The wind braces me up the steep mountain path as I dodge donkey dung and loose gravel making my way on foot to the Litsekoeleng Primary School in Malealea. We have been forced to leave our trusty steed, Chongololo (the Nissan 4×4), and walk to this distant school which lies across the steep Pitseng Gorge. This is one journey that not even ponies will expedite – the goat and sheep trails are too narrow and treacherous to take the risk. We pause at the top of the gorge to catch our breath, take in the immense beauty of the Basotho countryside and reflect upon our work here. Situated in a valley surrounded by jagged peaks that turn dark blue when threatening rain, the Malealea Valley is a remote part of Lesotho that has been devastated by the HIV/AIDS crisis. Close to 60% of people tested at the local clinic are positive with the virus. Just last night, we are told that the gatekeeper has passed away from the disease leaving a wife with two children in high school and one in primary. When asked how the wife is doing, Tello, the Malealea Lodge manager, tells us that she has been prepared for a long time with the sickness but still one can never prepare for the eventual reality of death. The Malealea Development Trust – a community based organization with whom we are partnering – has tried to address the many needs of the people living here building roads and dams, learning centers and scholarships, HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention programs, support groups for orphans and vulnerable children, and income generating projects and adult education initiatives. It is a beacon of hope in this area that is so incredibly breathtaking to work in even while HIV literally takes the breath away from so many.
After a moments confusion as to where exactly we must go, Ally, our Irish guide and director of the MDT Donkey Library selects a particularly steep switchback for us to negotiate down into the gorge. James spritely leaps into the lead like a mountain elf with my banjo towering above him in a backpack sling. Selena follows, her Brazilian birm bao as an archer’s bow. Alice and I trudge along. Laden down with gear and water bottles like a couple of pack mules. We are quite a sight – somewhere between Robin Hood’s merry men and Gandalf’s wandering ring seekers. As we climb out of the ravine past newly plowed fields of deep red and black soil, the children from the primary school half gape and half giggle at us – a huffing and a puffing up the hill. “Dumelang!” I say hello between gasps for breath. We haven’t even begun our performance and already I am drenched with sweat. Litsekoeleng is the poorest school in the district. Composing of four squat stone buildings, the complex makes the best of what little land and funds are available to the children. Remarkably, the children are also the best educated. They speak English well and excel on their test scores with a majority going on to the high school level. Ally explains to us that they are fortunate to have a very talented principal who greets us with a wide smile and tight hand clasp.
Our show begins with us marching around a corner holding umbrellas that are miraculously dripping with rain drops thanks to a small trick. James cues the music to “Singing in the Rain” and twirl and dance into the small dirt patch that will serve as our stage. The umbrellas have come in handy more than once when we were forced to actually use the as shelter in a torrential Basotho spring downpour before entering a class! But today, the storm clouds loom but do not boom their thunderous roar. The rest of the show unfolds smoothly with the exception of scattering the entire school up the hillside during our chase scene in which I become a slobbering monster in pursuit of Alice. The mayhem is full of shrieks of laughter and by the time we move into the next sketch, they are back in their seats loving every minute of it. As our volunteer “doctor” bandages Selena’s broken foot at the end of the show, we break out into a follow-the-leader dance culminating with the doctor standing on my shoulders. James then clicks the music over to some raging Basotho jive (and by raging I mean accordion hard core) and the entire school joins us in a dance waving sticks in the air and whooping with joy. We wish we could stay all day but suddenly notice an ominous darkness in the sky. The last thing we want is to be stuck on the trail in lightning – weather changes very quickly up here – so we say goodbye and head back down into the gorge. Every now and then, I send bubbles back up the slope…magical messages of wonder carried by the wind…and say a silent prayer that the children find peace and happiness in their life.
Now, back at the lodge before dinner, I listen to the distant thunder accompanied by the rattling of much needed showers for our dirty and stinky group. These performances are just one part of the many amazing experiences we have had during this Five Day Residency in Malealea. I hope to also share with you the inspiring teaching we are doing with the MDT drama group, Khalemang Bohlasoa (Eradicate Negligence), but it must wait until another report…the thunder clouds have finally caught up with me and I must prepare for the deluge!