Bo-Mme*, what a weighted word. One of the first that I ever learned in Sesotho, meaning: Many Mothers. In my life, it is the term used to refer to my co-workers, and in doing so, it blankets all the comforts, random delights, and exasperation I find in and out of the work place. This is not to say that I have no male co-workers, because I do. Many Fathers pepper the landscape of the staffroom. However, their impact on my life is simply, less significant. Here at St. Rodrigue High School, the Bo-Mme make the world go round.
The Bo-Mme are hands down, some of the most confident, honest, upfront, and vocal women I have ever met in my life. They tell things as they are, hiding little. You get what you see. They are resourceful women, using what they have in order to make the things they want happen. They pull money together each month for the things they need, as well as for their other dependents. The majority of Bo-Mme are single mothers, and often the primary bread winner for their greater family. They leave their families, electricity, and city comforts each second weekend to venture into the mountains to pay the bills with their teaching. A large number of the Bo-Mme actually were, at one time, students at St. Rodrigue High School. They grew up walking to school just as our girls now walk to school, living at the hostel, and even being taught by some of the Grinnell fellows or the Drakes. They sat in the same desks our girls sit in now and gathered in the same hall each morning for morning assembly. Mme Motseare lived in the house just next to ours when she was a student at the St. Rodrigue Primary and High School. When I asked her about this, she said, “St. Rodrigue is my PLACE!” meaning the place she feels she belongs.
St. Rodrigue is not everyone’s permanent place of belonging, but rather a temporary one, a Monday through Friday location, a place of work. These Bo-Mme live great distances from their friends and family. Visiting them is largely bound to the whims of public transportation and for no longer than a weekend. Sometimes Bo-Mme's children come to visit for a week or so at a time. They run around between our houses, playing games and their youthful noises flowing in through our windows. Life feels more natural with a few little ones running around causing problems, and eases everyone's longings for their own families. But the majority of our time is spent at St. Rodrigue amongst the other teachers, students, and members of the community.
We work, live, and play together. The strong personalities of Bo-Mme colour every aspect of my life. This can often be a beautiful thing, a unifying thing, but sometimes it is simply too much: exhausting! Our homes and school desks sit side by side. My neighbour in the staffroom is literally the same neighbour I have at home and the others are just around the corner. When we need to do errands, relax, or reflect, we do so together. We are, in many ways, just like co-workers anywhere else: people that have come together because of a common profession and a common place of employment. We have different personalities, interests, home places, and opinions. But as we all influence each faction of our lives (the staffroom, the classroom, going up and down, and home), we are more like a family. Just as a family brings together people with such differences, taking care of each other regardless of who they are, so do the teachers at St. Rodrigue High School; a family with Many Mothers.
The Staffroom is not a quiet place of work. But work gets done. Desks arrange the room, each teacher with their own space and covered with mountains of notebooks waiting to be marked, textbooks and syllabi awaiting attention. Lessons are planned, assignments marked, but only as a constant stream of discussion of all thoughts academically and non-academically related flows by. Long after school has ended, the voices of Bo-Mme ring in my ears, their Sesotho inflections going up and down amongst my thoughts. Jokes and stories are told, and there is often a phrase of the day.
“A Blue Monday” (reference to the weekend being finished)
“Feel it, its here!” (reference to the FIFA World Cup 2010)
“But Mistress, your lips!” (reference to the recent strawberry lip gloss fad)
“Pull up your socks” (reference to the need for girls to work hard)
“Its Friday! No one can mandalize it!” (reference to the freedoms that Friday brings)
Each phrase entwines into the threads of conversation for the duration of that day, or the next. Bo-Mme also discuss the girls: their home lives and their performance in school. The teachers follow their classes from Form A up until Form E, therefore being around the same girls for many years if they are still around. Although this can be academically problematic at times (if a girl doesn't learn well from that teacher, for example), it can bring the teachers and the students together in familiar and personal ways, all of which are discussed in the staff room. Questions on educational concepts are frequently discussed rather than researched, as we don't have too many current resources to check facts in. Key English phrases and dramatic facial expressions keep me linked to the conversational banter, and chorale eruption accentuates points made. Bo-Mme sing as they work, as one begins, many will bring up the tune and join her.
The influence of Bo-Mme follows me into the classroom as well, due to the concept of “team teaching”. Instituted by Sister Armelina Tsiki (our principal), the idea is for all teachers in like disciplines to work closely together in order to maintain uniform standards and information for all students regardless of who the teacher is. A technique put in place to manage the potential for quick turnover in teachers due to our rural locale. This means using similar lesson plans, writing the same exact exams, and giving the same set of notes to each class of girls within a subject. However, this extends in a unique way to the Grinnell Fellows. We are each placed with a Basotho teacher, sharing their classes. This is a rather recent addition to our lives (the past two years), as St. Rodrigue High School now has enough teachers to fill its teaching staff. These new positions are given salaries by the government, making them secure, and changing our purpose here just a bit (refer to Kaitlin Alsofrom's 1st report).
