Ghosts in Snow and Rock
There are men now, ten of them, in front of the barbershop—a flimsy metal shanty near the spot where the main road wishbones into two. I have never actually seen anyone being barbered here, but the shanty is nonetheless a hub of masculine activity. It squats on a stretch of road just past Bad G’s Botique, where cobblers stitch tongues of imitation leather, over by the two competing coffin shops, where carpenters join wooden planks out in the sun. Today they’re building children’s coffins.
This is in Lesotho, in the land of rock and gully, where my wife and I have been living for a year. We live up in the eastern mountains of Mokhotlong district where the passes snow over and the roads wash away. At sunset the herd boys drive goats and sheep down from the mountains, the shepherds drive cattle in from the fields. A platoon of horses comes clattering and steaming through town, an awkward galloping donkey drawing up the rear, the evening commute.
But today—in front of the barbershop—these ten men are huddled over a game.
It is called morabaraba and it is well beyond my comprehension.
“Eh?” I ask.
“MOH-RAH-BAH-RAH-BAH,” one of the men enunciates.
It is a board game, a game of strategic positioning. It involves two men moving pieces around a spiderweb-shaped playing field and eight men leaning over them, yelling directives and clawing their skulls in frustration.
The men are playing on a large flat shard of salvaged plastic, the spiderweb drawn on with marker. One man commands a team of pebbles, the other man marshals a battalion of old bottle caps. They are slamming the pieces around the board—tock! tock! tock! tock! tock!—quicker than I can follow.
I ask an observer, who is vigorously coaching one of the players, how the game works.
“Morabaraba,” he tells me, “only for bo-ntate, not for women.”
He points to three bottle caps.
“Those ones are likhomo, the cows—”
But cuts his explanation short to yell “Butle! Butle! Butle! Butle! Butle!” at his advisee.
This—very broadly speaking—means: “You, sir, should take a more measured course of action, as you have the strategic faculties of a goat.”
The two men slide their pebbles and bottle caps rapidly around the web, occasionally stopping to flick the other man’s pieces unceremoniously into the dirt, resulting in roars of approval from the onlookers.
Eventually one man wins and one man loses. The winner has guided his cows to some desirable end, I suppose. A new contestant sits down, the pebbles and bottle caps are gathered up, and the game begins again.
I continue on my walk through town.
Behind me, I can hear the men cheering and laughing and shit-talking, the aura of easy camaraderie suffusing the late afternoon air, the genial hum of conversation warding off the coming night, at least for a little while.
In the road the livestock are moving.
This is another time.
It may seem significantly unrelated to morabaraba, and maybe it is.
We are on our way back from Sani Pass, where an ice storm has encased the area overnight. The navigation of treacherous icy passes is best left to someone who is not us, so we have hired Ntate J to give us a lift back to Mokhotlong in his truck. Ntate J is a sweet-faced man in his thirties from the same village where our friend Nthabeleng grew up. He carefully maneuvers through switchbacks, churning and shimmying down the sludgy tracks that run alongside the gorge.
Whenever we pass another 4WD, Ntate J pulls alongside to chat with the driver. In his thirty-ish years, Ntate J has worked as a shepherd, a tour guide, and an auto mechanic. He is the kind of person who can fix or procure whatever needs fixing or procuring, and he knows everything that transpires on the mountain. A reliable man to have at the wheel.
As we round a bend, we come across a group of four shepherds trudging through the snow, all wrapped in woolen Basotho blankets, all in gumboots, all with sturdy wooden molamo in hand, all masked in balaclavas—gray-faced phantoms moving through ankle-deep slush, eyes visible through narrow slits.
These four shepherds are leaving a 4WD minibus parked in the snow behind them, and I wonder if their vehicle is stuck atop this remote pass. Ntate J calls out to them with the same thought in mind. The four shepherds stop at the window.
Ntate J is quickly involved in a long, jovial conversation with the shepherds. The four men pull off their balaclavas, their eyes bright with some shared joke, their faces shining from exertion, and now the five of them are laughing, the shepherds pointing up over a ridge, Ntate J shaking his head as he chuckles. Now that their balaclavas are off, I can see two of them have their hair cut in traditional shepherd-style: close-cropped all around, but one with a single blunted rhino horn of hair, the other sporting two small wicked devil horns. Eventually the shepherds pull their balaclavas down again and set off, waving back at Ntate J.
We drive on. After a moment, I ask if the shepherds’ minibus is stuck in the snow.
