I Have No Privacy

Where I burn my trash, and silver door is my toilet

My latrine and where I burn my trash

When you live in a rural village in Lesotho, southern Africa, you soon realize that everyone knows your business, and that you have no privacy.

In the morning, I peek out my door to see if there are any bo-‘m’e, bo-ntate or bana (women, men or kids) sitting on Mary’s (my host mother) porch, chatting, singing or shouting, as that’s how most people communicate in my village. Mary’s radio is tuned in to her favorite religious station, and I have no idea how her visitors can hear one another speak. Many people stop by for a chit-chat, and sometimes I see a stranger, leaning against the bricks in her yard, scanning daily life in the neighborhood.

When I think the road is clear, I dash out with my pee bucket and make sure it’s on my left side when I pass Mary’s porch, as I don’t want Mary to see how full it is. I’m scared the village will gossip about how much I pee during the night, even though I dump bleach and dirty dishwater into my pee bucket to rinse it out.

Oh dear, a woman is walking towards me. Now I have to greet her. Greeting people is important to the Basotho culture; they are insulted if you don’t stop and ask them,

“How did you sleep last night?”

“Very well thank you, and you?”

“Oh, I slept harmoniously well (hamonate) thank you,”

“Thank you ‘M’e.”

All this conversation with my pee bucket in hand, trying to hide it while smiling, is something I don’t think I can get used to.

View to the right of my latrine and where I burn my trash

View to the right of my latrine and where I burn my trash

My latrine is 50 metres from my rondavel, and faces the main road. People know exactly when I enter, and when I exit my latrine. I have a lock on my latrine’s metal door which makes a hammering sound whenever I unlatch it. Even the horse turns his head to look at me when I use it. For some reason I haven’t seen any Basotho use their latrines in my village. Am I the only one who needs to pee? My ‘M’e even asked me one day if I had a (mathata) problem, because I visited my latrine twice in one morning.

When I walk around my village, I see kids run to the side of the road and pull down their pants and squat. I’ve even seen men, including my taxi driver, stop the car and pee on the side of the road.

People know everything about me in my village. Even my ‘M’e said, “I know you drink a lot of coffee.” How does she know? Perhaps from the wet coffee filters full of ground coffee that I throw in the trash, or the fact that I use my latrine. They also know I drink red wine, as they see the empty box when I burn my trash.

I hate burning my trash as I’m worried that I’ll start a brush fire, and I’m concerned about breathing the toxic fumes from burning plastic bags, containers and metal cans. I tear my grocery and bank receipts into tiny pieces before burning them. I know children, and sometimes adults go through my trash, as they collect items they can use.

When I received my package from the U.S., everything was wrapped in cardboard and beautiful packaging. The kids love to keep boxes, tissue paper, yoghurt containers, empty wine boxes, and create dollhouses, and make “pretend” beds and furniture out of anything they find in the trash.

When Karabelo, Mary’s eleven-year-old granddaughter, showed me where and how to burn my trash for the first time, she squatted next to the flames. With her bare hands, she removed objects that she wanted to keep. The tips of her toes were less than an inch from the flames, but this did not bother her.

Teaching Karabelo how to use my laptop

Teaching Karabelo how to use my laptop

My rondavel

My rondavel

People want to come inside my rondavel. I have a laptop, books, an exercise ball and a nice duvet cover with pillows. My host mother warned me not to let anyone inside, except for her, and her granddaughter, because once I allow one person inside, the whole village will stop by to “see” what I have in my room.

I guess I have to redefine privacy, and realize that it will be non-existent for the next two years I’m serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho.

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Comments (20)

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  1. Jenni says:

    Life in Africa! It’s amazing how our trash is another person’s treasure. My mom always used to laugh when we lived in Libya at how creative people were with our trash. She threw out her garter belt one day and was surprised to see the hook and snap part used as earrings the next. She got to a point where if she wanted to give something away, but didn’t want to create jealous disputes amongst the neighbors, she threw it out and whoever found it first kept it.

    Archaeologists have been sifting through trash heaps for years to learn about ancient cultures. I guess our garbage tells more about us than we realize.

