cow dung with a grass roof. This makes it well insulated against the winter's chill and the summer's heat. It also means that every year or so, it requires another layer of mobu to keep it from decomposing.

We have not added any mobu since I moved in two years ago and the cracks that develop as the house bakes in the sun are a sign that it is definitely time for a fresh layer.

She demonstrates the process for me by first smearing a thick layer of dung in a square section at the highest corner of the wall. Once coated, she sprinkles water on the section and uses her hand to smooth it out. She explains that using thin, smooth coats of mobu is considered a fine finish. Others put on a thick layer and they use their fingers to create designs, however, "rough" layers do not last as long as fine layers.

To offset the cold temperatures and cold mobu, we are using heated water. Our fingers appreciate the difference.

Once the first tema (tay-ma or section is complete, she climbs off the bench and demonstrates on the section just below it. After it is complete, she lets me try on the lowest section. When it is time to smooth the mobu, she shows me how to blend the edges between her section and mine so that the finished product will be smooth.

Again, she does the upper two sections and I do the lowest one. As we begin the third column, I offer to start on the middle section after she completes the upper one, however, she instructs me to wait and do the bottom. Without her saying so, I realize that as the beginner, I am doing the least noticeable sections so that when people visit the Chief, they will not think that we lila (dee-lah) poorly.

As we round the first corner of the house, my mother tells me I can do the middle or eye level sections. Despite having only done four sections in my entire life, I feel a great sense of accomplishment at this achievement. After each section, my mother tells me my work is beautiful.

We talk as we work. She tells me that girls in Lesotho all learn how to lila from their mothers so that they are prepared to do it when they marry. There is no way to know if a girl will marry someone with a traditional house, so it is important that all girls know how to maintain them. She laments the loss of culture that comes from girls being raised in town and therefore not learning how to lila, asking what kinds of wives those girls will be if their husband is from a rural place. She celebrates that I am eager to learn and I cannot help but think about how difficult it must be for this incredible woman to have only sons and therefore have no one to teach the traditions to.

Soon, my host mother is teaching me how to use the harder, drier mobu for patchwork around the bottom of the house. The lowest part of the house has rocks stuck in the mobu to help prevent rain and mice from damaging it. Last year, our pig created a game of trying to loosen the rocks around the bottom of my house, so there are a few spots that need big patches made.

It is the middle of the afternoon by the time we complete the third side of the house. The fourth side is for another day as it is a different color. My mother explains that she will use makaka a lidonki le lipere or donkey and horse dung to make that mobu; which is how it gets a nice orange color instead of the gray we have been using.

She shows me how the window and door frames are done. They are much trickier, so I am reduced to being an observer. As she does them, she explains that it is a much slower job to lila inside the house. It requires moving furniture and far more work at keeping things perfectly smooth. We are not doing that right now, as it is painted and gets damaged by the sun far less. I do ask her if the process for patching is the same and consequently learn how to fill in the mouse home made last year.

We begin cleaning up. I am, as usual, impressed at her ability to be elbow deep in dung all day without getting particularly dirty. While mobu was dropping the entire time we worked, her feet and pants are mostly clean. I, as usual, am not.

Before we finish, I thank my mother for showing me this traditional method and letting me help her. I am sure that teaching a beginner has slowed her down. She, on the other hand, thanks me profusely for helping her. She tells me she would not have finished until six or so without my help. I am grateful that my joining her for this unique experience has actually been helpful.

More on homes in Lesotho can be found in Constructing Dreams, Thatch to Patch, and Heise Sweet Heise.

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You should choose as your life's work whatever feels the most like play.
-Harvey Oxenhorn