Our last night in Malealea we were invited to a villager’s home for dinner. We joined most of our fellow travelers at sundown, flashlights in hand, for the walk to his home. Arriving in total darkness, we startled a young horse that was sleeping near the hut as we nearly stepped on him. The tidy hut was small and had ten chairs, neatly arranged in a U-shape, occupying about half of the available space. A bed occupied the other half.
The hut was dimly lit and it was difficult to make out faces in the candle light. An old man sat by the door, who the villager introduced simply as his father; he then left the hut to fetch our meals, which were being prepared by his mother and sister in an adjoining hut.
The old man warmly welcomed us to his village and asked if our stay had been pleasant. He was 90 years old, he told us, and wanted to share some of the history of his people. He pointed to his blanket and told us that white men had first brought “soft blankets” to his village as a gift to the chief. The chief liked the blankets so much, as they were softer and warmer than the animal skins his people wore, that he told the white men to bring more blankets for all his people. They did and now everyone had soft blankets and didn’t need to wear animal skins anymore.
Soon, the villager returned with our meals. He gave each of us a small white bowl that held boiled chicken, wild spinach, and papa. Spoons were passed around the room and we ate in silence. When the old man finished with his meal, his son carefully removed his bowl and gently cleaned his hands with a warm, wet cloth. He coughed a little (a cold, he told us) and resumed his story. Long ago, there had been cannibals living in the mountains around his village and the people were afraid. The first chief, a wise man, sent a messenger to the cannibals and asked them to come speak with him. When the cannibals arrived, the chief promised that if they stopped eating his people and moved into the village, he would give them all the beef they could eat, forever. The cannibals thought about this for a while and then agreed to move to the village. The chief kept his promise and gave them cattle and land. And so the cannibals’ descendants were still living in the village to this very day.
Finally, he thanked us for coming to his home and for sharing his food. He was old and tired, but also very happy that black people and white people could sit together and share a meal. He was confident that we were more alike than different and that our children would enjoy a prosperous future, together. We left his home, one by one, as his warmly took our hands and wished us a safe journey.
It was a moonless night and there were no lights on anywhere in the village . We looked up to behold the Milky Way stretching across the sky from one horizon to the other. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
The small and large Magellanic Clouds were high in the sky, as was the Southern Cross. We stopped and marveled at the sky – none of us had ever been in a place that had no light pollution. We were seeing the sky the way our early ancestors had seen it, before the Industrial Revolution and electric lights destroyed the night sky.
We walked back to the Lodge – flashlights pointing forward while we all looked up – and said our “good nights”. The generator was still running, so a small group of us stopped by the bar for a night cap. We raised our glasses in a toast to the first chief and his wisdom in dealing the cannibals, and then marveled at the changes the old man had experienced in his life. Soon, the generator was turned off and we returned to our huts in darkness. I lay in bed that night trying to absorb the events of the evening and began thinking about how similar we all are, no matter if we live in urban New Jersey or a small dark village in Lesotho. We live our lives – have children and hope and dream that their lives will be a little bit better than ours. We share meals with friends, a drink or two, and, if we’re really lucky, sometimes we notice the wonders of the night sky.
A small footnote – unlike all other posts on this blog, the photos used in this post are not mine, but publicly available images found on other websites. I used them in hopes that they would help illustrate the mood and wonder of that evening in ways that my words cannot.