Saturday, 31 October 2009

Lesotho - Singing Away the Hunger

The tagline for Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya's book Singing Away the Hunger is 'read this book if you want to get your life in perspective' and it certainly delivers a story that is hard-hitting, heart-rending, but with moments of humour thrown in.

I had to keep reminding myself that the events of the book were taking place partly during my life time. The high infant mortality rates, the overbearing superstitions and the grinding poverty put me in mind of the Ireland of Angela's Ashes - also not that long ago, by the way.

But apart from anything else Nthunya's story was inspiring. We all know that life has its ups and downs and it almost seems like fate that Nthunya met the American academic, who teased the stories out of her and brought them to the attention of a wider world.

It's incredibly important to hear stories like Nthunya's and I learned a lot about Lesotho, as her book is a kind of cultural record, as well as her own life story.

I learned about the beauty of the Maluti mountains and the almost naive faith of the Basotho people. I learned that it can snow in the mountains, that the Basotho have adopted thick English blankets as a national costume, that Christianity has had a strong impact on some Basotho people, like Nthunya's late mother.

I learned that there is a wealthy, highly-educated elite in Lesotho, especially in the University town of Roma where Nthunya spent many years cleaning rich people's houses.

I also learned about the darker side of Lesotho. A land of murderous uncles and lethal spells. A country with high-unemployment and an addiction to joala (homemade beer). I learned about Lesotho's umbilical connection with the townships of Gauteng, especially Benoni. I loved how she referred to South Africa as simply 'the Republic'. It reminds me of home, how I grew up calling Ireland 'the Republic' or 'the Free State' - an interesting comparison with South Africa.

I also learned some new words like Ntate and 'M'e (words for older men and women). I learned sangoma (traditional healer) and thokolosi (evil spirit), motsoalle (close friend), rondavel (a traditional African round house), papa (a type of porridge, which is the main staple of a Basotho diet).

Most of all, I learned to love Nthunya's story and draw strength from it. The book was published in the mid-90's and I wonder where she is now and how life has been treating her.

Image credits

The image of the flag is as in the previous post. The book cover is an image I took on my iPhone.

The amazing photo of the Basotho village with a rondavel is by flickruser rogiro - he is a professional photographer and has shared this image with us using the Creative Commons license - if you want to see more of his photos, or get in touch with him go to

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Lesotho - Khotso, Pula, Nala

Having done so many islands recently, I thought I would go for a land- based country this time, albeit one that has island-like qualities. Lesotho is a moutainous kingdom totally surrounded by South Africa.

My first question was How? How did Lesotho become an independent country, whereas the other 'nations' in this part of the world were incorporated into the union of South Africa? Well, as far as I can see there were several factors that brought Lesotho into existence.

The first was the determination of a chieftain called Moshoeshoe, who galvinised the various Basotho tribes in the early 19th century in response to an expansion of the Zulu Empire.

The second was the influence of the missionaries, who Moshoeshoe welcomed and encouraged to preach to his people (although he didn't convert to Christianity himself), thereby gaining white allies and diplomatic skills that would ensure the survival of the Basotho nation.

Most importantly was the fact that, after numerous wars with the Boers, who grabbed most of the low-lying lands, the Basotho tribes managed to get the British to agree to establish a protectorate in, what became known as, Basutoland. Being a protectorate, or crown colony, ultimately kept Basutoland out of the Union of South Africa, which happened in 1910, by default sparing the country (but not the people?) from the worst excesses of apartheid.

Sesotho is the language that people speak. Basotho is the people who speak it and Lesotho is the land of Sesotho speakers.

I get the impression they are a resiliant people. They've managed to keep their nation intact and (mostly) peaceful through the long years that their neighbours in South Africa have endured oppression. Despite being one of the poorest countries in Africa, literacy rates are high. There has been a long tradition of Basotho people going to South Africa to work in the mines in Gauteng (around Johannesburg) but this seems to have more or less come to an end.

A few years ago, there was a lot of optimism in relation to a growing textiles industry - the US had given Lesotho and some other African countries special rights to sell their textiles duty-free on the US market. This progressive move was undone by a later trade agreement with China, which saw cheap Chinese goods flood the US market and put the few textile factories in Lesotho out of business. It really hit home to me that, what nations like Lesotho need, isn't so much hand-outs from the West, but merely open access to the affluent Western consumer.

Meanwhile, Lesotho is struggling with 40% unemployment rates and one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.