    Sorry about the lack of privacy. I don’t think that problem is going to go away while you’re there.
    Jenni recently posted..Wat Prathat Doi SuthepMy Profile

  2. Ian Mathie says:

    I warned you there is no such thing as privacy in Africa. The only private thing is your thoughts.Never mind, you’ll soon get used to it. Be as nosy as they are, you’ll enjoy it, settle in faster and learn more about the people and how they live. Play their game.
    The countryside doesn’t look as if you’re in much danger of starting a bush fire with your trsash. But if you’re concerned, dig a fire pit and burn it in that.
    If the kids are that keen on recycling, save anything recyclable for them. Make a competition out of it by having monthly share-out lotteries with your recyclable bits as the prizes – old cartons, yoghurt pots, tins, even your wine boxes. Then see who can make the most creative use of what they get. It’ll create a lot of fun, save you having to chop p and burn things, and help engage the children.
    By the way, next time you get anywhere near a hardware store, buy yourself a bucket with a lid, or at least a large enamel plate to serve as a lid for your pee bucket. Try emptying it at night too.
    It looks like you’re having a lot of fun.

    • Sonia Marsh says:

      Ian,

      What a great idea. I think I shall start a competition and take photos of their creative ideas. I do have a lid on my pee bucket.
      I visited a community center for HIV/AIDS kids today. This will make another blog post in the future.
      Yes, you’re right about the lack of privacy, and you did warn me about that.
      Sonia Marsh recently posted..I Have No PrivacyMy Profile

  3. Sonia, your descriptions here remind me of the journals our students wrote when my family led a group to Haiti, and then later to the Ivory Coast. Those who lived in the villages wrote about the lack of privacy. Later, they saw some positive aspects of this deep connection to others. But it is important to find your own kind of boundary too. Sounds like your host mother is a guide to this.

    Love your ability to tell a story. Humor is the key to resilience. Brava.
    Shirley Hershey Showalter recently posted..Sprinting into Older Age: JubilaciónMy Profile

  4. Sandra S. says:

    Love your descriptions of everyday life. I too would wonder where everyone went if they did not use the latrine.

    I guess burning trash is a solution when you don’t have much trash. We certainly produce a lot more trash in the US. I remember our family more than tripled our household trash output when we moved from Brazil to California (mostly due to the large amount of packaging on food and other products in the US and the fact we brought our own containers to buy many things in Brazil).

  5. Linda Luke says:

    You are so brave! And, so courageous. And, oh so gutsy. I look forward to seeing who you have become when you return.
    Linda Luke recently posted..The Pros and Cons of Simple LivingMy Profile

  6. Monica says:

    Hi Sonia, enjoying your posts and in amazement of your new life . Sounds like you are finding fulfillment in what you are doing !

  7. Gosh, your life in Lesotho takes some getting used to. The lack of privacy and the pee part especially reminds me of once when I went to stay at a village at the top of a mountain in the middle of an enormous lake in Mexico. One week, and I was out of there. Or as Ian says, the only thing that’s private is your thoughts. Again, reminds me of rural Mexico where you’re never alone. Your rondavel looks nice though far removed from what you’re used to. There’s the difference. We’re so spoiled in our lives that we ignore the fact that more than half of earth’s population does not have our comforts. At least you have time off to recuperate in Maseru and teaching is so rewarding
    Penelope James recently posted..When Is Murder Not A Mortal Sin?My Profile

    • Sonia Marsh says:

      Pennie,

      I feel lucky to have a propane tank to cook, and a small stove, instead of having twigs burning in my rondavel, to boil a pot of water and breathe in smoke fumes, like my 74-year-old neighbor does.
      Sonia Marsh recently posted..I Have No PrivacyMy Profile

  8. Suellen Zima says:

    Your post reminded me of my trying to get my students in China to understand the word “privacy.” None of them could tell me the Chinese word for privacy. It was indeed a foreign concept. I’m surprised the Peace Corps training didn’t prepare you for that. I also remember reading something from a westerner who lived in another country about her experience when she was ill. She said the culture she lived in felt an ill person needed to be attended to and visited constantly when all she wanted to do was sleep and be left alone to feel sick. Have you noticed that that is also the way in your village?

  9. So love to read your posts! Pee issues around the world – so much a part of travelling discussions let alone living for any length of time! My adjustment to squat toilets even for a month would be worth a blog or two! Privacy is truly only in our minds – I think Ian has shared a lot of wisdom. We have been taught that our bodily functions are private; others take it for granted since it is just part of life. I think about how we admonish our children about burping etc in public – it must seem very closed and cold in Western cultures when Afrikans visit us. Makes me appreciate how big of a deal it is for refugees coming to our country. Sounds like you are adapting!
    Eileen Hopkins recently posted..Voices from the Valleys on SALE!My Profile

  10. Marie Alanen says:

    It appears that there is a privacy boundary if per your host mother you can restrict access to your little house. Since everyone is so accessible otherwise, I wonder if that provides teaching opportunities when you are working with your students.

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