Habitat for Humility


First Person

Voluntourism in Lesotho, Africa.

Via Pixabay.

Lesotho landscape. Image via Pixabay.

Lesotho is a tiny country surrounded completely by South Africa, and that’s about all I knew about it when I arrived in the summer—their winter—of 2005. I was a college sophomore, and I’d come with fifteen or so classmates for five weeks of volunteer work and research, or what passes for research among college sophomores. I was minoring in Africana studies in those days, originally as an excuse to read more James Baldwin, but the prospect of actually traveling to Africa enthralled me—it didn’t matter where. The paper I produced at the end of the trip, with feminist intent but offensive result, was titled, “No Bras to Burn: A Time of Change for Basotho Textile Workers.” 

Last month—eleven years later, almost to the day—I went back to Lesotho, this time on a public-health reporting fellowship. In my free time, I managed to track down the sites where I’d volunteered in 2005. I looked forward to laying my hands on the artifacts of my previous visit: a playground and a couple houses I helped to build. I hope those structures have been useful to someone, but separately from that, more selfishly, I value them as nostalgic talismans, proof that I have walked this earth and left my mark.

The earth, it turns out, is easier walked than marked.

I thought tracking down the Maseru Children’s Village would take some serious detective work, but by good fortune it was so close to my hotel that I found it almost by accident. The Children’s Village is an orphanage, mostly for children who’ve lost their parents to HIV or who carry the virus themselves. (Nearly a quarter of Lesotho’s adults live with HIV, the third highest rate in the world.) Our main task, when I went there in 2005, was to build a small playground for these children. We also spent a lot of time playing with them.

Like all voluntourism, these moments of play overflowed with good intentions but were also fraught with questions of race and culture and wealth and privilege. Looking back, I’m not sure why we all needed so many photos of ourselves playing with the children. I remember feeling a sudden attachment to them at the time, but those bonds have long since turned to dust, even as our photos of these interactions endure on Facebook, Tinder, and wherever else people broadcast their real worldliness and false humility. I am particularly unproud of a photo I took of a three-year-old boy’s small hand wrapped around my index finger—a profound symbol of racial harmony, I thought at the time—which I achieved by holding my hand in front of his face for ages, waiting for him to engage it like a grapevine.

khubelu 2016

© Ted Trautman.

I knew I was close to the orphanage, on my return last month, when I passed a familiar bookstore where eleven years ago I’d bought a handful of grade-school Sesotho-language primers. My white skin stood out on these streets, as much now as then, and occasionally a passerby would ask, kindly, if I was lost.

“Is there an orphanage nearby?” I asked one such Samaritan, a young man called Joseph who told me he lived in the neighborhood.

“Is there a … what?” English is commonly spoken in Lesotho, a former British protectorate, but vocabularies vary. Despite having owned multiple grade-school Sesotho-language primers for more than a decade, I had no Sesotho beyond “good morning” and “thank you” with which to make up the difference.

“I’m looking for the children who have no parents,” I tried again. “I’m looking for the house where those children live.”

Recognition flashed in Joseph’s eyes. “Aha! You mean Save the Children! I’ll show you the way.”

It hadn’t occurred to me to call the orphanage by that name, but I understood why Joseph used it. Maseru Children’s Village is funded by a local affiliate of Save the Children, a century-old British charity charmingly named with all the urgency of a mother barking orders in a house fire: Forget about me—just save the children! If only all NGOs had such baldly imperative names—not the Red Cross, but Donate the Blood!; not the March of Dimes, but Fight Polio with Coins!

Joseph left me with a Catholic blessing and a handshake at the front entrance, and I walked in. Save the Children’s children are presumably well-saved, though none were around to ask—they were all off at school, according to a bemused young woman who shruggingly gave me permission to wander the premises.

It’s always disturbed me that time passes at the same rate everywhere, whether I’m there or not; I would much prefer that the proverbial tree falling in the woods not begin its collapse until I’ve arrived to experience the moment firsthand. Instead, there’s only a steady flow and infinite divergence: the adorable ten-year-old Argentine whose family I once lived with is now twenty and a stranger; the Lower East Side wine bar where I met my fiancée has gone out of business; my favorite Kyrgyzstani pop stars have retired to white-collar jobs.

