Words and Meanings

By Jheri St. James

Monk Eulogy
All what poetry should be able to say is why priests are
in the hills chanting your name—
say what the monophonic praise is for.

It may well be that to please the peaks among us,
or coax lichens into storing life in miniature spores
to await their turn in the light, they sing,

sing of geese that leave fields, that frighten the infant,
who wonders why a snake feasts on you, why, on your life,
it removes loam so black, so good to touch.

Or perhaps it’s all to the glory of pink and
white cosmos that have lifted their skirts
to the wind. For I’m telling you, this land is

my home my shrine my hope, even if time
is being wasted. They sing, in fact, of non-love acts
that have crushed foeti in the womb.
Rethabile Masilo (http://poefrika.blogspot.com)

* * *

The Kingdom of Lesotho (pronounced Le-So-To) is a landlocked country entirely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. This is a land of many brilliant poets, like Rethabile Masilo above, and the land of the following sad prose headlines in the New York Times: “Lesotho Blames Pretoria for Blast;” Bombing Rocks Lesotho as 9 Black Nations Meet;” “Warnings from South Africa Taken Seriously in Lesotho;” “U.N. Working out a Resolution on Lesotho Raid;” “Lesotho Says the Victims of Raid were Refugees;” “South Africa Reports Killing 30 in Attack on Foes in Lesotho.”

Headlines and poetry are often linked. Dramatic human suffering often births passionate poetry. Yet Mother Earth is the armiture beneath it all, also an initiator of suffering, and creator of beauty. This is a picture of the 60m. deep Tsoelikana Falls taken by Denis Ananiadis (www.travelblog.org).

Basutoland was renamed the Kingdom of Lesotho upon independence from the UK in 1966. Constitutional government was restored in 1993 after seven years of military rule. In 1998, violent protests and a military mutiny following a tense election prompted a brief, bloody intervention by South African and Botswana military forces. Peaceful parliamentary elections were held in 2002 but the National Assembly elections of February 2007 were hotly contested and unhappy parties continue to periodically demonstrate their distrust of the results.

Life expectancy at birth in Lesotho is among the lowest on earth—39.97 years. For every 25 per 1,000 births, there are 22 per 1,000 deaths in this African nation, with approximately 320,000 people living under the specter of HIV/AIDS. Lesotho has a prevalence of 29% HIV/AIDS, one of the highest in the world. This is projected to rise to 36% within 15 years, leaving many orphans, and a continuing drop in life expectancy. Many programs have been put in place to deal with this challenge.

More than 80% of the country is mountainous, 1,800 meters above sea level. The three horizontal stripes of blue, white and green in the flag of Lesotho represent rain, peace and prosperity. Centered in the white stripe is a black Basotho hat representing the indigenous people. This flag was unfurled in October 2006 to celebrate 40 years of independence.

* * *

My Country, My Home
By Lehoetla (http://poefrika.blogspot.com)

Lesotho, fatše la bo-rra, I sing you/ then and now
Each day I sing you/ from mountain to cave I truly
Sing you. Spring is dawning, in the valley’s
Old venue for kingly things. Thirty-seven years my love,
Thirty-seven years, and promises-/ the gravestones of our
Heads are cool, too cold for upper rooms in top
Offices, where someone’s already polishing promises-/

In my dreams, hope like a mad rivers washes the low

Lands, clearing years away/ I hear mothers crying
Over fate / their tears cleanse my feet and feed
Vrystaat, the fat serpent along Mohokare/ there are
Everywhere men on sticks in silent streets, eyes

Yearning for a sign/ there are faces, violated angels
Outlined in candour beside you, O world, O bright
Unicorn of splendour, prancing in boorish night.

(Ladies thrashing mealies for porridge)

* * *

The most notable geographic fact about Lesotho is that it is the only independent state in the world that lies entirely above 3,300 feet in elevation. Its lowest point is 4,595 ft. and over 80 percent of the country lies above 5,900 feet. Due to the altitude, Lesotho remains cooler throughout the year than other regions at the same latitude. Water is Lesotho’s only significant natural resource, which is exploited through the 21-year, multi-billion-dollar Lesotho Highlands Water Project LHWP), which began in 1986, and was financed by The World Bank, African Development Bank, European Investment Bank and many other donors. This project captures, stores and transfers water from the Orange River system to South Africa’s Free State and greater Johannesburg area, home to a large concentration of South African industry, population and agriculture. Completion of the first phase has made Lesotho almost completely self-sufficient in the production of electricity and generates approximately $24 million annually from the sale of electricity and water to South Africa.

