Darkness falling, we asked again in desperation, “Na u ka re supisa tsela Ribeneng?” Can you show us the way to Ribeneng?
“Over mountain,” replied a young woman with a Cheshire Cat smile, proudly showing off her urban education. We had been walking for 10 hours in the mountains of Lesotho, mostly around in circles for the last few. My mental picture of Africa had not included ice on puddles – our borrowed army-surplus sleeping bags would not make for a pleasant night out. “Can we stay with your family?” we asked.
Mantoi’s smile faded as she explained that she had no food for us. Assuring her that we had plenty of rice and would be happy to share, she softened. Her English was yards better than our pathetic Sesotho, but communication was still difficult. Eventually, we comprehended something about getting permission from her mother and father and, ultimately, the chief of Khubetsoana, Lesotho. We collapsed on her stoop, not sure whether to laugh or cry.
Slowly, her many brothers and sisters approached us. I shuffled in my pack for some food, afraid to disclose the abundance inside. My sparse gear was more than the children had owned collectively in their lives. We shared some jerky and energy bars together – the shiny colored packaging almost more fascinating than our white skin and soft hair. Seven-year-old Mosiea walked around barefoot and naked except for a skirt and her naked baby sister tied to her back with a thin blanket; I shivered and put on my socks, fleece and rain jacket, ashamed of my fortune in warm clothes and shoes. Eleven-year-old Timakatso had entered the mud hut and started the fire with a couple twigs carried from many miles away in the upper mountains – I had not seen a tree in 10 hours of hiking that day.
Mantoi’s mother and father-in-law arrived and motioned us into the mud hut. All 10 of us piled in, jockeying for warmth over a flame only slightly larger than a lighter. My sister and I helped the youngest girls carry water from the pump down the trail, their bare feet immune to the ice and rocks. We shared rice and stories into the night until our eyes and laughing lungs could bear the chimneyless hut no longer. When I took the burned pan outside to clean, the young children politely shared burnt rice crusted to the bottom of it.
Morning came and we shared our cup of cereal and powdered milk. Mantoi’s mother diplomatically dolled out two spoonfuls into the cupped hands of each child. When the feast was done, the children casually picked up each lost cereal grain off the spotless concrete-like mud floor and stuffed it in their mouths.
We packed up our gear and said goodbye and thanks. We only had a chief’s name for finding our final destination. It no longer mattered if we got there.