The Cinder Block House

It’s 7:00 on a July morning in 2013. Winter in Lesotho’s Mokhotlong district.

The herd boys whistle as they pass, walking their sheep, goats and skinny cows up into the Maloti mountains to graze on the brown, sparse grass. I peek at them over the top of my blankets, through the tiny space between the dusty, dark curtains that drape over the windows.

A pigeon lands abruptly on the tin roof and its feet scratch across the surface as it walks. Those birds are everywhere, I think in my half-asleep state. I roll over in the blankets on the concave mattress I inherited from the previous volunteer in the village of Mabuleng, and consider sticking a toe out into the cold air inside my cinderblock house.

There is duct tape on my poorly-constructed windows in a half-assed attempt to keep the dust and cold mountain wind from blowing through the crevices. It doesn’t work. Like most of the Basotho women, I sweep the floor every day, yet I still see the dirt that blows in from the eroded, dry soil onto the floor and the condensation from my exhalations in the cold air inside my home.

I comfort myself with the fact that the agile crab spiders that once lurked on my walls are long gone.

A view of my cinder block house and me carrying a water bucket from the pump, Mokhotlong, Lesotho.

I’ve always been a morning person, but it takes me too long to get out of bed, even after spending more than 12 hours in it. With a 5:00pm sunset and no electricity, it’s the warmest and safest place to be in the evenings. The previous evening, I watched my last candle burn down to a stub, finished grading my students’ math homework and eventually fell asleep. 24 years old. The peak of my youth. Bedtime at 8:30pm.

I finally leap out from under the blankets and dash to the plastic 20-liter water bucket in the corner, which I filled and carried from the pump yesterday on my head. I take pride that I can carry heavy loads on my head like local women. My small, quick steps minimize the surface area of my feet that comes in contact with the frigid floor.

I immediately light the gas stove, heat some water and jump back onto my warm island in a sea of cold concrete, my bed. When the water boils, I mix half of it with the icy water from the bucket in a large basin. Shivering and cringing, I get in the basin with a bar of soap and begin the dreaded bath ritual, which occurs once a week in the winter.

The entry into my cinder block house, Mokhotlong, Lesotho.

After scrubbing the layers of dust off my body and using a plastic scoop to rinse myself with the same cloudy, sudsy water, I dry myself off and throw on some of my warmest clothes. I whip up a quick batch of sorghum porridge with water and sugar and I mix the rest of the boiled water with a chicory-based instant coffee in my enamel mug.

I eat my humble breakfast while dreaming of the espresso, strawberries and croissants I enjoyed on last month’s luxurious trip to Europe to see a boy I’d met on holiday in South Africa six months ago. I try to recall the last time I ate a vegetable but I can’t remember. It’s now 7:45 am. Back to reality. I dump out the dirty bath water into a pile of rocks near the now barren vegetable garden and walk down the dirt road to the local secondary school where I teach.

Fast forward to 2017. It’s 7:00 am on a weekday morning in July. I wake up in my charming, second-floor altbau apartment in the old town of Zürich next to that boy, now my life partner, who enticed me to visit him four years ago in Europe. The alarm, a gentle piano tune on his iPhone, coaxes me out of my deep sleep. He rolls over and wraps his arms around me and gives me a soft squeeze. We stretch our bodies a little in our firm queen-sized bed with white sheets that smell of lavender.

I step onto the parquet floors and open the windows and shutters for some fresh air as he gets up for a hot shower, then slowly make my way to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. With the press of a button, I grind up coffee beans and turn on the faucet to fill our moka coffee pot. Then, I slice up a beautifully browned loaf of Swiss spelt bread from a local bakery for toast and set out marmalade, butter and fruit.

My new home: Zurich, Switzerland.

We enjoy a slow, sunny summer breakfast together, drinking fresh coffee and listening to music on our wireless portable speaker before he goes to work at the chocolate company. In spite of my current status as a jobseeker, we still manage to live a very comfortable life on one source of income.

I can’t shake the guilt, a feeling which no one else around me seems to have. Maybe you’ve already figured it out by now, but in just four short years, I went from an extremely modest life amongst the poorest of the poor to a privileged one in a country that is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. In terms of comparison, Lesotho’s gross domestic product (GDP) was USD $2 billion in 2014, versus Switzerland’s hearty $700 billion in the same year.

Within those four years, I spoke to herd boys in Lesotho as young as six years old who dropped out of school to take care of livestock, often the only source of income in the family, because their parents were too sick from HIV/AIDs and could no longer engage in productive economic activity.

I later schmoozed with heads of wealthy European families based in Switzerland who make it their job to invest money to make more money in order to expand and preserve the wealth that has been squirreled away and passed down for hundreds of years.

After living with the poor and like the poor for over two years, it was absurdly uncomfortable at first to make Switzerland my home, in spite of the high quality of life there. In Lesotho, I had successfully taught science and mathematics and established a school library in a school without many resources.

But the first time I showed up in the decked-out Christmas version of Zürich in my wrinkled, stretched out clothes that I had hand-washed for two years, my sense of accomplishment temporarily vanished. For the first time, I felt global inequality because I lived it. And I was bitter.

Textbooks, journal articles and statistics like GDP may try, but they will never convey the heaviness that results from living in the two different worlds of the rich and poor. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sense out of these experiences, the emotions it induced, what it means to me and how it’s added value to my life.

As strange and soul-crushing as it was at times, it was an important intellectual, psychological and physiological exercise that taught me important lessons about the concept of home, love, life and what it means to be human. It is challenging and worldview-shattering, but experiencing “otherness” (however big, small, simple or complex) is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and for each other.

I still think about the cinder block house. It was ugly, impractical and downright disgusting at times. Bats, rats, spiders, lizards, bed bugs, dirt and toddlers often found their way inside.

But it was my home in a larger community of lovely people that I had the opportunity to get to know. Life wasn’t easy for any of us for various reasons, but it didn’t matter because we had each other. To quote Rihanna, “we found love in a hopeless place.” Humans aren’t so different from each other after all.

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