“I dream that this book will go far, and tell people about the Basotho, how it is with us, how poor we are and how we go on with life anyway.”
This is an unusual memoir, consisting of the stories of a poor woman from Lesotho, matriarch of a large family, who works as a cleaning lady to feed her many children and grandchildren. Though she speaks seven or eight languages and attended some school as a teenager, she spent all of her adult life busy with manual labor and raising children and is essentially illiterate. She “wrote” this book in collaboration with an American professor, by telling her stories orally, having them read back to her and dictating changes.
It’s a fascinating book in that it offers a window on a sort of life rarely encountered even in books: not only the lives of a ordinary African woman and her family, but the lives of people so poor they often go hungry or inadequately clothed, and may not even have a home large enough for the entire household to sleep on the floor. When you do encounter characters living so hand-to-mouth, they populate a book that ends in triumph, usually through education. But the lives of Nthunya and her family always feel precarious, even when they’re doing well, working in South Africa or farming in the Maluti Mountains. This isn’t a relentlessly depressing book – life always goes on – but it isn’t a feel-good story either.
Nthunya’s isn’t simply a story of poverty, though. Born in 1930, she remembers a Lesotho that has largely disappeared, with customs that might surprise many readers. She describes what we would call an open relationship with her husband; both were comfortable with the other having outside sexual relationships, and this appears to have been normal. She also talks about what seems to be a romantic friendship with another woman, which is celebrated by the community through multiple feasts. Meanwhile Christianity mixes easily with traditional beliefs, including several episodes of visiting sangomas (traditional healers) for “sickness which is not from God,” usually involving a curse from a jealous relative or neighbor.
Overall, I found this short memoir very engaging. Nthunya’s way of speaking is distinctive, and I’m not entirely convinced that having her tell her stories in English was the best choice. She makes several references to being much more comfortable in her native tongue, and her English grammar is idiosyncratic. The book contains a somewhat defensive afterward by the professor who turned these stories into a book (I got the impression that zealously ideological social-justice-oriented acquaintances gave her a hard time for being involved at all), in which she explains that they tried having a bilingual friend take down Nthunya’s stories in Sesotho and translate them, but that this translation was “much less powerful” than Nthunya’s English. Maybe they just needed a better translator? But regardless, the stories flow well and offer a great window into a world rarely seen in print. This is the sort of experience I’m always looking for in my world books challenge, and I’m glad to have read it.