“No,” Ntate J says, “they are leaving it behind so it will not be seen.”
This answer piques curiosity.
“But where are they going?”
“They are going to beat that man,” Ntate J says. “They are going to beat him badly.”
Silence in the truck.
“The shepherd who stays on that side. They are going to beat him very very badly.”
Further silence, which Ntate J accurately interprets as invitation to continue.
“Those four men, they have found that the shepherd who stays on that side has stolen a sheep from the flock. He is the flock’s caretaker, yes, but he is not the flock’s owner, and so he does not have the right to eat the sheep’s meat. These men, they have found the oils on the rocks, they know this shepherd is the guilty one.”
Ntate J swerves and nimbly avoids a donkey in the road.
“They must beat him so badly. And maybe they will kill him.”
“Really, they must.”
We are rapt. Ntate J relates this information in an amiable and even-handed tone.
“Because when someone is the thief, it means he does not want you to live. If the thief steals from you, it means he does not care if you can live. Kanete, he is threatening your livelihood. And if he does not want you to live, then you must kill this man.”
His eyes go to the rearview mirror.
“Even you,” he says, “if that man would kill you, I think you would kill that man.”
We have no response.
“When I was the shepherd, and I was ten years old, the other shepherds once stole a sheep. I did not steal it, but I did eat the meat, so even I was responsible.”
He pauses at this surfacing memory.
“When some other shepherds came, they beat us very badly for this crime. So badly that we went into the hospital.”
The truck judders down the road, the door latch rattling.
“You see, when you are the shepherd, you will eat only papa, only maize meal. You will eat papa once during the day, and it will be this way for six months. Perhaps one time in six months you will eat meat—ichu!—you will be so hungry! But once I was beaten, I knew never to steal the sheep again, even when I was very very hungry. And when I was older, I taught the small boys not to steal the sheep. Because the thief—hei!—it means the thief does not want you to live. So you must beat that man very badly. You must kill that man.”
His eyes are on us again in the rearview.
“And when you can kill the thief, even God will be on your side.”
In the early evening I often hike the mountain behind our rondavel. Tonight I am standing alone as Mokhotlong unfolds itself before me. I am far up the mountain—hundreds of feet over the camptown—and I can see the sinuous course of the river and the high school buildings gathered at the edge of the gorge, brooding like hens. There is the pitso ground, there is the Thia-La-La butchery, there are the joala shanties. Nthabeleng’s neighborhood is clustered to the west, where the sun has started to dip. In the east there are low terraced graveyards cut into the sides of mountains. The metal roofs of the houses below are ablaze with reflected light—it looks like someone has shattered an enormous mirror against the floor of the valley. Everything is far away and washed in the mournful distant light of the setting sun. It is the time of day when ghosts move about.
I am thinking about those shepherds as I climb. I wonder if they killed that man, if he died out there alone in the snow and rock. I wonder what it can mean to live like that—an existence of bare-bones pastoral simplicity, of violent biblical retribution, of psychological and physical extremes—but it is a world I can have no access to. These young men, they smoke dakha and float in gauzy oblivion across the mountain. These young boys, they drift for weeks without seeing another human face, lost out on some desolate peak, talking only to their flock. They sing as they wander, whistle as they strum an oil-can guitar. What can it mean to be removed from human congress like that?
As I come over a rise in the rock, I am suddenly confronted with a rudimentary morabaraba board etched into a flat-top boulder. The spider-web design is clear against the rock, and some pebbles and bottle caps are gathered around the base of the boulder, the two teams of likhomo. It is immediately arresting, it looks primordial carved into this boulder—ancient and chthonic—somehow pre-dating the hands that scraped it into existence.
It is a meeting point for wandering shepherds, some place of communion. I wonder how long they wait here by the rock, these ghosts, before they drift further off into the wilderness.
Up here on the mountain, I feel like the last person alive, like a shade in some post-rapture world. I think back to those men in front of the barbershop, the joyous goofy energy of that moment, the caffeinated brotherly badinage.
Up here on the mountain, a game of morabaraba must feel like salvation.
WILL MCGRATH has recently finished work on a book of narrative nonfiction about the kingdom of Lesotho. His writing on Lesotho has appeared in Asymptote, Roads & Kingdoms, the Christian Science Monitor, and is forthcoming in Gastronomica. Excerpts from this project have been translated into Chinese and Hungarian. Contact him via Twitter (@wtmcgrath) or email (wtmcgrath at gmail dot com).