“Lumela, Mme!” Good morning mother, I wave to Retsepile’s mother as she sweeps the front step of her rondavel.
Retsepile is one of my most devoted library vistors, he reads book after book in Sesotho and English. He always carefully places books back in their appropriate bin. He makes sure the puzzles pieces all find their way back in their baggies and are replaced in the activity box. He loves playing English Go Fish with me, and he often helps the littlest ones begin to understand books – even if it just means putting the book right side up.
His mother must be an angel. She’s also HIV+, and Retsepile’s father has died several years ago.
It’s early Saturday morning. She looks up and returns my wave, “Lumela, Mme Nthabeleng!” She puts her hands on her hips and regards me. There’s more. “Today’s the wedding day!” she informs me.
“It is?” I smile in surprise. I vaguely remember a principal I work with inviting me to a wedding some weeks ago, but I had forgotten or never known the day.
“Yes! You are coming! It is there, in that village,” she responds and gestures across the mountain.
“I am?” my knee jerk response is to repeat the idea of the person who has just spoken, it buys me time to think of a more appropriate, or at least more useful, contribution.
“Yes! About 1 or after 1 o’clock!”
I juggle my morning plans: hiking to the nearby mission to charge my laptop, my Saturday Sesotho lesson, my English lesson for a Basotho friend, lunch with the Sisters… yes, I should be able to hike back in time.
“Is 2 o’clock ok?” I ask, then bite my tongue. The difference between 1 o’clock and 2 o’clock compares to the difference between windy and still windy.
“Yes! You are coming!” Mme repeats only the most important information so that I won’t get confused.
After my visit with the Sisters, I return to the village and dash inside my rondavel to quickly change into my seshoeshoe skirt [This is the dress or traditional skirt worn by Basotho. It is pronounced se-shway-shway]. I walk out along my path, and receive so many unexpected compliments. ‘Motle haholo!’ My Mme claps her hands and shakes her head, repeating that I am beautiful. I beam. I feel like going to a wedding.
On the way, I meet with another friend who is going. We walk up to the turn off, which is also by the bar, and he turns to me, “Let’s go inside and have a drink. You must. You cannot say that you will not. I am buying you something. What will you have?”
Meanwhile I continue to receive rave reviews of my seshoeshoe by the different young people I pass, but I am beginning to get suspicious. No one else is wearing one. And they are all going to the wedding.
I follow my friend into the bar, and he presents me with Stony – my favorite soft drink ginger beer. I notice a man is staring at me from across the room. Since we are in a bar, and I am wearing a seshoeshoe, I do not return this with my usual smile and ‘please be nice to me I’m American’ wave. Instead I glance up, down, back at my friend, back at my drink. Then this semi familiar face is right next to me.
“Do you know me?” he casts his lasso.
“Do I know you?” I try my old technique.
“Do you know me, Nthabeleng?” he repeats.
I’m caught, a deer in the headlights of my name and his question.
“Yes! You know me!” Thankfully he answers his own question. “Didn’t you come to my shop?” Maybe he knows the answer to this one too, I pray.
“Yes! You did! I am the one who cut your hair!” Ah! Of course! I gulp. How could I forget the day I hacked off my hair to conserve future water supplies… I decide not to tell him I’ll never cut my hair again.
Instead, I opt to show him my progress. “Look!” I pull out my ponytail holder. “It has grown!”
He nods. “Yes, you will have to come back.”
I laugh and switch the topic. “Are you going to the wedding?”
“Yes! Let’s go!” And we are off to ride up in one of the cars now caravaning up to the big white tent on the side of the hill. We climb in to the car and I realize I am with a DTEP student that has frequently come to the library for workshops and independent study. In fact, she has RSVP’d to a Lesson Planning Workshop to be held the very next day! I am thrilled to see her, but realize that perhaps we shouldn’t talk ‘shop’. But she starts before I have a chance, and soon we are talking about what we can do together tomorrow.
Then the car gets stuck, and the bald tires refuse to travel any longer on the dusty rocks. We climb out and walk the rest of the way. My seshoeshoe is still the only one I’ve seen so far.
The villages gather together at the top of the hill and wait for the arrival of the bride and groom, and the bridal party. It turns out that the bride is from Maseru and the groom is from the neighboring village. They met in Durban. Many of the guests have come up from Maseru. I stand awkwardly with three young men and a young woman from Maseru. They comment incessantly about my seshoeshoe, while they comfortably adjust their jeans and skirt and laugh to each other in Sesotho.
Eventually the couple, families, and friends come. The bride has on a gorgeous gathered white wedding dress, the groom is wearing a silk grey suit with pink button down and tie. The bridesmaids and best man all wear matching attire. I finally spy other seshoeshoes, worn by a few of the groom's family.
They all begin to dance towards the tent and the villagers fall in line behind them. We dance across the dirt, then wait while the bride and groom enter the tent first. Now my friends appear out of the crowd, each taking my hand and welcoming me until the next person recognizes me and takes my other hand to lead me somewhere else. Before I know it the groom’s father has brought me into the wedding tent.
The bride, groom, and bridal party all sit at the banquet table like royalty. There are two rows of chairs facing them, two rows on either side of the table. I am seated virtually across the table from the bride. It is a little awkward, and gets only slightly worse when the groom requests that I come and take a picture with them.
I recognize the wife of the best man. She was a part of the HIV+ support group organized in the village by the volunteer before me. She is glowing with happiness for her friend, her plump figure running to and fro to help with various logistics. Her husband must also be HIV+, and I watch him a few moments as he jokes with his best friend, the groom. Everyone appears the picture of health, happiness, love.
The bride and groom are the first to take their food from the buffet inside the tent. They are not shy – No nervous wedding jitters – these newly weds are HUNGRY and they load their plate with samp, nama, moroho. Basotho love to eat.
Soon the whole tent has their plates full and we are eating in our rows. The woman next to me is also a teacher, an older woman who has been teaching more than 20 years. Next to her is the principal who initially invited me, and on the other side of the principal is a Sister from the mission I have just visited.
The older woman and I talk about many things, I feel very grateful she has taken me on as her student here on this wedding day. She tells me about the customs of a traditional Basotho wedding, where the bride must not eat until the grooms family has slaughtered a sheep to welcome her and given her a new name.
At one point I spill my drink. I grimace and apologize.
She says to me, “In our culture,” and here she pauses to refer to herself with her free hand while the other carefully balances a drink and a full plate of food, “to spill, it means you have given some to the ancestors. Even when we spill, we spill our food or drink, we say, ‘Oh look! The ancestors were waiting for some of that. They wanted it before you could have any.’”
I’m relieved. All this time I thought I was just enormously clumsy.
After the meal, we dance. I have been feeling pretty comfortable in my Basotho rhythm, but apparently I have a long way to go. The favorite sight seems to be watching the white woman in the seshoeshoe try to dance like a Basotho. Still, my hands are held by friends and we are all laughing.
Finally it is close to dusk, and the party is just beginning. I decide conservatively to walk home, despite being assured various companions. I bounce from friends to friends, singing the favorite song here in Lesotho, ‘The ring on my finger I’ll never take it off!’ and ‘My wedding day, it’s my wedding day…’.
One of my final images while I walk back home is when I look up in time to see the sun set silhouette cows walking home on the crest of the next hill over. A small boy trots alongside his charges. Sun rise, sun set.