Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Beautiful Songs of Rural Lesotho

This is ultimately a story about diarrhea and adult education, but no need to squirm if you are squeamish. It is a pleasant story about diarrhea if such a thing exists. To begin, however, we must turn to that other fundamental human activity: music.

Music in Lesotho is a vibrant part of the culture, embedded in the daily routine of life and omnipresent in the shops and public transportation throughout town. Some of this music takes the form of absurdly loud Famo, music built around shrill accordion melodies and pounding bass lines and inevitably played through expensive-looking and terrible-sounding public address systems. (Our neighbor is particularly fond of this type of music, especially between the hours of 9 pm and 5 am on any given night.) In addition to the ubiquitous Famo, however, Lesotho also abounds with lovely songs that make an appearance at any gathering of people. These songs sound like a combination of Gregorian chant and spiritual hymnals and induce feelings of tranquility and spirituality. I always imagine that these are the “Amazing Graces” and “We Shall Overcomes” of the Basotho, and I am impressed by the interwoven harmonies and seemingly complex patterns of call and response. They are known by men, women, and children, and everyone is expected to dance and sing along once they begin.

Each month, we conduct trainings for a group of Village Health workers on various health issues and I am treated to at least 3 or 4 of these songs. The Village Health workers are a lively bunch of women between the ages of 40 and 150 (no joking, one woman looks like she might have been alive when Lincoln was president) and the sense of camaraderie during the training sessions is always high. Any downtime during the training sessions - whether to wait for late arrivals or to excuse the moderator while she uses the restroom – is filled with songs. One woman will start singing and others will quickly join. Within minutes the whole room of 42 women is standing, singing, and dancing. I usually smile and clap along during the songs, oblivious to the meaning of the lyrics, but enjoying the tunes. Occasionally, I will make a small gesture towards dancing and am greeted by big smiles and laughter: “Look, the mekhooa is dancing!”

Last month was the fifth training we have held for these women, so I was not surprised at all when I heard the familiar songs begin. But moved by an unusual curiosity this day, I asked Matello for a translation of what they were singing, expecting something along the lines of “God is great”. But here is what they were actually singing:

Let us build the toilets

And Wash the Hands

To prevent the diarrhea

On the word diarrhea, they held their hands behind their butts and wiggled their fingers. A clearly brilliant move destined to be used in charades some day if anyone is ever bold enough to include the word diarrhea in the title of their work of art. Witnessing the spectacle of 42 grown - even elderly - women singing a solemn hymn to the anti-diarrhea cause while making a borderline lewd gesture, I couldn’t stop laughing. Life in Lesotho can be too strange sometimes.

With my curiosity now piqued, I listened closely as they started in on another song. Maybe all of their songs are that absurd, I thought. I pictured the many hours I sat listening to these hymns and realized I had been missing out all along. So I asked what this new song was about. “It is not that funny,” Matello informed me. Still, I wanted a translation:

Adult Education is Interesting

We Have Been Telling You

Adult Education is Interesting

Yes, indeed. It is.

(This post by Reid)

No comments: