What a whirlwind trip and a strange set of experiences.
After seven months in Mokhotlong, I returned to the United States for a two week vacation at the beginning of this month. I am now back in Mokhotlong for another five months.
The quick back-and-forth provided a heavy dose of perspective.
Of course, I grew up, and have lived most of my life, in the world I returned to. But somehow it all seemed different.
Traveling from Mokhotlong to my parents’ home in Maryland consisted of a 4-hour drive from Mokhotlong to Maseru, a 1-hour flight from Maseru to Johannesburg, an 18-hour flight from Johannesburg to Washington, and a 1-hour drive from Washington to Maryland.
Despite the many legs and the many miles, it seemed like a shockingly quick transition. It was startling to find myself in such affluence in the United States, just a few days after being in the extreme poverty of Mokhotlong. I had the strange sense that a long sea voyage across the Atlantic would have somehow been more appropriate, would have at least given me time to digest things mentally.
Culture shock is an overused phrase, but I had it – in the reverse. I felt overwhelmed and caught off guard by familiar things, was surprised that old things felt new, that the dull realities of my former life seemed sharp, that I’d taken so many things for granted before.
After the relative isolation of Mokhotlong, I was surrounded by family and friends. There was a ton of food. Everything – from the lawns to the roads to the neatly lined fences – looked too perfect and beautiful at the same time. Showering barefoot felt weird. Dollar bills looked too long and skinny. The ease of communication and the efficiency of services jumped out at me. My four-month-old nephew, who I met for the first time, seemed huge compared to the babies in Mokhotlong, and he is.
People asked me about my experiences at TTL again and again, and I couldn’t find the right words. None seemed sufficient. I offered all I could, but felt I was conveying a glossy, wrapped-up version of it all. I tried and failed to convey what it feels like when a baby lies dead in your arms, or when another one has recovered from deaths doorstep, laughs happily and kisses you on the cheek.
Searching through my memories, I tried to pull out the most poignant, the ones that would help others understand. But in the furious pace of life that comes during a short stint to see so many loved ones, and which comes in the U.S. in general, I felt the memories fleeting, becoming cloudy even in my own head. At times, the feeling made me not want to share the memories, made me want to isolate them from dissolution, to quarantine them against the threat of their disappearance. It was as if they might all vanish into the wind at any moment.
Partly because of that, returning to Mokhotlong has been equally strange. The long travels again went by in the blink of an eye, and when I was suddenly back, again so far from the home I had just left, it was a new world once more that met me.
Winter has left and the trees have all turned green. Ntseliseng has gone home. Karabo and Boraki look much bigger. And there are a handful of new babies in the safe-home to get to know.
I cooked my first night back, something I do a lot here but didn’t do once in my two weeks in the U.S. I woke up in the morning and it was warm outside – not frigid like the mornings before I left. Everyone welcomed me back, and I starting trying to catch up on things.
I was happy to see that TTL had continued chugging along during my absence.
I now have five months left here, and I plan to make the most of them.
After returning to the United States and coming back to Mokhotlong once more, I have a more profound understanding than ever of the vast differences between the two places, of the privileges I grew up with and the basic amenities they lack here, of the disparity, the need, the potential.
The TTLF Fellow is a representative of the North American organisation Touching Tiny Lives Foundation. Based for one year in Mokhotlong, Lesotho, the TTLF Fellow serves in an administrative support capacity for the Basotho charity Touching Tiny Lives (TTL).