Thursday, February 26, 2009

Throwing a Party

My parents throw a lot of parties. After 9 graduation parties, 2 Rectorpaloozas, and innumerable other any-excuse-for-a-party parties, they have devised a reliable and predictable model. First, they call Red Hot and Blue, a barbeque joint in Laurel, Maryland, and order a tray of pulled pork. Then they order a large bucket of pasta salad from Costco and a few trays of Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets. A few neighbors bring a side dish, we put the deck furniture on the lawn, borrow a volleyball net and a picnic table from the Falks, put out some drinks, and the party is ready. It is a recipe for success.

Last week, Bridget and I learned the recipe for a successful party in Lesotho.

The occasion for a party was Nthabeleng’s birthday. Our fearless leader was turning 38 and we needed to celebrate. But in a world where Red Hot and Blue doesn’t exist, where you can’t get a 6 foot Subway sub (though I really wish I could right now…), where ground beef comes with a healthy dose of gristle, and where the closest thing to Costco is a store we call “Big China”, it turns out the most cost-effective way to feed a party of 50 is to buy a sheep, kill it, butcher it, and then cook it. So that’s what we did.

Luckily, finding a sheep is no problem in Lesotho. Sheep, cattle, goats, donkeys, and horses are all as commonplace as people. They are more commonplace than cars. So four days before the party, Nthabeleng came into the office and announced she was going to get the sheep. “Where?” we asked. “Up the street,” she replied. And so she did.

She was back in about 15 minutes, having literally just walked up the street to the post office where she found a shepherd with a small flock of sheep and made an offer. We had passed this shepherd innumerable times when picking up mail, without any idea that he was open for business. After securing the appropriate paperwork (stock theft is big here in Lesotho, so you need a certificate of legal ownership before buying an animal), we gave the shepherd R780 (about $80) and the shepherd and his friend brought the sheep down the street to TTL. In the span of an hour, we had found and purchased our sheep and we were off to a good start.

Although I assumed the sheep had a few more days to live – the party wasn’t until Saturday – it was not to be. A few of the male employees at TTL got back from an outreach visit, eyed the sheep, and started to get excited. The action began immediately.

We braced ourselves for a gruesome scene, but were surprised by the dignity and calmness of the whole process. Fusi dug a small hole in the ground. Thabang and Koenane led the sheep, kicking, but with a rather resigned air, over towards the hole and laid it down on its side. A few of us joined in to hold its legs. With our rather dull kitchen knives, they quickly slit the throat and then broke the neck, letting the arterial blood flow into the small hole and minimizing the pain.

The sheep didn’t make a sound. It kicked a few times, convulsively, and in less than a minute the body went limp.

Now the men slit the skin down the middle of the belly and started pushing the skin and wool away from the body with their hands. Ellen and I joined in the process. The body was warm, but surprisingly bloodless, and the skin peeled away easily.

Skinned and headless, you could start to forget already that the animal had been living and breathing only minutes before. Methodically and efficiently, Fusi opened the abdomen and cut out the organs and entrails, tossing all the insides into one of our pots. Fusi and Moeletsi grabbed the now-clean carcass and lobbed it onto the barb-wired fence to dry out, while children passed by on their way home from school.

The intestinal track required a little extra work. The enormous stomach was opened to reveal what looked like a lawnmower-bag full of grass, which was emptied and rinsed We came around the side of the safehouse to see a funny pink tube lying on the grass—realizing only after a moment that Fusi and Koenane had cleverly attached the intestines to the garden hose in order to flush them of “debris.” Once completely cleaned, the intestinal track was cut into pieces and added to the pot with the heart, lungs, trachea, liver, and dozens of other unidentifiable parts, all chopped to bite size pieces. The pot was spiced liberally, then taken to the kitchen and put on the stove.

Meanwhile, Moeletsi removed the carcass from the fence and he and Fusi hacked it into large pieces: legs of lamb, racks of ribs, etc. The mekhooa took it upon ourselves to try to preserve the skin—stretching it and pinning it down with nails, washing and salting it, and leaving it to dry in the sun. Nothing was wasted. Two hours after the sheep was purchased from behind the post office, the whole process was complete. Depending on traffic on I-95, it can take longer to drive to Red Hot and Blue. I was impressed.

