It’s been over a month since I arrived in Lesotho and gained a new identity. I’m no longer Jillian, but that’s getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.
A few weeks ago, I bumped along a dirt road in a Peace Corps van, en route to my new home of Ha Ramonyaloe. I was jet-lagged, nervous, and frantically taking blurry photos of the unfamiliar landscape out the car window.
We pulled up at the moreneng (chief’s house), and the chaos of Pre-Service Training officially began. I could hardly get out of the car because bo-‘m’e (mothers, or women more broadly) had surrounded it while dancing, singing, blowing whistles, and jostling each other to shake our hands.
One by one, we went forward to meet our host mothers. As each trainee was called, our mother introduced us to the group by our new Sesotho name.
This is where my new identity comes in. No Basotho knows me as Jillian. Instead, I am Bohlale, which means “smart” in Sesotho. It’s pronounced “Bo – spitty noise in the front of your mouth – le,” which I still haven’t mastered. The children in my village laugh and correct me every time I try, but I love my name, and my ‘M’e prides herself on its uniqueness.
As Bohlale, my life is utterly different than the life that Jillian once led.
I wake up in time to watch the sun rise over the mountains, and then I start my morning chores. First, I empty the pee bucket, which I use at night because aggressive dogs make it dangerous to leave the house after dark to use the latrine. Then, I heat water over my stove and take a bucket bath, the technique of which I’m still refining. Finally, I sweep my room to get rid of the inch or so of dust that manages to accumulate on my floor every night. For breakfast I either eat hard-boiled eggs and bohobe (thick, steamed bread) or lesheleshele (“la-shilly-shilly,” sorghum porridge that tastes like cream of wheat).
At 7:30, class begins. I study Sesotho every day, and I’ve been improving faster than I thought possible. It’s incredibly rude not to greet everyone you pass in the village, and I can now do the standard greeting, make small talk, and describe what I’m doing in Lesotho.
After a few hours of language class, the trainees living with me in Ha Ramonyaloe walk to another school, where we meet with our entire training group of 36 for technical training, safety and health sessions, and topical trainings ranging from gender in development to HIV/AIDS. Our instructors are mostly Basotho, including employees of the national teaching college and the Ministry of Education. Every week, experienced Peace Corps Volunteers join our training to share their own experiences. We’ve met the Ambassador of the U.S. to Lesotho and the Peace Corps Lesotho Director (who, fun fact, graduated from my high school!).
After school, and after bonding with my training group at the local “resting shelter” or “cultural center” (er, bar), I head home to my host family. I live with my mother, ‘M’e Mathabapedi, who is quite the matriarch. My older abuti (brother) Majoke and his wife Matumo both live at home for the time being with their baby Tumo. We also live with three young cousins, Mpho, Ntisane, and Thabisang, who I consider my siblings.
We live on a farm, so there are always animals around. More importantly, the baby animal count is high. We have a baby cow, more chicks than I can count, and four perfect month-old puppies. I’ve already chosen one that I’ll buy (for the equivalent of $2.50) and take to site with me. My family watches the way I play with her with looks on their faces that imply I’ve taken things to a new level of “crazy American.” Animals here all have a practical purpose, and playing with them is just a strange way to get yourself covered in dirt and insects.
I usually play with the kids and the puppies until it’s time to help my sister-in-law make dinner. She has been teaching me to make all the staple foods of Lesotho: papa (bland maize paste used as a base for almost every meal), moroho (mixed vegetables cooked in oil and a lot of salt), chicken, pumpkin, beets, eggs, and beans. Soon, I’ll be set free to cook for myself.
After dinner, I stay up for a few hours chatting with my brother and sister-and-law in the candlelit kitchen. They help me practice Sesotho, but their English is also fantastic, and they’re becoming close friends who help me understand the nuances of life here. We talk about everything, and one night they even convinced me to sing the Star Spangled Banner.
Life as Bohlale is still new. It’s fast-paced, and everything is still unfamiliar enough to be exciting and confusing. There have been definite ups and downs as I settle in, but more than anything, I’m so happy here. I’ve seen more sunrises here than in my entire life in the U.S. When I open my front door during the day, I can see the towering mountains marking the border with South Africa and usually a few donkeys. At night, there are more stars than I thought possible. My family has gone above and beyond to make me feel welcome and to help me understand Basotho customs and values, and the group of trainees has become another kind of family.
In a lot of ways, the past few weeks have felt more like months, and it feels difficult to communicate everything I’ve experienced, so I’m not going to try. Instead, to introduce you to Bohlale and Peace Corps life in a series of sound bytes, I’m going to end by quoting some things that I’ve said since arriving that I never imagined would escape my mouth:
- “Is that a jaw bone on the ground?”
- “I know everyone who’s pooped in their pee bucket so far.”
- “You see the donkey that my little brother is beating? Does it belong to my family or yours?”
- “We thought I had a bedbug infestation, but it’s actually an infestation of bugs that live on the chickens that live on my roof.”
- “My ‘M’e is not a fan of the way I do laundry, but she only speaks fast Sesotho, so I don’t know how to change my technique to make her happy.”
- “Actually, I’m not sure what the staple food of America is. No, it’s not papa.”
- “So the only American celebrities you’ve heard of are Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo, and George W. Bush?”
- “Sure, I’ll pray before dinner, but only if I can do it in English.”
- “Yes, Americans also menstruate.”
- “Yesterday I fell backwards out of my latrine.”
- “When you say you saw a face-sized spider, was it more like your face size or mine?”
- “No, unfortunately, I don’t know Rihanna personally.”
I’m going to try to post more frequently from here on out, but I don’t have electricity or wifi, so I’ll be blogging on “Africa time.” I’ve also updated my contact information. To the people who have already made my day with letters/packages: thank you!!