October 20, 2006 – Malealea, Lesotho

Hotso ea morena
E beteng hara rona,
Hotso ea morena
E beteng hara rona.

Voices ring out in harmony echoing in the bare community hall. “May you live in peace. May peace be with you.” We move through the room shaking hands with each other to the rhythm of the Basotho farewell song. Eyes meeting eyes. People seeing the other see them. A connection of recognition and thanks. It is our final day here in Malealea. Our residency with Khalameng Bohlasa, or Eradicating Negligence, the community elected drama group has come to a close after five days teaching, sharing, and learning. The group was assembled in July by the community and the Malealea Development Trust, our partners in the field, to use theatre as a means to address important issues facing the community – HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, rape, drug & alcohol abuse, and theft. There are 32 members, mostly women with the exception of 2 elderly but very charismatic men, who represent learning circles in each of their small villages. Since July, they have been meeting once a fortnight to rehearse and create. Hopefully our intense five-day workshop, will increase their dedication though many have other responsibilities including families at home. We have been teaching them character development, improvisation, and how to create as an ensemble after initially asking them what they want to learn. And though it isn’t the first time on this expedition, I definitely wish we could have more time to work with them. Five days is just a beginning and we are barely getting to know each other and feel comfortable!

I look out over the group as we sing so loud and beautifully. We are all ages. A 72 year-old grandmother with a blanket wrapped around her waist and a toothy grin. Masehlomeng, a beautiful woman in her 40s who performs with such presence and confidence we have dubbed her the Basotho Julia Roberts. Motselisi, the youngest of the group at 20, tall and majestic moving gracefully from one to another. Thabang, 53 year-old a shepherd with gumboots and a wild look in his eyes – ready to jump to anything. Many are infected with HIV and a few have noticeable symptoms of AIDS. The immediacy and importance of addressing these issues is apparent to us all as is the reality that some might not be able to participate next time we come but are here today with 100% of their energy and commitment. Tello, our translator and community partner, is invaluable. Riding up to the community hall each day on his mountain bike (the modern equivalent to a Basotho pony), he has been the real teacher leading exercises in tandem with Alice, Selena, and I as he shapes our instructions in culturally appropriate terminology. The youngest in a family of 5 boys, his dream was to become a doctor only to leave university after 1 year to help out at home. Now, he has become an indispensable part of the Development Trust – an organizer that can bridge the cultural gap between foreign humanitarian aid workers like ourselves and the community. Though he does not have the degree to be in medicine, his gentle disposition, patience and leadership heal others in so many ways…

Over our last 2 days, we create short sketches about HIV/AIDS awareness in small groups. We tackle difficult issues such as gossip, using a condom, going to a clinic or Sangoma (natural healer) and getting tested for HIV. Adapting a structure from theatre for development and Augusto Boal, the ensembles build scenes with defined character relationships (wife and husband, schoolmates, doctor and patient, etc) in a crisis situation. At the climax of the sketch, they freeze and then ask the audience what the problem is and how to fix it. Even in our simulated discussions that follow, there are heated exchanges between members of the ensemble as to when it is okay to tell others if someone has HIV. One of the most entertaining scenes is between a miner returning home drunk after 6 months working in South Africa and his wife who insists that he uses a condom. They begin with a excited reunion only to dissolve into arguing at the mention of a condom. Just as he is about to hit her in anger, the actors stop. Now, we see how all the issues are interlinked: HIV with domestic violence, rape, and alcohol abuse.

alice-and-the-lccu-children-300x225
Alice and the LCCU children

During our reflection, the group eagerly expresses interest in learning more about physically creating engaging characters with their bodies. They also are excited to apply the dramatic framework we explored to full-on meetings in the community. We assure them that together they have everything they need to continue improving the skills and using them to inform others. While we are already planning a return to Malealea in March and maybe in July, the future of Khalameng Bohlasa lies in the hands of these amazing and inspiring people…

I have also re-discovered the magic when people come together for a common purpose to change the world around them. The value of human connection and its power to inspire others. In many ways, although this work is very different from the clowning for orphans and vulnerable children that we usually do, together we have created the same atmosphere of celebration, joy, and hope that can only come about when we meet each other and sing, dance, and act in harmony.

Hotso ea morena
E beteng hara rona,
Hotso ea morena
E beteng hara rona.

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