Bridget and I went back to the office to finish a grant proposal. We talked about what the Basotho thought of us as we gawked through the whole process, anxious to get involved but completely inexperienced. Every Basotho man on the premises had helped and seemed to know exactly what to do. Americans are not fit for survival in this environment, we concluded. The whole process was over, and we were back to our own natural habitat: office work.

Then Thabang came into the office and motioned for me to come outside. Willing but a little nervous, I followed him towards the side of the safe-house where I found all of the men standing over a steaming pot. “Grab a piece,” Ntate Moeletsi instructed me.

I was now part of a male ritual: the post-slaughter eating of the entrails. So I reached for the most meat-like piece I could find - what I believed to be either liver or heart. I chewed on the piece for a solid three minutes as the five Basotho men in the circle took turns diving into the pot for pieces. “Have another,” Ntate Moeletsi told me. Despite my slow-chewing tactics, I still had to eat 6 or 7 total pieces before the pot was exhausted. Liver isn’t bad. Neither is lung. I wouldn’t recommend the unidentified-chewy-fatty piece, though. After joining the other men in drinking the broth from the pot with a spoon, the whole process was complete. Plus, I had proved my manhood to a group of Basotho guys.

Three days later, we fired up the grill and had a great party. As I bit into my first piece of hand-prepared mutton, I felt a sense of satisfaction.

Bridget, we’re not in Maryland anymore.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ordering a Hamburger at the Mokhotlong Hotel: A Play in Three Acts


Eight mekhooa sit around a table in an empty dining room. Under florescent lights, they ponder a paper menu listing a plethora of fine-dining options. After thirty minutes, a waiter approaches.

Waiter: Hello. (points to menu). We have only fish and chips and peri-peri chicken.

Chorus: Nothing on the next three pages?

Bridget: No hamburgers at all?

Waiter: No, no hamburgers. (pause). There are no buns.

Bridget: Oh, ok. But you have the meat?

Waiter: Yes

Bridget: Well what if we order a hamburger on bread? Would that work?

Waiter: (pause). Yes, ok.

MJ: So seriously, though, you don’t have anything on the last three pages of the menu?

Waiter: No.

Taylor: Um, but if you have bread and cheese, could I just have the toasted cheese sandwich on page 2?

Waiter: Let me check.

Scene fades with seven hungry people drinking quarts of Castle Lager and looking rather despondently at their menus.


Same positions, ten minutes later.

Waiter: Yes, ok, toasted cheese. (returns to kitchen)

A man enters from outside wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

Man: Ok, ok, so seven burgers? But you know no buns?

Chorus: Yes, I think we can manage.

Man: Ok, but you want something else on the burger? Cheese? Mushrooms?

Ellen: Oh yeah, cheese would be great.

Bridget: Oh, and mushrooms on mine, please.

Man: We have no mushrooms.

Bridget: Huh?

Man departs through kitchen door

Jamie: Who was that?

Bridget: I think he was the chef.

Reid: Really? I just saw him drinking with some friends at the bar.


Forty-five minutes pass. The waiter returns bearing hamburgers, which he places in front of each person at the table. Everyone looks closely.

Chorus: Wha?

Reid: Um, are these buns?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Babies: Part 2

Here is part two - the little guys:


Teboho came to the safehouse from Thaba-Tseka after being referred because his mother was critically ill. She was HIV-positive, but had defaulted on her medication, and when Ellen and Will helped bring her back from the hospital (having been discharged after starting TB treatment) she was so sick and weak that they had to carry her to the car, and even hold a can of Coke to her lips because she was too enervated to lift her hand. Fortunately, Teboho tested negative for HIV, and has been a healthy and happy addition to TTL. Also, he never closes his mouth. Seriously, I have yet to see the boy with his mouth shut. Which is great, because it allows copious amounts of drool to drip out at all times:


A fierce competitor of Teboho’s for the title of “Most Drool Expelled in a 24-hour Period,” Rethabile is probably the cutest thing any of us have ever seen. He has bizarrely crinkled elf-ears, never stops smiling, and is perfectly content to sit for hours, scissor-kicking his legs. At least seven plots have been uncovered throughout the volunteers and staff to abscond with the little guy (i.e. I have villainously exposed said plots in a effort to keep him all for myself). Rethabile is healthy and thriving, but was taken from his 72-year old grandmother because it was difficult for her to care for a small infant.


