Little House in the Big Mountains
In a land far far away, but in the current times, there sits a house. It is a tan house, with white window frames and brown wooden doors, three of them, although one now refuses to budge. In the summer time it is surrounded by green grasses up to your waist but in the winter times they fade into beige straw, the same colour of the water stains on the side of the house, where saturated ground has seeped up the walls, threatening structural damage. There are three peach trees, not of the sweetest variety, but tasty on those hot days of February. Three crumpled little rose bushes dot the yard, trying their best to evade the inevitable munching of the passing goat and sheep herds. An ancient solar water heater, long out of use welcomes visitors like a piece of modern sculpture and the shouts from children running wild across the mountains drift through the windows. At night, the sky is so clear above this house, that you can see the Milky Way, stretching out in its full glory. Its a Little House, but there is no Ma and no Pa. This is Ha BoGrinnell: the Place of Many Grinnells.
This Little House is in the Big Mountains, that is, the Maloti Mountains. The whole of the St. Rodrigue Mission is atop a plateau, surrounded by mountains bigger than itself; giving it the feeling of a bowl, the safest place in the world. There are two roads leading in and out of the community, one a bumpy 2 hour taxi or nun-truck ride from Maseru, and the other, nearly 4 hours by bus. Here at St. Rodrigue, we don't have electricity, our groceries are a hike or bus ride away, water runs out of a tap yet has been known to not flow for periods of time, we iron (if one chooses to iron) with a real IRON (which, I've come to realize, is named after it's original metallic make-up which was IRON, heated over a flame and smoothed over wrinkles!), meals are constructed from their raw ingredients and usually from scratch, central heating requires wood, paraffin, or layered clothing, cell phone signal now covers the area although its usage is limited to unreliability and battery charge, the latter which is reliant upon powerful sun rays, and the fastest mode of transportation on the road outside my window is horseback. This is rural Lesotho: people live here, we live here.
Grinnells, (the local term for “people at St. Rodrigue who come from Grinnell”) began living here with George and Sue Drake in 1992-1994 as Peace Corps volunteers. George taught at the high school and Sue worked with the primary schools in the area, traveling to them by horse/donkey backs. They lived in this Little House in the Big Mountains for 2 years, bearing through the winters with hot water bottles and connecting with people that still ask me about them today. When they left in 1994 they brought passionate stories back with them to the Grinnell community, inspiring faculty and students alike. After discussions with the Good Shepherd Sisters, both in America and here in Lesotho, George Drake brought the first group of Grinnell students here in 1997 and by 2000, the first Grinnell Corps Fellows had arrived.
Between the period that the Drakes lived in this house until the time of the Grinnell Corps Fellows, this house was made a home to other teachers at the high school, and at one time, even an Indian family, as the father was teaching at the high school. But, since 2000, a decade (a word I just recently explained to the A1s) ago, this house has been the center of American lifestyle in the greater St. Rodrigue community. But not only American, it is distinctively Grinnellian; it feels like any house on High Street. As Josh Lindgren '08 so accurately wrote in the BoGrinnell Guest Book, “This house is evidence that Grinnell is a space that we can create anywhere. Without electricity, central heating, or (for the past week) running water, BoGrinnell nurtures that familiar spirit of curiosity and intellectualism.” [September 26th -October 3rd 2009]
Not only does this house nurture “curiosity and intellectualism” for we fellows who live here, but also for our colleagues, friends, neighbours, and of course, the girls, who call themselves our, “visitors”. I like to call it, the Museum Effect: when people come inside our house, they walk around it as though it were a museum, pulling out books from the book shelf, filing through piles of old Time Magazines and Cosmopolitans, looking at shells and nicknacks, photographs, finding their home villages on our detailed map of Lesotho, and all the while, asking questions about them. Some people even have favourite items that they like to revisit and notice things that I have never even seen before.
The walls are electric blue and our floors are a well worn, floral linoleum, masking itself as tile. Beware! If you ever remove tape from the walls, you will take a piece of the plaster with you, likewise, if you scrub too hard, you will wash away the floor. Hence, every fellow has made their mark on this house, either visibly (known due to oral evidence which has passed down through the generations) or on our lifestyle. I think one could definitely label a “BoGrinnell Lifestyle”. We do not exactly live as our surrounding Basotho neighbours (evidence by the Museum Effect) nor do we live as we probably would back in the United States, at least, in the modern times.
On a daily basis, this BoGrinnell lifestyle makes me feel like an American Pioneer! This feeling is a bit problematic, as being an American Pioneer in its historical sense and in a foreign country sounds a little missionary-like (and, come to think of it, probably was indeed similar in that historical time), however I would rather attribute the feeling to my nostalgia for the American plains, my recent infatuation with the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (which I found in its entirety in the school's library), and actual similarities.
The fact that we have no electricity definitely lends itself to feeling as though you were living in an ancient time. Each night tries to be romantic as we carry about our business in candle-light. However, we have running water (most of the time) that comes out of taps and due to the TIME Magazines that arrive at the house (thank you Ntate Bryan Boyce!) we are definitely aware of the world and certain modern applications, surrounding us in this little landlocked place. But it does take some work. Here at St. Rodrigue, its easy to forget the influence that at least South Africa has on this community, which is indeed a heavy hand, as people seem fairly self-sufficient; until you read the girls' compositions and remember that every other one has money coming in from out of the country. But even knowing this, we all lead a lifestyle closely linked to resources and one that is very localized.
