by Kristina Moen
My story begins, as many stories do, with an invitation.
It was summer in Lesotho, and I was in my second year of Peace Corps service as a rural high school teacher. My student Nomonde invited me to see her ancestral village and meet her father. Nomonde is Xhosa, a minority ethnic group in Lesotho, where 99 percent of people identify as Basotho and speak the Sesotho language. I said yes immediately. Nomonde was a shy student, and I was honored that she would ask. We made plans to meet under the weeping willow, a rare spot of shade and grass near school grounds.
Our school was next to a dirt road, ten miles of progress connecting a swath of mountain villages to a paved highway. Walk an hour east from the school, and the road ends at Ha Moseneke, a smattering of round mud huts and stone sheep enclosures. Beyond that, the villages are scattered across the mountains, accessible only on foot or horseback. “My ancestral village is just past Ha Moseneke,” Nomonde had said, “We will go there and back in one day.”
“It will be a lovely walk,” I thought, “I’ll wear my summer skirt.”
We set off towards Ha Moseneke at 9 am, sun blazing in the sky, pop music blaring from my phone, collecting children in our wake. Nomonde brought a friend, a girl her age who went to school in the district capital. We took photos in a field of sunflowers and picked wild peaches from trees that lined the road, small and pit-heavy and delicious in the heat. Nomonde taught me how to make a whistle with a blade of grass and break off pieces of aloe plant to rub on my skin. At Ha Moseneke, the road ended, and we climbed a narrow footpath that snaked around boulders. The parade of children behind us thinned, and we were back to our original party: me and the two girls. We climbed.
One hour into the mountains, the sun disappeared abruptly behind dark clouds. I asked if we were close. “It’s just around the bend,” the girls assured me. I looked ahead at endless copies of the same sepia hillside covered in spiky shrubs and dusty boulders. Snake aloe, red-hot pokers, and prickly pear cactus cut silhouettes against the canvas. Lesotho is high country, a place where men on horseback still dominate the landscape and jackal buzzards snatch lizards from the dry grass. We continued on.
Boom! The lightning struck without warning. Seconds later, thunder. “Let’s go back,” I said to the girls. “The village is just around the bend,” the girls said again. I weighed options. Going back to Ha Moseneke would mean we’d be exposed on the mountain for at least another hour. Going forward could mean anything. Before I could decide, a balloon of cold water burst over my head. In an instant, the clouds dropped days of built-up moisture, which was carried by the fickle wind – water engulfed our bodies from above, from the side, from behind. The girls began to run, and I ran, too, as mud poured down the mountain, a river of roots and shrubs that erased the trail. Hail as dense and big as pennies pelted our faces. We pulled branches off the shrubs to cover our heads from the ice. I wanted to shut my eyes, but I had to keep the girls in my sight. I felt protective of them, even though I was the clearly the weakest member of the group: unbalanced, my summer skirt water-logged and dragging in the mud. I was afraid. Visions of a massive mudslide flooded my brain.
“We must get to the river.” Nomonde said. “The village is just past the river.” Forward was the only way. When we got to the river, we saw that the storm had created a churning mass of white froth and debris. We slid down the bank, but there was no way to safely cross. “Get to higher ground!” I yelled, worried we would be pulled into the river by the collapsing mud. We army-crawled up the bank, our bellies pressed against the wet earth, using roots as handholds. Across the river, a small boy appeared, shouting and pointing to a rocky overhang. “Thank god,” I thought, “the village really is just past the river.” Nomonde and her friend cheered. The rocky overhang barely fit the three of us, but it was dry.
As we sheltered, more people from the village gathered – men, women, children – the river between us, people shouting. Instructions were given, and I watched as they held hands and inched towards the river. Soon, they had formed a human chain from bank to bank. We crossed the river on slippery stepping stones, held solid by the strength of each person in the chain. We were across.
The chain broke and dispersed. Nomonde and I were ushered into a hut with a fire crackling inside – its thatch roof black from the many fires that came before it, and its mud walls embedded with decorative stones. We stripped and were given warm clothes – long-sleeve shirts and thick blankets to wear around our bodies, a traditional form of dress in Lesotho. We hung up our clothes and were fed papa le meroho, or chard and cornmeal porridge, cooked in a metal pot over the fire. We sat on old cornmeal bags on the earth floor and ate with our hands, dipping chunks of papa in the salty chard and slurping the dark green juice.
Nomonde introduced me to her father, who lived in the Xhosa village and owned livestock, an indicator of prosperity. I learned that she lived with distant relatives most of the year, so she could go to school. Nomonde led me around the village to meet the elders, translating words from the Xhosa language into a mix of Sesotho and English. I greeted each person, grateful for their river rescue.
No Peace Corps story is complete without talking latrines. The village did not have them. People used a nearby ravine, called a donga. I followed suit, a bracing experience, especially when a small child popped up from behind a rock to offer me toilet paper. That night, I slept with two women in a bed loaded with wool blankets, while children slept on the earth floor. Sweet smoke lingered above our heads, and the door hung loosely on metal hinges. I felt safe, and I felt warm.
The next morning, sunshine. From the door of the hut, I saw mountains and valleys for miles, layered green waves like a child’s drawing of the ocean. Peach trees bloomed everywhere. I wondered: what riches do my students leave behind so they can attend school? But our clothes were dry, and it was time to leave. Nomonde and I filled our packs with peaches. The river was unrecognizable from the day before and easily passable with a few hops across the rocks. Three hours later, we were home. One month later, I was evacuated from Lesotho during the COVID-19 pandemic. I never saw Nomonde again. But I often look at photos from that day – us posing in the sunflowers and eating peaches, not knowing the storm ahead.
Copyright Moen 2024