My mornings at St. Rodrigue begin with a beautiful rendition of “Ave Maria” sung in Sesotho. The earnest voices of four hundred Basotho girls fill the school’s assembly hall and, I like to imagine, echo through the mountains surrounding it. By lunchtime the tune has changed. As I walk through the corridor, I am greeted by Justin Bieber’s “Baby baby baby” sung with all the pent-up energy of hungry girls who have spent hours ensconced in their classrooms. A few bells after lunch, it is time to go home. We at Bo-Grinnell, The Place of Grinnellians, can hear the excited chatter of the daygirls as they begin their walk across the many mountains that separate their homes from St. Rodrigue. By nightfall Bo-Grinnell has Latino music blasting from Mme Sara’s speakers. Accompanying this is a continuous beat of knocks on our door, students wanting pictures or pencils, teachers dropping by for coffee and “marking”, children wishing to play with all the objects in our house that can double up for toys.
Most people in Lesotho do not have electricity or running water. Our neighbors often go without food and our students wash their clothes frequently for a lack of anything else to wear. Yet no one goes without music, for in Lesotho, music is an amenity that is available in abundance, that comes at no cost- in short, a necessity that appears to sustain Basotho life in much the same way air does.
But perhaps I’m being too hasty in my assessment. Perhaps my desire for this musical environment stems from forgetting my iPod at home. Realizing the loss moments before my flight touched down in Maseru two months ago, all I could do was wonder how I was going to survive a year without music. I needn’t have worried however, because if the long and bumpy first ride to St. Rodrigue was any indication, I, like my fellow Lesotho residents, wasn’t going to want for music.
During the first ride through the mountains, I could barely converse with Mme Sara over the music thumping through the radio. At some points I wasn’t quite sure if the car was shaking because of the music or because of the rocks we were driving over. The next Sunday, our windows began to rattle and soon our whole house was shaking. The reason? “The girls are coming back!” Mme Sara informed me. And sure enough, twenty minutes later, mini-taxis reverberating with music and the screams of our students drove right past Bo-Grinnell and again Mme Sara and I were unable to hear each other. Can radio music and screaming girls really cause a whole house to shake, even from miles away? Visit us on a Sunday evening and you will find out that they can indeed.
On other evenings when our students are in their homes or the hostel, when we don’t have visitors and when the solar charger doesn’t have enough energy to charge Mme Sara’s iPod, our home is silent. But even this silence is loud, so loud that it rings in my ears and refuses to let me ignore it. In Lesotho, even silence makes a kind of music.
In the daytime, the word most commonly used and heard is Lumelaang, which means hello. Pronounced Dumela, I thought I would be able to say it immediately. My first few tries went something like this: Dumela! Doomela? Dumelaah? Many variations later, the time has come to write my first quarterly report and I have still not mastered the art of saying hello in Sesotho.
Here is the thing about Dumela: it is a song within a word. No matter how you say it, you have to sing it if you wish to be understood. Sing it too fast and you will appear to be in a hurry- not the best impression to give Basotho people who like to do things at a leisurely pace. Sing it too slow and you might not give the other person enough time to respond as you walk your separate ways.
Do all Sesotho words make music like Dumela does? Perhaps. In the staffroom however, the sounds of language make anything but music- at least to my ears. The main language spoken in the teachers’ staff room is Sesotho, a language that I know only a few words of. Sitting at my desk can sometimes be an isolating experience for although the other teachers surround me I understand nothing of what they say. Most of my conversations with teachers thus take place outside of the staff room, either in the corridors and classrooms of the school where it is expected that English be spoken or in our house when we receive visitors after school hours.
The classroom is another space in which I’m reminded that not all sounds of life at St. Rodrigue make music. In the classes I team-teach with Basotho colleagues, I often hear a strange hissing sort of sound the girls make as they try to squirm away from the teacher’s stick. Then come their squeals and finally, a rasping sound, as if they are trying not to cry. My students are beaten for trivial matters such as not cleaning the blackboard or whispering with their neighbors.
I was well aware of the concept of corporal punishment before arriving in Lesotho. Ignorantly, I had assumed that this knowledge would be enough to steel me, to prepare me for witnessing the act. I hadn’t accounted for the way in which sounds can trigger sympathy, pity, frustration. I watch my students squirm and hear their hisses and squeals. I hear these sounds, but as an outsider and temporary teacher, it appears that it is not in my place to step in, and so I must silently contain the feelings I thought I was prepared to handle.
But I don’t want these sounds, this non-music, to overshadow the joyful rhythms of Basotho life. Let me then leave you with a few more examples of my happy iPod-less existence in Lesotho. When the shepherds walk together up and down our little mountain late on Friday nights, their songs fill the still air, making us pause our game of Scrabble and listen. When a member of the community passes away, the memorial service held in the chapel has everyone on their feet, singing and swaying their prayers for the soul of the departed- such up-beat music that a person who does not know Sesotho might confuse the event for a celebration instead of a mourning. Music is everywhere, in the chirping of the birds outside my window at 5 a.m., in the prayers recited by the students at the start and end of every class period.