Friday, October 8, 2010

University Graduation Party: Lesotho

Graduation weekend went down for the National University a couple weeks ago in Lesotho and I was lucky enough to be invited to a graduation party in a village outside of Maseru. I accepted the invitation immediately, excited about the chance to get out of the city and observe a community celebrating the educational achievements of one of its own.

I was traveling to the unfamiliar village by myself. After wandering around from car park to car park looking for the correct vehicle and after turning down numerous offers to be driven to my destination in a private taxi for only 50 times the normal rate, I finally found the appropriately marked car. On such a busy day as graduation day it wasn't long before the car was full, all of us squeezed beyond comfort, overflowing on to each other. Beads of sweat formed on my face in the mid-afternoon heat as the car weaved through the traffic leaving town. On the outskirts of the city we picked up some enthusiastic young guys carrying oblong paper bags. With smiles on their faces they turned back from the row in front of me and offered me a sip from their obscured bottles. I politely declined.

The car chugged on as the density of the city declined and rocky hills emerged. Eventually the conductor clicked a handful of coins in my direction, indicating it was my turn to pay. Bulky backpack on my lap, butt numb on the thin layer of foam covering the rough metal seat, I struggled to burrow into my pocket for the fare. After some delicate searching my hand finally triumphantly produced the required coinage and I passed it along to the conductor. I sighed and began staring out the window (a favorite past time of mine), determined to engage my visual memory in an attempt to internalize the route. It wasn't long however before I was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder, it was one of my drinking buddies from the row in front of me, gesturing towards the conductor. I glanced over to see the conductor holding up the larger of the coins I had given him and saying “Bad money, bad money, bring new money.” Confused, I instinctively looked back to the paper bag wielding guy, my closest friend on the bus. He too echoed the statement, “bad money, it's no good.” At that point I had my “aha moment” and finally discerned that one of the the coins I had provided to the conductor was counterfeit. He handed the imposter coin back to me and sure enough, upon close examination the silver embossed symbol of cattle was indeed scratched, revealing a copper color underneath. I wondered if the people in the vehicle thought I was trying to pull some scam. I managed to blurt out in my defense, “hey, I didn't know”, but who knows how convincing that was. I reached back into my compressed pocket and produced a replacement coin, though in the process the imposter coin dropped with a clink into the abyss of feet below.

I returned to my window and watched as the houses outside were left behind, most of them decent sized cement structures since we were still relatively close to town, with the occasional circular thatched mud hut. After awhile I began to get that feeling where you think you may have gotten on the wrong bus, the objects you've been told to look for just don't seem to be appearing. I asked my drinking friend if we had passed my stop and he was able to reassure me somehow in his mumbly voice that indeed we had not, though we would be arriving soon. True to his word, I soon found the vehicle stopped at a seemingly random spot on the road and I was ushered out. Across the street I noticed a manifestation of one of the few businesses that makes a regular profit in the villages, the public bar. Upon arrival at the bar, I asked for directions to my destination and surprisingly they were delivered promptly and rather clearly by a man who dropped and ignored his hat as he spoke. I followed the dusty paths as I had been told until I reached the modest house on the hillside with the circus-like tent in its yard.

I arrived well before the graduate's caravan from the university and so I was able to get comfortable with my surroundings. I introduced myself to the family preparing for the event and was able to practice my rusty Sesotho with a few unlucky kids. I marveled at the impossibly large pots of food and did a dance with a particularly agile grandmotherly woman wearing a traditional Seshoeshoe dress who was quite fond of sticking out her tongue at me as she shook her body. When the caravan led by the graduated young woman arrived a delightfully welcome chaos ensued. Arms were thrust into the air and the atmosphere was replete with ululations. The graduate, proud yet shy, took her place at the high table under the tent, behind what appeared to be a decorative bonzai tree. A circle formed and it was time for speeches. Her father, a professor at the university, spoke first, followed friends and family, then finally the guest of honor took the spotlight and said a few quick words. With all protocols dutifully observed the time many in the crowd had been waiting for was upon us and the massive pots of food emerged to pay their respects. Queues formed for the adults and the children, the DJ blasted his beats and fingers were well licked. Besides the occasional broken glass and plate and the untimely tumbling of the table upon which the giant bowl of buttery green beans rested, one could call the party a success. It was refreshing to observe a tented gathering where hearts were filled not with sadness, but with joy.

As the sun burned red and hung low in the sky I departed. It was not until darkness prevailed however, that I arrived home. I was satiated. I had a full belly and a satisfied mind, my cultural experience in Lesotho having been greatly enhanced over the course of the day. Sleep came easy.

Below are a few shots I took of the celebration:

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