My “here” has cinderblock walls, a corrugated metal roof, and linoleum floors. Here holds a kitchen with a gas stove, two chairs, and a table; a bedroom with a mattress that is really a box spring; a bathroom with a toilet but no toilet seat. I have a batik from Mozambique and curtains I tie-dyed, basins and OMO wash powder, a broom and DOOM insect spray. I have books and papers and a pile of my students’ black exercise books that smell of smoke. Dust and light, dog barks and rooster crows float in through the unscreened windows. Here I eat from a blue tin dish, sit on one of the chairs, and watch the sky darken. I go to bed in my clothes on the cold nights; in the morning I wake up, drink coffee, eat the bread I baked yesterday, and watch the light grow. I open a wooden door onto a dirt yard, juniper trees, a maize field on the other side of the gravel road, and a road that leads up to the mission school where the Peace Corps has assigned me to teach. The road has no name so my neighbors and I call it Blue Moon Road after the blue moon that lights the night sky soon after we arrive here: planet Earth, continent of Africa, region of Southern Africa, country of Lesotho, district of Mohale’s Hoek, village of Holy Cross.
Starting from “here,” my home next to the school, Retsepile lives “near” or “just there” in the village of Ha Rabele. Other near villages are Ha Litaba (Place of Mountains), Ha Motlomela, Ha Moshe, Marabeng, Matlaleng, Blue Gums. Many of my students walk each day from these villages, and from Ha Nkau and Thibella, some from Ha Phatlalla and Ha Mothe, Seaka and Motse Mocha. Old maps also display the village names “Ha George” and “Ha Peter,” and our place is “Holy Cross.” Strangely familiar. From first through eighth grade I attended school at Holy Cross in eastern Wisconsin, in a small (in all ways) town five miles from where my family lived. Here at the Southern African Holy Cross we live at least fifteen miles from any town, in the district of Mohale’s Hoek, named after King Moshoeshoe’s half-brother who was the first chief of this district.
To reach places near Holy Cross we travel on foot, tsamaea ka maoto. We ramble, chaka, we walk quickly, penya-penya, or we run, matha. We sometimes go astray and have to ask someone to point us in the right direction. People who busily go many places are said to be “going up and down, up and down.” The first time I see a soccer game I’m with Sister Anna who describes the movement of the players as “running around like disturbed atoms!”
In our near world, a village more than a town, where we ramble, run, walk, and wander, we have our soccer pitch, our cluster of shops in front of which we wait for a bus, the red-fronted Bakoena (Crocodile) Trading Post, the Post Office where we find the postmistress sitting outside against whichever side of the building makes shade in the summer, or against the sunny side in the winter. We have our smaller vegetable shops, the one shop with a solar panel and cooler of cold soda, we have our egg circle and shebeens, the silver flash of corrugated metal roofs over places to buy paraffin, papa le moroho. There’s a seamstress, a young man with a camera, and an old mechanic. The path between all this and the school is dusty and dazzlingly bright. The sun expands in the cloudless sky and always seems to shine directly into our eyes, the heat of it bleaching the sky to light-blue, the light to white, and we squint as we walk into it until everything blurs, grows, doubles, the near world abundant.
The language of Sesotho has ten noun classes; the country of Lesotho has ten districts. The camp-towns in each district, which began as British administrative camps, have similar colonial sandstone buildings that now house Post Offices, banks, and police stations. Like numbers on a crooked clock face (maybe reflecting Lesotho’s informal relationship to minutes and hours), the district centers splay themselves in a vague circle around the country, accommodating the Maloti Mountains that run from the southwest to the northeast, and the Drakensberg range on Lesotho’s eastern border. In the north, near twelve o’clock, is the district of Butha Buthe, then, moving clockwise around the country: Mokhotlong, Thaba Tseka, Qacha’s Nek, Quthing, Mohale’s Hoek (my home, seven o’clock), then Mafeteng, Maseru (home to the capital city), then Berea and Leribe.
When from Mohale’s Hoek we travel to these ten, eleven, twelve, one, or two o’clock districts, we travel far. Distance is measured by whether or not it can be covered between sunrise and sunset; if not, it is “far!” (Mane-MANÉ!). People walk partway in late afternoon and spend the night where they have a friend, moving again as soon as the sun rises in order to reach their final destination before the next turn of the earth.
In these far mountainous districts you can find the National Park of Sehlabathebe in the east where six Peace Corps women can hike for five days and be lost for two of those days without seeing another human. In central Lesotho are Molimo Nthuse (God Help Me) Pass and Semonkong with its famous waterfall, “The Smoke That Thunders.” In these far places you can find cave paintings and dinosaur prints and mountains so high and steep that from halfway up looking down makes you dizzy.
