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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.