Lesotho has taken advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to become the largest exporter of garments to the US from sub-Saharan Africa, over $320 million recently. Asian investors own most factories.

* * *

When Pope John Paul II visited Lesotho in June of 2005, he prayed for and blessed this land. “I have come to southern Africa as a pilgrim of peace, carrying a message of reconciliation. I am saddened to learn that others on their way to join me in this pilgrimage have been the victims of a hijack that caused such anguish and ended in bloodshed.” He offered his prayers for the dead and wounded, then visited the hospital where 20 of the victims were being treated. Pausing at each bedside, he offered a blessing and the gift of a rosary.

“About 10,000 worshippers gathered around a big altar in this small mountain kingdom today for the religious highpoint of Pope John Paul II’s trip through southern Africa. At the solemn Mass, John Paul beatified the Rev. Joseph Gerard, a French missionary who spent 60 years among the Zulu and Basotho people before he died in 1914. The event is a preliminary step to sainthood.” (N.Y. Times 3.4.08)

Red Hot Poker Plant

The Pope went on to recommended traditional teachings of the church as the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, in other words, he warned that contraception was, “…one of a host of trends contributing to a breakdown in sexual morality . . . It is of great concern that the fabric of African life, its very source of hope and stability, is threatened by divorce, abortion, prostitution, human trafficking and a contraception mentality.”

Mamosa Mapeshoane, through Christopher M. Smith, at the U.S. Embassy in Lesotho, collected soil from the site in Maseru where the Pope gave this speech and blessings to Basotho. We thank her, Christopher, and all our friends at U.S. Embassies around the world for blessing our project with samples of meaningful soil from so many countries, including Lesotho. Here are some urban shots of that city.


By the way, if you are confused, “Basotho” is the adjective which describes the people who live in Lesotho. Christopher M. Smith sent this definition for us: “The grammar can be a bit confusing, but goes like this—I am a Mosotho (one person) who lives with the Basotho (adjective) people and speaks Sesotho (the language) in Lesotho (the country).” He said he believed that the soil sample was taken at the Pope’s Field in the Thetsane area of Maseru. A recent email from the collector included these photos and confirmation. This writer finds it fascinating that all these words rhyme!

This is a picture of a rural Maseru landscape.

Khalong la Baroa
My grandfather drove me like a secret
to the mountain that carries rocks at unusual angles,
wearing a fluffy scarf around its solid neck.
He said goddamnit it was time I
saw history with my own eye,
he told me I was old enough,
how low lights loom always high,
why the ghost of dawn has been hiding in
Aurorae since Lepoqo—now gone from
these caves that dot one face of
a mountain—died, since Baroa bled from them.
Wikipedia says they possessed no status hierarchies;
they lived when the world was young, and these caves
carved into stone became their home.
Grandpa calls them fucking wounds, these holes
emptied of life. Things have come to that.
I saw hole after hole of quiet home, they thin
as you go higher up, even up to where Lesotho
bleeds your shins, but where the foreigner to this day
still comes to scrape ochre off the wall to feed
rudiments of their knowledge. Against the ogre
we’re alone, he’d mumble again and again, we’re alone.
flushed with wine, the little people painted life under
a grotto moon, flame-dancing to songs re-mixed by a god
of their midst; and that’s what my grandfather said.
With my own children I visit the mountain—
The caves remain open like national mouths.
Rethabile Masilo

These words are dedicated to the soil of the land of Lesotho. The Pope spoke words of blessing and advice there. The newspapers of the world wrote journalistic words about this stoic land. The poets describe their lives there in fervent words. The Sesotho word for peace in Lesotho is “khotso.”

All these words. . . What do they mean?

The earth speaks not. She makes rumbling or watery sounds, we hear the wind blowing in the trees, but her wordless message is clear: life grows on the soil, “loam so black; so good to touch.” Let us set aside all the words for a moment, stop seeking meaning, and simply appreciate that.






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