Its easy to know the origins of our resources. You can SEE the reservoir that the water is flowing from, pulling water up from the ground; the cell phone signal tower is within eyesight; the grass that feeds the animals that are eaten someday, whose hides will also be utilised, walk up and down the mountain slopes; gas comes from Maseru, driven to our doorstep by the Sisters; most people get vegetables from their house gardens and fruit from peach and apple trees in the late summer time, canning the excess of both for the winter time; maize and flour (pofo in sesotho!) meals are produced in Lesotho, the grains of which are often collected from local subsistence farmers' excess; communication most often arrives in the physical form of a letter; transportation (taxis, bukkies, buses) can be SEEN and heard from km away, long before they actually arrive; manageable trash is burned, revisiting you one last time, and bigger trash is usually recycled, often by children playing games or making toys; eggs and various other business enterprises (such as paraffin) can be purchased from neighbours at the opportune time. However, we don't have all of these resources available on a reliable basis, so one must learn to use what is around when you have it and be wary of waste as you just cannot be sure when you can secure that item again. Therefore, use it while you have it, ration it out with the future in mind, make a substitution or borrow from your neighbour.
For example, one evening, I saw Mme Pontso, a fellow teacher, walking past my window, going down the road. There was no obvious reason for her to be walking that direction, so I asked her where she was going. She said that, “Mme Augustina (our kind neighbour) is selling pork!” Well, you can understand my excitement at the prospect of having meat that night, serving as the impetus for Mme Darcy and I to streak out of the house and down the road to secure a morsel for our dinner. Meat is not something that you can readily have around here, as we have no refrigeration and killing an animal is no small feat, especially a pig. I killed a chicken a few weeks ago and even that, much smaller animal was too big of an experience for me to do it again anytime soon! Hearing that there is meat being had in the area can draw people from all around, as it needs to be eaten before it goes bad and it is a special occurrence. We had not had meat for quite some time, and did not have it after wards for an even longer time, but in between, we ate nothing but pork for a few days. A rhythm determined by the availability of this resource.
Therefore, there is a certain excitement that develops over anything that happens out of the ordinary. This is something, in addition to many home practices like purifying water, canning, gardening, drinking out of tin cups, cooking from scratch, and “knowing well and caring for all kitchen utensils” as they can be hard to replace, that I read about in the Little Houses in the Big Woods (published in 1932) and Prairie (1957) by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She would spend pages and pages talking about the events that occurred in her childhood, her marked memories and often the things out of the ordinary, many of which centered around food and social gatherings. Sweets and “the good foods”, as the girls say, were discussed in high frequency, something that I see here too. Just walking to the next town, Mpatan, I will be asked for sweets numerous times (of course this has other connotations as well, see Mme Darcy Ward's third report) but the palatal desire for sweets and good foods (rice, anything with oil or seasoning, sweet breads, beans, meat), is definitely present for most people here, including myself.
As I observed on the 13th of April, 2010, “Creating something out of nothing; using all that you have available to you, until it is FINISHED. If you don't have a specific thing, make do with something new, or wait until you can obtain that thing that you need.”
Being in a place with limited resources, though, can definitely affect you on the teaching front. Not having specific information at your disposal is not always something that you can make a substitution for. Finding information that I need usually comes from two places, that often work together:
1) The school library: a regionally large collection of donated books from English speaking countries around the world, which specialize in religious knowledge, discarded and slightly out of date text books, encyclopedias from various historical times (the most recent being 1989), classic novels and dramas, picture books depicting fictional and factual subjects, adolescent fiction and ruffled newspapers.
2) My own mind.
There are times when I feel like an early philosopher, reasoning something out using both the foundational knowledge and largely outdated information that I have available to me, in order to come to a conclusion. I distinctly remember when I was teaching about tides in Geography, that the course textbook did not give me enough background information to make me quite comfortable teaching the girls, who have never been to the ocean and who would then progress to memorise every word I just told them. So I looked for what I could amongst the dusty tomes of the library, but in the end, I had to rely on my own logic, and that of my constant companion, Mme Darcy Ward. We sat in the sitting room of our little house, philosophizing about tides, “How DO they work?” Indeed its true, that Ha BoGrinnell nurtured our intellectualism that night.
This is my place. This is where I live. It can be so quiet that you can hear conversations taking place between mountains, as the herd boys communicate to each other, or the bus in the morning, honking its horn several km away; a land of no white noise. Yet, it can be so loud, amongst a group of excited girls (a common occurrence), that you can hardly hear yourself think. In the end, the lifestyle I lead at Ha BoGrinnell isn't SO incredibly different from those of the people who live around me, because we are moving within the same environment. Though we work within it in slightly different ways, we learn from each other how to live here; a constant conversation of learning where things were obtained and when buses will arrive. But the house, serves me as a place of regeneration, and a place where I can be always, unashamedly myself, nurturing myself before the next day of Lesotho.
Most of the things I need and want exist here, but they just aren't available all the time; they have a certain time and place. This helps me value each thing with genuine reverence. Never before have I been so excited over flavours, and books, and each daily weather pattern. But here, in this Little House in the Big Mountians, in addition to teaching the girls of St. Rodrigue High School absolutely everything I know, I am given the time to identify and practice my senses about each particular thing; to find joy in the little things and those which are available to me.