Behind, alongside, down the road from, but definitely near the sandstone buildings of each camp-town lurks a bus stop or bus “rink” or bus “ring.” Few people own cars, so if any of us travel anywhere far, we begin at a bus stop.
Mohale’s Hoek, Mafeteng, Quthing, or Maseru, whichever camp-town bus stop I’m near, I sense it before I see it, like sensing an auditorium packed with people behind a closed door, a three-ring circus with elephants behind tent flaps. The bus stop exudes a special blend of rural smoke and urban exhaust, chickens and perfume, roasted corn and radios, cowbells and hair braids, steamed bread and horn honks. Order resides in the apparent disorder: buses and taxi-vans look parked every which way and are landlocked by other buses and vans, but everything flows, moves, churns, turns, roils, and rolls; one van or bus fills up, honks, snorts exhaust, and drives off, and another takes its place.
Small cooking fires flicker on the ground like landing signals. Women sell peaches and pears and thick slices of steamed bread from basins they balance on their heads. The buoyant fruit and bread bobs along the windows for passengers to see, up above the cradled pots of chicken feet and sheep’s head, above the conductors hollering, “Where to? Where to?” and the jingle of coins, press of warm bodies, the dust and elbows and ankles. When the space around people’s feet fills up, the bus stop builds itself vertically: on top of the ancient buses, conductors strap boxes and bags, crates and tins, maize meal and paraffin, even a sheep that struggles with a woolly rustle against being raised into the sky.
At bus stops I buy makoena, fatcakes of deep-fried sweet dough, roasted maize, greasy chips, or beer. This is the land of junk jewelry, cheap perfume, plastic combs, and toy phones, and I could buy soap, mirrors, headscarves, umbrellas, or walking sticks if I wanted to. For anything I want but don’t see, all I have to do is ask a little boy who will disappear and reappear with whatever I’ve asked for, Zambuk eucalyptus balm or Stoney Ginger soda, and tell me what it costs: “fifty cents.” Rusty white taxis play their tinny radios and bright red taxis fly by with bumping stereos, one’s name painted in script on the rear window: “Lover Man Love More.”
I might almost feel anonymous here, but then a boy sees me and suddenly thinks in English, “Hello, my sister!” or a young woman tells me I could be for her brother— she could teach me to cook—or an old woman calls me “dear child,” ngoanesu. And the conductors never stop calling, “Where to? Where to?” so after eating and shopping and gawking and growing dusty, I finally choose a taxi or bus and pay my money, a maloti note with a picture of King Moshoeshoe, sweaty from my palm.
My Basotho friends say “mona,” “mané” or “Mané-MANE” to convey distance. My Peace Corps friends and I begin by guessing at the number of miles, then translate our guesses into kilometers, and finally join in saying “it is near,” “it is far,” “it is just there,” or “it is too far!” If we’re unsure of distance, we set out for our destination at dawn, leaving our watches behind. We sketch maps to help each other navigate from here to there, near to far across Lesotho, maps whose landmarks are Braille for foreign myopia. What leaps forth for us is the pink-walled fruit shop at the edge of an open field, a dry riverbed, a giant aloe plant.
We revert to grade school drawings in these maps: a sun with separate rays, rectangular-bodied dogs, and human stick figures with catchers’ mitts for hands and individual hairs springing from round heads. Art teachers and psychologists say that before formal instruction, when we drew with fat crayons and dripping paint brushes, we had an innate sense of balance in our compositions, positioning the sun in the corner opposite of a peaked roof, and that we revealed our fears and desires in the way we depicted a second story without windows or drew ourselves standing snugly between two adults. What’s revealed about our maps, here? We draw on large pieces of paper, beginning the maps on one side and continuing them on the reverse, the length and time of the journey uncontained, revealing our impression of Lesotho as wide open, and destinations far, far apart—if not in place, then in time: we travel all day to reach a place one hundred miles away.
We draw a star to mark an otherwise unmarked location—we have never seen such bright stars as we do here, where the stars cluster so thickly, far from any electricity. We make up our own map legends, translating Lesotho to our eyes. Two or more huts mean a village; X marks a camp-town. A straight line conveys a road for vehicles; a meandering line is a path to follow on foot. Our maps reveal the upside-down V’s of mountains everywhere. If a water source exists it stands out in blue, the one colorized object in an otherwise black and white composition. Outhouses, being rare, appear on our maps because they serve so successfully as distinct landmarks. Groves of trees, also rare and usually indicating the site of a mission school, sometimes appear as the sole mile-marker, so exclusive that they merit both image and word description. If we pass by the grove regularly we might even know the exact number of trees (two parallel rows of eleven); we take the time to fill in individual leaves and sketch in a few falling through the air.