The way it has changed our teaching is rather significant as we are expected to accompany, plan, and discuss each and every class with our Basotho teaching partners. The idea, in addition to providing a way of keeping Grinnell Fellows at the school, is for the Basotho and American teachers to also be learning from each other. This is a valid desire, as we American teachers have the potential to bring fresh ideas, not only to our students, but also to our colleagues. In addition, the blending of American and Basotho techniques of teaching is, I think, the way we can be most effective as teachers here; use pieces of the familiar framework to introduce new ideas, so as to not blow everyone out of the water. Working hand in hand with the Basotho teachers makes this more feasible. However, this is easier said than done. People simply have different teaching styles. If you and your teaching partner are on the same page in this regard, and both are open-minded individuals, then this concept of team teaching could work with flying colours. However, this is not always the case, and for me, having Bo-Mme’s presence follow me even into the classroom has proven exhausting.
Going Up and Down
(meaning exactly as it says, a term for recreation)
Entertainment Committee is a group at school consisting of teachers who pledge their lives to the overall well-being and happiness of the teaching body. They organize periodic parties to keep spirits high and the community tight. Parties mean: nama (MEAT!), DJ (music), and drinks (alcohol or juices) and often entail “crossing the night” as we say. They begin with a fire, which dies to embers on which the meat is braaied (grilled). Basically the party revolves around this nama, and until is is prepared, we DANCE. Bo-Mme will catch your rhythm and dance with you, moving as one to the tunes. These primarily middle-aged women know how to jive. They swing their hips to blasting music, in a hot stuffy room lined with gasoline fumes from the generator that fuels the DJ. It is an admirable sight to behold. I can only hope that when I too am in my early forties I feel comfortable and healthy enough to get down on all fours and dance like a puma. After Kaitlin's Welcome Party, Mme Tsolo said, “The Girls will see happy teachers tomorrow!” And they did. Despite many Bo-Mme not having slept a wink, as they danced, ate, and drank the night away, all of them showed up the next day, bright-eyed and ready to teach, mark, and discuss the previous night's festivities.
I find these parties to be crucial to social cohesion among the Bo-Mme. Enjoying each others' company in such ways brings positive qualities into the staff room. After each party, I feel closer to Bo-Mme as we have danced and laughed together until the wee morning hours.
Our homes all face each other, enabling one to shout out someone's name, and have them return in equivalent gusto. I can sit on our front stoop and still be a part of a conversation that is taking place across the yard, on my neighbour's porch, or below the peach tree. Belongings for one are essentially belongings for all. Although, our situation at Ha BoGrinnell (the place of many Grinnells) is a little different, in that borrowing can be more problematic as we simply have more resources to borrow...an ongoing struggle. During the winter time, Bo-Mme would shuffle into one or two rooms and gather around a paraffin heater to utilise its warmth, chatting about their days and the goings on of their lives. Ending a long school day with the same people you started it with.
Earlier this session I had a health scare that entailed an infection in my right foot. When I opened up my bandage, which had been placed to cover a dime sized blister of two days prior, you can imagine my surprise when I saw that it had increased to the size of a tennis ball. I screamed in fear and confusion, and Bo-Mme heard me. They came to their doors and I came out to mine. I explained the situation and they ran off to the clinic to fetch Sister Benedicta, our head medical lady. I sat right down on the stoop and waited nervously for the inevitable: the drainage of my enlarged infection. I was worried that I would be all alone for my miniature operation, but, low and behold, Mme Alsofrom comes walking around the corner: one is never alone when Bo-Mme are your neighbours. Afterwords, sitting on our kitchen floor in rural Lesotho with a large open sore inhibiting my walking, I was trying my hardest to avoid thinking the worst, when a soft, “KoKo,” sounded upon the door. It was Mme Pontso. She lumbered in (one of the largest women I have ever known) and immediately drew me to her bosom. It was the safest, warmest, most peaceful places I have ever been. Mme Pontso can be one of the harshest, most overt of the Bo-Mme, but she is still just that, one of the Mothers, a Mosotho mother. She sat with me until all my worries were gone, then yelled out the door for Ntate Vincent to carry me into my bed.
I have discussed these parts of my life separately, but at the end of the day, all of these arenas overlap. School doesn't always stay in the staffroom, and home doesn't always remain around the paraffin heater. This is our life. And just as a life can't be fully separated into places and functions, neither can our lives here at St. Rodrigue High School. Our community is too small for that. Everyone is accepted like another member of the family. We don't always get along, just as a family does not always get along, but it means that you will always have people to count on and people that will listen to you. No matter who you are or where you come from, whether they agree with you or not, the Bo-Mme of St Rodrigue High School will be there next to you, whether in the staffroom, classroom, going up and down, or at home. They are to be counted upon to help when times are tough or when you need a partner to carry your tune of absolute exaltation. They will be there to call you out when you are being unreasonable or when they personally do not agree with you. They will be there to jive down to the floor, no matter what size they are, and to carry your rhythm. Bo-Mme, for better or for worse, influence every facet of my life here at St. Rodrigue High School.
*Keep in mind that even though I refer to Bo-Mme as a whole, there are, of course, differences and variation between all the Mothers, and as I said earlier, the term refers to all the qualities that they exude.