Also vanished, to my great dismay, was the small playground I’d helped build eleven years earlier. I had thought it might be in disrepair, but never dreamed it would disappear completely in its first decade. Over the course of a week, my classmates had constructed as fine a jungle gym as you’d expect from a dozen English and history majors. I remember a large pile of two-by-fours, a few tires, a surprising amount of rebar; worryingly, I’m not sure whether those were the raw materials or the finished product.

Such details are hazy in part because I was working across the yard, on sandbox duty. I don’t closely follow trends in playground design, but I believe that sandboxes were falling out of vogue by the early 2000s—in the U.S., anyway—because they are cesspools of broken glass and disease. In retrospect, then, a playground serving a large number of HIV-positive children was probably not the best place to put such a cesspool. And yet that’s what the Village administration asked us to do. Ours wasn’t even a sand “box,” strictly speaking, so much as a liver-shaped hole lined with plastic on the bottom and bricks along the rim. That’s probably why our sand hole, like the jungle gym, had given its contents back to the sands of time long before I returned this spring. 


© Ted Trautman.

On my phone, I pulled up an old Facebook photo of the sandbox in its prime. “Completed sandbox!!! yessssssssss!” the caption reads. “w00t w00t!” a friend commented shortly after the picture was posted. “WE DID A BOMB @$$ JOB!” Glancing between my phone and the remains of that bomb-@$$ job, I noticed that the loose collection of bricks on the ground still roughly—very roughly—took the shape of our erstwhile pit. The soil, it seemed, had rejected the bricks like so many liver transplants.

Although I was disappointed to see my own handiwork undone, it’s worth noting that Maseru Children’s Village is not without a playground today. They actually have a much better jungle gym than the one we left them, composed of sturdier, safer materials and clearly assembled by more experienced hands. There is no new sandbox, but perhaps there oughtn’t be.

From the Children’s Village, I spent the rest of the day tracking down a village called Khubelu, where I’d helped construct a few homes under the banner of Habitat for Humanity, aka Build the Houses! The degree to which I “helped construct” anything is debatable; mostly I just dug outhouse pits while local professionals did the real building. Come to think of it, literally all I did on my first visit to Lesotho—from the sandbox to these outhouses to writing “No Bras to Burn”—was dig myself holes.

Eleven years later, Khubelu is substantially larger than the few dozen houses I remembered. I asked a man sitting outside the village cantina how many people live here now, and he said he had no idea. Fair enough, I thought, until he added that he was the village chief. Teboho Mohapi and I shared a large bottle of beer, by the bottom of which it became difficult for either of us to recall statistics with any accuracy. Teboho gave me the CliffsNotes on life in Khubelu today—there are too few schools for the village’s growing population; employment is up, thanks to a Chinese-owned air-bag factory down the road—and then blessed my plan to walk around a bit and see what I could recognize.

Eventually I found the houses, and the outhouses, I’d worked on; unlike my ill-fated playground, they were still standing, and apparently thriving. In place of bare soil, they’re now surrounded by vegetable gardens that seemed lush despite a drought. I knocked on a few doors, but the only person who answered spoke no English. I gestured an apology for disturbing her and, having scratched my nostalgic itch, made for the road that would take me back to Maseru.

On the way out, I met a young man who wouldn’t tell me his real name because he figured I couldn’t pronounce it. “Just call me Shattah Bouy,” he told me—the stage name he uses as a budding Maseru rapper. He’s twenty-one today, so ten years old when I first came to his village. Had he lived here back then? Yes, as it happens.

“Shattah Bouy,” I asked, “do you remember a group of American volunteers coming here when you were ten?”

Sure, he said, but he also remembers the ones who came when he was nine, eleven, twelve, thirteen. They blend together.

I showed Shattah Bouy a few old photos, putative symbols of racial harmony I’d taken with some children on this very street eleven years earlier. Did he recognize anyone? Did he see himself? He knew some of the faces, he said, but they belonged to people who had moved away.

And did he have an opinion about these Americans parading through Khubelu each winter? Were we intrusive? Respectful? Did we do any good?

“You were all kind of loud,” Shattah Bouy recalled. “But I don’t think you slowed down the builders too much. I guess you should keep coming, if you want. No one will stop you.”

Ted Trautman has written for The New YorkerThe Atlantic, SlateWired, and others. He lives in San Jose, California. This essay was made possible with support from the International Reporting Project.