Going home

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It was the end of a long journey. I was squeezed -- along with 20 blanketed Africans -- inside a decaying VW van that rattled jauntily up the brown valley, the radio blaring a tiny distortion of a song that spoke of love. I was going home.

I had been an English teacher in a small village of Lesotho, an arid, mountainous country tucked into a remote corner of southern Africa, where women, children, and old men scratch a living from the resistant soil. It was the sort of thing you did as an adventure: you put in your time in the Peace Corps and then resumed your career.

The Basotho had called me ntate,"m whcih in English means "father," and had taken me into their homes as naturally as they would a member of the family. The village chief became my friend, and after school hours the students crowded into my house for popcorn, tea, and the kind of easy conversation you would have with a brother you see every day.

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After three years I disengaged myself as gently as possible and returned to America and the letters of my pupils: "Father Bill, who is making noise in your house back there in America and eating popcorn?" "Ntatem Bill, real we are missing you. I do not think our exam results will be good when you are not here." "When will you visit us agains?" So one day -- after being away for only six months -- I just borded the plane in New York and returned.

Now, sharing the back seat of the van with four Basotho, I savored every detail. Staring through the dirty windows, across the withered landscape, the small irregular plots stubbeled with the memories of last season's maize, up through the juniper valleys to the treeless purple mountains, I knew I was going home.

The road ahead yielded to the land, allowing the right of way to rocky hillocks, insinuating itself between one family's field and its neighbor's. Curling like the smoke from an old woman's cooking fire, two undulating ruts finally disappeared near the escarpment.

After it had been time to go, my Peace Corps tour at an end, I discovered that leaving an African country finally was not like moving from Connecticut to Colorado; it was more like waking from a Keatsian dream -- all its details still sharply etched, the thatched mud huts, the sound of "Nearer, My God, to Thee" in the predawn air, the vilalge children wandering into my house for food, teh faded blue paint on the trading store -- and wondering at the field vision.

Yet here I was in a taxi, speaking Sesotho once more, goin ghome again. The Basotho crouched disconsolately in their blankets, passively enduring the cold and the violent swaying as the van careered recklessly around a rutted bend in the road, the driver, unconcerned, singing along with the song on the radio. Outside, a herdboy -- perhaps seven years old -- spotting in panic our onward rush, swung his staff and nimbly chased his sheep out of danger.

"U tsoa kae, ntate?"m the old man beside me inquired politely, tapping me on the arm and giving me a gap-toothed smile when he learned I had just come from America. On the floor beneath us a chicken, imprisoned in a plastic grocery bag marked "Fraser's," rustled about and forlonly ogled the clutter of feet, cabbages, and mealies.

Behind us we trailed a wake of thick, brown dust. Ahead, to the east, rose Thaba Telle, the Tall Mountain, which I had climbed with some of the boys -- I had cherished and perfected each detail of this remembered vision -- and then, around the last bend, we drifted down toward St. Louis Mission, where the priests had planted eucalyptus, and beyond which lay the zinc-roofed, whitewashed school buildings.

As I had always imagined I would, I got out of the van, shouldered my backpack, and, totally unannounced, walked toward the school. It was early afternoon and classes were in session. A few students, their gaze wandering idly out the windows, sat up, stared incredulously, and nudged their classmates. The boys, braving their stick-wielding teachers, called to one another: "Ke Ntate Bill. O khitlile!" Father Bill has come back. The older students, the boys wearing the same ragged uniforms, the girls neatly starched as ever, rushed out and surrounded me: Thabo, who used to call me "Molecule" because he liked the word, slapping his hand in mine; Qenehelo, whose name I had had trouble pronouncing, asking if I remembered her; Maliketso, who signed the letters she had sent to me in America "Your lonely child," holding out her slack hand, in the manner of Basotho girls.

"Hello, Zokolo!" I yelled. "Are you still studying hard?"

"Ntatem Bill, you're back," he replied. I had known him when he had a soprano voice and now his beard was starting.

"Brother," Ntlatsane asked, "are you visiting or have you come to teach us again?"

"Sister, I've come to stay."

"The new teacher doesn't explain well."

In Lesotho virtually the only way to address another is to refer to him as a relative. My large family had gathered in the traditional way, the senior students at the center of the gathering, the younger children, having enrolled at the school too recently to know who I was, standing shyly at the outside of the circle. Like a wanderer come home, I did not resist the warmth that rose within. Rahube, Faustin, and Steve, my teaching friends, were patting me on the back. Only the headmaster maintained his reserve, pretending not to notice that hundreds of his students were outside. He waited importantly in his office until I presented myself formally.

They had received me as I knew they would: a room was prepared, the headmaster hoped I would stay for three more years, they were so short of teachers, and in the school kitchen the women who cook polished an enamel bowl, rummaged about for a spoon, and proudly presented me with the staple dish of Lesotho -- fried cabbage and mealies.

Why was I so drawn to this unimportant village, these obscure people? Among the Africans it was Everyman's dream not to savor this pastoral calm but to escape it, to go to the land where everyone drivers a car and lives in a big house, where the buildings are so tall one cannot imagine them and where more than half the people are millionaires.

Yet I knew that had I traveled more than 9,000 miles across the Atlantic from a comfortable American suburb, and had I found only this greeting, this affection and no more, I would have been fulfilled. Is not the whole meaning of life contained in just such an experience?

Outside, the deep stillness of the African night was disturbed only by the shuffling of the Queen's cows organizing themselves in the kraal and the far-off bark of someone's dog in the village above.

As sleep moved down from the hills, I lay back, pulled close my blankets, and remembered the greeting of my neighbor Ntatem Maaoabi: "Welcome home, father."

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