From what I've read so far, I can see that Ireland has had a very close relationship with Lesotho down through the years. The country's motto 'Khotso, Pula, Nala' means 'Peace, Rain, Prosperity'. Coming from a country as wet as Ireland, I could never imagine having 'rain' as something on our wish list for the nation. I guess 'Peace and prosperity' are things most nations aspire to, but so rarely achieve.

Apart from reading a very inspiring book called Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya (more about that later), I have also been reading a blog by an American researcher who spent the best part of last year in Lesotho. It's quite interesting to get the perspective of a Westerner who's lived in the country recently, you can check it out at

Image credits:

The image of the flag is from Wikimedia Commons and is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution Sharelike 2.5 licence. The image of Moshoeshoe is also from Wikimedia Commons and is copyright free.

The image of the landscape in Lesotho is by flickruser tjeerd who is a professional photographer from Amsterdam. Thanks tjeerd for sharing this image with the flickr community.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Kiribati Ti a Bo

And so my 'journey' to Kiribati comes to an end. I've certainly learned a lot this time. Really, really enjoyed J Maarten Troost's account of his two years in Tarawa. He seems to balance quite well the contradictions of life on a Pacific island.

I guess most of us assume that Pacific island life is a bit like being in paradise. We still harbour 19th century illusions of 'the nobel savage', inspired by the paintings of Gauguin and the writings of many others. Troost is quick to point out the draw-backs of living on a hellishly hot piece of rock in the middle of nowhere, with little in the way of entertainment and a real possibility of catching a life-threatening disease.

However, he also does something which is even more important. He defends Kiribati and it's people, their resilience and outlook on life that is refreshingly different to the rest of us, the I-Matang.

Coming back to life in Washington DC after two years in Kiribati, I could really relate to his sense of separation and the reverse culture shock he experiences. Something similar happened to me on my return from almost two years in Uzbekistan. I don't think young Westerners realise, when we're embarking on these intense journeys outside the first world, just how profoundly an experience like that can change you. I know I've never looked at the world the same way again.

One thing that Troost mentions though, that I haven't experienced, was the temptation to stay in Kiribati. Like Half Dead Fred, he worries about getting marooned in a lifestyle and culture that is not his own. I never really felt tempted in that way. I was always going home from the outset and I still wonder what it is that makes people completely drop out in places like India and Thailand. I guess I might never really know this.

Anyway, couldn't find any CDs or other music from Kiribati, but good old Youtube allows me to share two I- Kiribati songs I've been listening to.

The first clip seems to have been shot by I-Kiribati ex-pats living in the Solomon islands and shows some of the joy and happiness that singing brings to I-Kiribati people. The comments with both videos are also quite telling.

The second video is obviously a love song and I like the fact that it has subtitles so you can sing along in Gilbertese!

The image is of Tahitian Women on the Beach (1891) by Paul Gauguin, and is in the public domain.

Coming next . . . L

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Kiribati Part 3

Finding a traditional Kiribati dish led me to Palu Sami. I'm not sure if this is strictly speaking a Kiribati dish, but rather a Pacific speciality and the recipe I used was one written by some Samoan ex- pats living in the States.

I must admit, I had to cross-reference the recipe with others online to convince myself that the main ingredient was really corned beef. Something I associate more with sandwiches and a 'dubious pleasure' I haven't had since childhood, corned beef is considered somewhat of a delicacy in Kiribati. It's hard to produce and preserve food on the atolls and I imagine, as it's all imported, it's probably relatively expensive. I bought the most expensive one I could find and did my best to suppress thoughts of dog food as I opened the tin.

I managed to resist the temptation to add a bit of spice to the spinach, corned beef and coconut milk and my first 'surprise' about Pacific cuisine is how bland it is. Perhaps in the back of my mind I was placing 'the Spice Islands' somewhere in the Pacific. I was thinking of the Maluku Islands in modern-day Indonesia. Although Pacific colonisation is deemed have gone West to East, they must have left their spices behind them.

My ever-patient Kalmyk-Russian partner has been very supportive of my journey through world cuisines and has been willing to try everything so far from Icelandic liver patties to Jamaican jerk chicken, with its palate-blowing Scotch bonnets. One spoonful of Palu Sami was enough to put him off for life. But then, he's not a big fan of coconut. Telling him the main ingredient was dog food probably didn't do much for his appetite either :)

I quite liked it. Wouldn't want to eat it every day, and would love to spice it up a bit - oh, and I'd probably use tinned tuna next time. Photographic evidence below:

Image credits

The photo of tinned corned beef is by flickruser GianCayetano who is a computer engineer and professional photographer from Antipolo in Rizal Province, Phillippines.