Sunday, January 20, 2013

Going to School (Old School Style)

One aspect of Basotho culture that is steeped particularly deeply in mystery is its traditional schools.  Not all Basotho youth attend them, but many do.  They are located in remote places, where traditional beliefs and customs are passed on away from the uninitiated.  The main thing foreigners like me are told about them is not to go anywhere near them, as doing so could get you seriously hurt. Encroachments upon the schools' privacy are treated with violence, we are told.  Noted.  Do not go near them.  Easy enough.  I would not know where to look, anyway.

Then my friend Ntate Marabe asks me if I would like to visit one.  What?!?  I thought that was a really bad idea.  Well, it seems it is a bad idea, and not just for foreigners.  For anyone.  Unless, it turns out, one has the proper permissions.  Ntate Marabe said he could get those permissions.  So, one day he came over to our house and we rode the taxi out to where he had seen some girls from a traditional school walking and singing.  He asked a couple of local folks in a shop across from the taxi stop, got directions, and off we set, hiking through farmland toward the village where a traditional girls school was reported to be located.

We arrived in the village, where Ntate Marabe was able to identify the home of the woman who ran the school (their headmistress, as it were).  He negotiated with her for a while, and then she agreed to grant us access to her students and their performances for the remainder of the afternoon in exchange for 150 Maloti (about $18).

This is where the students stay while attending the traditional school.  The wall made of thatch actually identifies it so that all Basotho know to respect it and steer clear.

Here are the students.  The one on the far right, in more modern clothing, is an instructor of sorts.  The young woman next to her, in darker clothing, is the lead student (prefect, as it were). They carry those sticks with them everywhere, and they are coated with a special herb that protects them from witchcraft.

Here they are performing one of their traditional songs.

They wore masks on their heads that often serve as hats to protect them from the sun, or are worn as necklaces.  The coloring of their skin, as I understand it, is due to the application of a mud-pack of sorts that serves as a sun screen.

Along with songs, they performed a drama for us.  This one, as Ntate Marabe explained it, was about how one should not drink too much and then have too many people fall in love with you.  A good lesson.  Reminds me a bit of eighth grade health class...

Here I am, posing with the students in front of their "dorm".

Then Ntate Marabe doing the same.  This was, as it turns out, a first for him, as well, and as such a pretty big deal for both of us and not just me.

The students also posed in front of their headmistress' home.

And we, of course, posed with them.

Relaxing in a field.

Then us, relaxing with them.

Those two pictures, in particular, gave Ntate Marabe's sons a bit of a shock.  Knowing as they did that no one was supposed to go near a traditional school, seeing their father sitting there with those students like that gave them quite a surprise.  They thought it was great, though.

After preforming for us in the village, the students set off marching toward where Ntate Marabe and I needed to catch a taxi back into Maseru.  We were allowed to walk with them, privileged to listen as they sang all the way.

Here, they are singing as we left the village where their school is located.

We all walked along the edges of the local farmers' fields, Ntate Marabe and I trailing behind them, mesmerized by the experience.

It is difficult to describe how out of time I felt, and how honored.

Ntate Marabe tells me that those letters scrawled in the mud on heir backs are their names.  Who needs name tags?

Ever feel too tall?

As we walked through the village near our taxi stop, I got to see firsthand how the proscription against getting near not only traditional schools, but their students, plays out among Basotho children.  They were fascinated, but would dash off when we got too close.

At the roadside where Ntate Marabe and I were to catch our taxi (you can hear cars driving by), the students of the traditional girls school kindly performed one last song for us.

Every time I think about this particular experience, I am awed.  To get such intimate access to such an amazing set of traditions which are usually so closely guarded feels truly special.  And without my friend Ntate Marabe, it would not have been possible.  For that, I am truly grateful.  And the entire experience is made that much more meaningful because it was exceptional for Ntate Marabe, too.  He likes to talk about it as much as I do, and I think he still finds it a bit difficult to believe that we actually did what we did, went where we went, and saw and heard so much that is so enigmatic.  Personally, I have never come closer to feeling as if I was in a National Geographic special.  Fantastic!

1 comment:

  1. This is amazing, Michael! Danny and I just watched several of the videos together. Thanks so much for sharing this amazing experience. -Susanne