Sesotho: Both Bridge and Defense

MASERU, Lesotho – I’ve written before about my struggles to learn the language of countries where I’ve lived, be it my horrid Hungarian, survival Slovak or café Cantonese.

But there’s no denying an irrefutable fact: mastering a few words in any country will garner you grins and goodwill. For starters, Hello, Thank you, Goodbye. Or gimmicky responses like Delicious! (Even if the food is nothing to blog about.) Or Really? (To appear more engaged than you could possibly be.) Or No problem! (When things go awry, but eliciting a smile is the best response.) Or Cheers! (Which requires no explanation.)

So it is I’ve begun to study Sesotho: the language of 2 million Basotho, known individually as Mosotho, who live mostly in Lesotho, and just across the border in … South Africa. (The rhyming ends there.)

English is actually one of two national languages in this ex-British protectorate. But relying on my mother tongue wouldn’t be much fun, especially since we’ll be here three years. It’s a wise decision, says my Sesotho tutor, for learning some of the language is more than a question of being polite and respectful.

“It’s also important to know how to get yourself out of certain situations,” she tells me. Like, if I have to repel the advances of mooching cops, scheming prostitutes or superstitious witchdoctors.

Witchdoctors?! Missed that bit in my guidebook. The tutor now has my undivided attention.

For starters, the Basotho are big into greetings. In fact, the Mosotho author of my language book advises readers to “use greetings as much as we possibly can, because we do not only get surprised but somehow disturbed if someone simply walks past without greeting.”

I wondered if these mountain folk, who long fended off raiders of their cattle, horses and land – and did a fair share of marauding themselves – viewed greetings as vital to determine “friend or foe” early on.

Another new Mosotho acquaintance helped clarify: “Greetings are the key to everything here. In the home, the village, everywhere. The Basotho are different tribes, and greetings are the only thing that brings us together. If you offer greetings, it shows you come in peace – and have peace within you.”

Greetings begin with essential terms of respect. Address men and women as ntate or – “Father” and “Mother.” I’ve noticed most Mosotho I come across initially eye me with skepticism, perhaps suspicion, as if awaiting my first move. They’re typically mum until I hit them with a Dumela, ntate! (Hello, father!) Or Khotso, mé! (Peace, mother!) Then an immediate smile, and they return the greeting with sincerity.

To younger Basotho, I’m delighted to learn a goofy white guy like me can get away with cheerfully greeting them as “brother” (abuti) or “sister” (ausi). Without, you know, it being awkward. I’m not sure how this would play in my old haunt of downtown Brooklyn, where I taught journalism at Long Island University. To my former LIU students – most of Caribbean origin – I say: Dumela, brothers and sisters!

Back in Lesotho, the greetings go well beyond “How are you?” and “How are you living?” It’s perfectly acceptable here to even inquire about a Mosotho’s slumber. U robetse joang, ntate? (“How did you sleep, Father?”) U tsohile joang, mé? (“How did you wake up, Mother?”)

I shall try this. Not that I’m so curious about the REM stages of the Basotho, but for the simple pleasure of a smile. For that, I’m also teaching my kids. Oh, you should’ve seen the crowd reaction the other day, on the check-out line at a Maseru supermarket, when my daughter, not yet 3, uttered Kea leboha: “Thank you.” How the Basotho women melted! I may start to drag around my little girl as a prop.

Yet my tutor reminds me that beyond the cross-cultural connection – and flirtation – there’s a darker side to the need to learn some of her language. She’ll clue me in, but doesn’t want to be identified in print, because friends and neighbors may be cross with her for divulging “Basotho secrets.”

“You see, the way we perceive you, your white skin means money,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Make sure you are direct with the language, with everything you say. Be strong.”

She teaches me Ha ke na chelete: “I don’t have money.” It’s certainly hard for me to say no, when our family has so much, and so many around here clearly have so little. Offering a few coins of Lesotho maloti – or South African rand, which is used interchangeably around here – has so far seemed pretty harmless.

Just the other night, our family ate out at an Indian restaurant in town. We parked, and a local Mosotho offered to watch the car. I thought it’d be worth a few maloti to have him do so. By the time we got back, he’d voluntarily washed the windshield. So I offered him 10 – or 1 euro. He demanded 20. Fine!

“We are living in a very deep poverty,” my tutor continues. “The means of getting a job is difficult. Someone may ask you for money, they may ask for your cellphone. They may stab you, shoot you.”

Then there are the women of a certain persuasion. Prostitutes.

“A woman may sit down next to you, start to caress your leg or put her hand on your head,” says the tutor. And this would be a bad thing? “Just be very serious,” she continues, “and tell her, ‘Ha ke rata – I don’t like it.’ If you say go away, they may never go. Just to be safe, move away.”

The hand-on-head maneuver, she warns, may not be because the woman is drawn to my silvery, George Clooney-like mane. No, she may want a few strands for herself. Basotho can be superstitious, and witchdoctors claim the hairs of a Caucasian, mixed with traditional medicine, can bring wealth.

(Certain witchdoctors make more nefarious assertions, like intercourse with virgins will rid you of AIDS. This has spurred some men to rape infants, which even touched a nerve for Britain’s Prince Harry.)

Indeed, my tutor, who’s taught a great many Westerners over the years, recalls that a neighbor in Maseru once whispered to her: “You work with white people; may I ask you to bring me one or two of their hairs?” She messed with the wrong Mosotho.

“I am not a witch!” she shouted. “How can I do such a thing? You’ve insulted me. Should I report you to the chief?” (That scared her off, as local chieftains continue to run much of Lesotho.)

Which raises a question. My hair’s grown unwieldy. The summer’s begun, and I need a haircut. What will come of my snippings? Will the hair salon dispose of it? Or auction to the highest-bidding witchdoctor?

“Someone may sell it, but very quietly,” says my tutor. “Many of us look down on these traditions.”

Articulating a few lines of the language could be just the talisman to ward off any such misfortune.

“If you speak some Sesotho, the people will take you as part of them,” she says. “They will respect you, even protect you. If you drop ten rand, they will pick it up for you. If a foreigner here speaks nothing, they can be easily attacked. But if you speak some, it doesn’t matter how much, the Mosotho may think, ‘He knows everything about me. He knows where to go, what to do. So I may get into trouble.’”

I sampled this, naively, on just my second day in Lesotho. My Dutch neighbor had taken me for a drive in the countryside. After stopping for lunch in a small town, a Mosotho police officer in a sparkling white uniform approached our car. The Dutchman affably rattled off some Sesotho. Smiles all around. Then the cop leaned in through the window, glanced around, and spied our nearly drained sodas. He said a few more words to my friend, who responded in kind, and the cop bid us farewell.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“He wanted a drink,” says my friend, “but saw ours were almost finished.”

“What do you mean, ‘wanted a drink’?”

“Sometimes they’ll want to give them your drink. Or they may see your sunglasses and say, ‘Hey, give me your sunglasses.’ But if they see you speak Sesotho, they’ll know you live here and leave you alone.”

Despite all of my tutor’s admonitions – which, I hope, are merely the worst-case scenario – speaking some Sesotho with the Basotho remains at its core an issue of respect and appreciation.

“The Basotho are a very easy people,” she says, concluding our session. “Why should you live here and not even know how to greet me? Just give us a little something – to show you’re interested, that you care.”

Of course. As we say in Sesotho, Ha ho na mathata. “No problem.”

Michael J. Jordan, who arrived in Lesotho in 2011, is the lone Western foreign correspondent living in the country – and covering its crisis.