Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Blossom for a Bonbon

I found it while lying in the grass: a petrified shoe. It had a fossilized sheen, abandoned, forlorn. The stitches had been worn to nothing. Caked with weather—rain, mud, and strong mountain light had bleached it of color.  Had it been there for some time? What struck me most was that it had not been entirely discarded, as if it might be worth something to somebody someday.

I was in the mountains of Lesotho, a small landlocked country entirely within the borders of South Africa. These were austere hills, quiet, bare, and vast, a complete departure from the cosmopolitan air of Cape Town and Johannesburg.   And while the land may have seemed unspoiled at a casual glance, very little of it was actually arable, the soil ruined by subsistence farming. But the poverty of agricultural abundance was not the humanitarian crisis that Lesotho was developing an infamous reputation for.

Before my arrival in the country,  I had stumbled upon a well-thumbed World Atlas. I could find no publishing date but the geographical designations of Rhodesia, Zaire, and the USSR seemed to indicate that it could not have been edited beyond the late 1970s. The back contents had demographics charts including a breakdown on population density. Most interesting were the projected figures for global population for the year 2000: nine billion! Clearly, these experts had no idea that a severe epidemic could play such an attenuating factor in their analysis.

You cannot find a country in Sub-Saharan Africa that does not have an AIDS problem. Though Lesotho is geographically isolated by the Drakensberg Mountains, it nevertheless has one of the world's worst infection rates, an estimated thirty percent of the population. The source of the scourge is neither novel nor particularly unique.  One third of Lesotho’s male work force contracts with mining agencies operating in South Africa, most notably around Johannesburg. Needless to say, the work can be both backbreaking and humiliating.  Deprived of filial laughter, the family hearth and familiar friendships, driven by loneliness and perhaps melancholy or even desperation for some moment of hot vitality, many migrants engage with prostitutes. Taking the disease back home, they infect their wives as well as future offspring born with the disease and no chance for a healthy life.  Things are so bad in Lesotho, the life expectancy is just over 36 years of age.

As I said, the terrain is mountainous and the farmers that are able to produce crops often lose them to frequent drought. When I was walking through the countryside I passed a village that had just received a large shipment of foreign aid. Large sacks of maize were being distributed to hundreds who had lined up. Villagers that had come from over the horizon attached their rations to gaunt donkeys. It was wintertime, a crystal blue sky, and though the day was a little warm, most were bundled in large, colorful shawls and second-hand ski caps.

It is sad that this country has come to depend on foreign aid for its survival. The people of Lesotho have a proud history, especially when you consider that other than Swaziland, all the major tribes of the region had been incorporated into the European vision that was South Africa. During a critical point of land-grabbing, Lesotho had a wise and capable leader, Moshoeshoe the Great, who survived the onslaught of Shaka Zulu and his famous armies and then manipulated the local colonial powers, the British and Boers, into warring with each other. Lesotho managed to survive on its own, keeping its language and its culture intact, avoiding the devastation of apartheid, and though nominally attached to the Queen’s empire it was formally recognized as a sovereign nation in 1966.

Unfortunately, things never took off for Lesotho in modern times. It has had four decades of bad government, factional fighting, corruption, human rights abuse, riots, famines, a terribly undeveloped infrastructure and the AIDS plague: all dire symptoms of a failed state. Things are temporarily peaceful but it will take time, investment and perhaps some luck for the people to provide for themselves. 

There is a small, developing niche for tourism. In the village of Malealea, one can organize hikes, pony treks, and horse riding. The day I arrived I had gone on a walk to see some bushman paintings in a nearby cave. My guide, Ra, pointed out crude hunting sketches of men and beasts. He showed me a place where the rock formation curled out like a wave break. Here our exclamations could thus echo across the landscape, bursts of sound rippling across the air. 

Ra sang in the local choir. One could hear the poetry of the landscape in his humming as he hopped between the boulders and skipped under the trees. Ra was 26 years old. Both his parents were dead, casualties of AIDS. He lived in a small, tumbledown shack with his sister. However, Ra planned to leave for Maseru soon. Maseru was Lesotho’s capital; like most big cities in Africa it had been overwhelmed by crime and poverty. But his brother lived there and promised him a job working in a factory that produced Levi's Jeans. He hoped to earn enough to return in six months, in which he would purchase for himself four cattle. Four cattle would give him some status in the village. Cattle are big here, not for slaughter or even milk, but as a status symbol. Acquire enough cattle and the village might make you a chief.

What could happen to the man with a song in his heart who leaves these golden, but infertile fields for factories? At best, Ra spoke like a dreamer; at worst, a man suffering delusions. Optimistically, he had the future mapped out in his head.  But the city could defile individuals, either in a physical manifestation like AIDS or a spiritual one like desperation and despair--it could rob you of your hope, which is all many people here really had that had not been ruined. The city could destroy a beautiful man and I didn't know if Ra could leave and come back, still singing in the soft, simple innocence he did that golden afternoon.

The overnight pony trek I embarked on the following day would take me through the valley and over the hills, about forty kilometers in distance. The landscape was lovely yet rugged and not a little bit surrealistic. There was plenty of typical highland shrubbery but also cactus plants: needled flapjacks stacked atop each other’s heads. There were aloe family bushes, green strips flaming out, sharp and thorny.  They looked carnivorous, as if they might devour unsuspecting birds alighting for a brief moment in appreciation. Aloe trees spurted from some of these plants, growing ten meters in height, great green stalks interspersed with thin, weedy branches like a psychedelic coat hanger in Dr. Seuss's foyer. Particularly gorgeous were the peach tree blossoms in full bloom. This was late winter and these flowers were the harbinger of spring. Along with the shaggy-haired weeping willows,  they had been brought over in the nineteenth century by Swiss and French missionaries: Jesus with a bouquet of feminine winsomeness. What sweeter lure to the Hereafter than the gorgeous pink of the blossoms, their delicate, ethereal intricacy.

Travel through the valley goes across highlands, along steep cliffs and down ravines into dried-up river beds, back up rocky hillsides and then into meadows of tall, yellowing grass and tiny, slumberous villages of mud brick walls and conical roofs held together with matted straw. Along the streams women washed their laundry, dousing the colors, scrubbing. Later in the afternoon I spotted farmers' wives carrying home baskets of food balanced effortlessly above their heads. There were some men in the fields. The farming was indeed small-scale: the crops plowed by oxen cart.

However, most villages seemed to belong to the children. Upon seeing me ride in, they broke from the lethargy to come scurrying up in greeting, some saying ‘Hello’ but most crying out ‘Give me sweets! Give me bonbon!’ So desperate for a piece of Cadbury they risked dismemberment hurrying barefoot dangerously along the pony's stride, following a very great distance behind me sometimes, vain hopes that a day’s monotony could be broken by a bonbon. 

Eventually, I realized that there was more to this than a hankering for chocolate. For what could the beauty of landscapes really truly mean in comparison to the rumblings of empty bellies?

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005

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