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.
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.
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.