Tholang was one of the two babies that Reid and I brought in on our first day of outreach, back in September, and therefore holds a special place as we have been able to see the full scope of his progress from severely malnourished three-month old to normal, smiling 7-month old. We call him the “little old man” because of a certain combination of downturned eyebrows and double chin. Tholang’s mother was critically ill with TB when he came to TTL, but is doing much better now and a reunion is now imminent. (Note: The reunion took place yesterday, and he is now back with his mother and grandparents.)


Boithatelo, 5-months, arrived at TTL in December, but was admitted to the hospital after her vomiting and diarrhea became severe. She is now back in the safehome, and doing very well. Her mother is 16-years old and HIV-positive. Though Boithatelo rapid-tested positive for HIV, for breastfeeding babies this test can be inaccurate, so we are still waiting on the results of her DNA/PCR test.


Three-month old Puleng’s mother is also 16, and a double-orphan. Because she has no other support at home and is trying to finish high school, TTL agreed to take Puleng while she attends classes. Puleng is a healthy child, with some of the chubbiest cheeks this side of Plumpino.


Nako arrived only today, with no other information than his mother has been admitted to the hospital with HIV-related problems. Since she was not expecting to be admitted her sister-in-law asked us to the care for the baby while the mother is undergoing treatment. Nako appears to be doing well so far.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


It has been a while since we did a thorough update on the babies in the safehome, and in the interim a whole new era has begun. Of the eight babies comprising the Fab Four and Wee Ones, only Tholang and Tsepo are still in the house. Relebohile, aka Plumpino, was reunified on Monday, thus sadly ending a string of the cutest pictures you may ever see, but we will try to fill the void with these new faces:


Reid wrote about Mokete after the first day of seeing him on outreach, when he was little more than a skeleton wracked by HIV and TB. Now on plenty of medication and considerable bowlfuls of “papa le nama” (papa, the traditional corn meal porridge, and meat—some of Mokete’s first words at TTL), Mokete is turning into a funny and active three-year old little boy. Still preferring to cuddle on someone’s lap than run around, he has also proved to be a leader of the other older kids, often chiding them, “Uh unh Semethe, Uh unh” with a wag of his finger.


Matseliso, also three-years old, came to us in December because her mother was in the hospital and she was receiving insufficient care from her father. When she arrived she was acutely malnourished, and with a huge abscess on her stomach. She also tested positive for HIV. Over the past month and a half she has fattened up considerably, her abscess has healed, and she has become the chattiest member of the playroom. She loves playing games, especially one which involves “pepa-ing”—strapping a doll to her back in imitation of how the bo’m’e traditionally carry babies.


Semethe arrived within days of Matseliso, an acutely malnourished two-year old. Though he is HIV-negative, his situation was critical because he had fallen ill with vomiting and diarrhea just after his mom gave birth to a second baby, and was not receiving proper care. By the time we returned from our Christmas break, Semethe had transformed from a silent and withdrawn child into a little boy who tears around the room, laughing and getting into everything. He is also very affectionate with the other children.


We refer to Tsepo as “grumpy Tsepo” because, though he has been here as long as any of the babies, he absolutely howls any time a white person so much as looks at him. Reid has tried to remedy the situation by holding him (a kind a Ferberized-method of affection), but with disappointingly little gains. On the upside, Tsepo’s health continues to flourish, and he will be reunified soon with his grandfather (a septuagenarian caring for several other grandchildren). Perhaps we can get him to crack a smile at us before he goes….

Or, maybe not.

Stay tuned for the next installment of the little guys!