A peppery ribbon equals a sandy riverbank; a pod and twig on the near shore indicate a rowboat to carry us across. A cigarette levitates, suggesting that we tip the boatman. Arrows pointing straight toward the top of the paper prepare us for a steep climb; a snaking line lets us know we’ll have to wend our way up the side of a bluff. “Hele!” “Ow!” and other local exclamations written on the map let us know how breathless we’ll be when we reach the top.
Instead of directions like “turn north” or “continue for three kilometers” a map may instruct: “ask someone where to find my house.” And someone always sees us stepping off the bus or climbing out of a hitched ride or cresting a hill on foot, someone ready to help before we ask, someone who knows what our question will be because he or she knows we are Peace “Corpse” and are here to visit our friend. This someone points in the direction we need to walk, and if we feel uncertain after walking for a while, another someone always appears to point again and reassure.
I decide it’s safe enough to hitchhike here, but not alone. Then one morning I’m heading out to visit Canada Kim, waiting for the bus to Quthing where I’ll find another bus to Mt. Moorosi where the paved road ends, and then hopefully another along the dirt road to Mphaki. But nothing comes. The bus must have broken down, or there’s a holiday I don’t know about. Either way, no bus or taxi. I see a small truck coming and, forgetting my own rule, I lift my arm, elbow straight and palm down, and float it up and down a few times—the way they hitchhike here. The truck stops. I look in at the man, and since my stomach does not tell me no, I climb in.
The man works for the Ministry of Education, and when we hit potholes he good-naturedly raises one fist in the air and demands, “Minister of Roads! Where are you?!” He takes me past Quthing, past his destination, all the way to Mt. Moorosi. A moment after I thank him and say goodbye, an old women takes me under her wing and elbows us through a small crowd to the bus for Mphaki, which looks like it has no room left, and makes sure I get on board. When I reach Mphaki I ask at the shop for the way to Kim’s and am told, “it is not far.” Someone points in the direction I should walk, and two little girls appear and say they will felehetsa, accompany me. We walk for several kilometers along a dirt road, stopping to pull turnips from a field and eat.
Here on Kim’s map the village’s name appears in skywriting, high in a cloudless sky, hovering above the dirt road and turnips. The sun shines separate rays above the triangular thatched roofs, shines its rays on the one outhouse, the outhouse built for Kim.
When it’s time to leave, Kim accompanies me on foot back to the bus stop. Some rare rain has surprised the road into muddiness, and our hiking boots grow high heels of mud. Kim buys me fatcakes and mango juice at the shop, the shop where everyone knows her, and waves as I bump away on a ramshackle minibus. “Tsamaea hantle!” “Go well!”
We consider distance, how far a place is, in terms of both time and effort, how many kilometers and how difficult the route. You endure the passage of minutes and hours, arrive by moving toward landmarks, ascending and descending, bending and breathing until the surroundings change. You climb off one bus or van, legs cramped, and walk to another bus or van, jostled aboard. You pace along the side of a road waving your arm up and down for a lift. You hike for hours where no road exists.
Or you change modes midway, like I did on the way back from Canada Kim’s.
I climbed out of a rusted taxi (the one I’d climbed into after the ramshackle bus) when it stalled in the mountains before we reached Quthing, and I walked away. The van had rattled, smoked, squeaked its brakes on the narrow mountain road, and finally broke down. I was certain I’d been spared a terrible crash. The driver and other passengers called out to me as I walked down the road—we were far from anything—but I waved over my shoulder without turning around. I felt like I could walk forever on foot, ho tsamaea ka maoto, or at least until sundown, and I might even reach the camp-town.
You move and move and arrive with a dry throat and a burn in your legs if you’ve walked; if you’ve taken public transport you arrive with ears and eyes and nose filled with the condensed energy of bus stops, a trace of sugar or streak of grease still on your lips. Or, if while you’re walking away from a rusted broken-down taxi you get the best hitched ride of your life in the open back of a truck, like I did that day, you arrive after having slowly rolled up and raced down Lesotho’s mountains, coasting the undulations of Lesotho’s hills, nothing between your eyes and the countryside so that the sparse green blurs, collects, and connects into swathes of green, and nothing between your skin and the sky so that you have the feeling of floating far, far through the blue, closing the space between far and near, returning back home to here.
Jacqueline Lyons published a book of poetry, The Way They Say Yes Here, in 2004. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Colorado Review, Florida Review, Quarter After Eight, Puerto del Sol, Sonora Review, and others. She received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Poetry for 2003, and her essay “Too Nice” was cited as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2004. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University and a PhD from the University of Utah. She currently teaches literature and writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is completing a travel memoir about her time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho, Southern Africa. (updated 5/2006)