Sala Hantle – Farewell
When my father started his lonely and confusing journey down the unrelenting path of Alzheimer’s disease, his daily refrain was to ask me: Are you travelling? I know where his worry came from; I’ve been travelling for most of my life.
Are you travelling?
Not today Dad.
I’m exploring all those journeys in my mind; looking at the images I’ve created, questioning their relevance and if I’ve made any difference through my documentary photography.
What does this legacy of images actually represent for me and for others. How did they come into being, when does an issue or a country become so important that I‘ve had to travel to that place. What‘s the motivation; has my work helped the people I‘ve photographed, have the photographs affected people, and as a result, have those people taken action.
Travelling to Lesotho takes time. Fly from Cork to London – wait, search for some worthwhile reading material. The flight to Johannesburg is long enough to plan the days ahead, visualise the people and the projects I need to document, the images I want to make, long enough to watch three movies, long enough to wish I could sleep like everyone else on the flight. After the immigration queue that zig zags with passegers from six simultaneously arriving flights, I watch the luggage revolve, bump and fall from the carosel and realise that mine is probably in Paris and won‘t make it to Lesotho yet again.
What follows is a mind numbing drive, on a seemingly endless straight road through South Africa; hour after hour, field after lush field of crops stretching out for miles on either side of the road. I‘m squashed between luggage and men on their way back from the mines. Women wear Basotho blankets and cradle sleeping children; I mop my face, it‘s dripping with sweat. We stop ocassionally, traders press up against the bus windows selling hot mealies, passengers take the opportunity to stretch their numb legs, relieve themselves and seek water. The music of Sesotho Sounds blasts out of the bus speakers keeping the driver focused. A few miles further on the minivan bumps onto the side of the road, a tyre is flat, we wait for another bus to bring a replacement, finally we are loaded onto that bus; the speakers are louder in this one.
Are you travelling?
No Dad I’m at home today.
Finally, the landscape starts to change, mountains appear on the horizon cutting into a cerulean sky. I just want to be in Lesotho, be there, arrive. At last we make a right turn, the first turn of any kind in all that distance, I calculate the miles and the time it will take to arrive into Ficksburg the border town where I can cross into Maputsoe. I send a text. ‘I am waiting‘ comes the reply.
In December this small landlocked country is very hot for an Irish woman. In February the longed for rain arrows down and drains can’t contain the flow of water. If there‘s a drought the crops are stunted and lightening storms trace the night sky accompanied by cracks of thunder, the sound of which is terrifying. In June the mountains are covered in snow and children make their way to school when the temperature is minus twelve. Names are important in Lesotho and if, as a guest, you‘re awarded a name, you can feel honoured and accepted. When I first visted, there had been a drought; I was staying in St Luke’s Mission and on my arrival it rained and thus I was given my name, ‘Mé Pula. Pula is Sotho for rain. It‘s what the country wishes for, Peace, Rain and Prosperity ‘Khotso, Pula, Nala‘. That year the longed for rain arrived, Lesotho saw the heaviest rainfall in nearly two decades and it destroyed more than a third of the crops in the ground. Years of drought have hardened the soil and dongas, deep gullies, fracture the landscape; it’s a potent image, families in Lesotho are fractured, eroded by AIDS.
‘I’m not a well man‘.
It’s said in the spirit of fun with a wry grin, he’s acting, takes the stance of an aged man bent over from the waist, to get some sympathy, some laughter and a hug. For an eighty eight year old he’s pretty healthy. His organs are wearing out, but he sleeps and eats well and loves to laugh; he just can’t remember new information.
I’ve travelled to the ‘Mountain Kingdom‘ on nineteen different occasions, on each trip I‘ve documented people who are sick; women, children and men who are living with AIDS. Spent time in homes where people had no food and were too ill to grow crops of any kind, too weak to visit a clinic and get the drugs they needed to keep them alive. Sat in rondavels where children cared for their dying parent. Listened to men injured in the South African mines, who feel disempowered because they can no longer earn a living and support their families. Talked to children whose responsibility it now is to care for their siblings since their parents are no longer alive. But that’s not the complete picture.
Time in Lesotho has given me an understanding of what community means: family is at the heart of Basotho culture. I’ve learned about dignity in the face of great challenge, and as a result of my experiences, the people I’ve met, listened to and learned from, I’ve started to care for my own family.
Are you travelling?
Just to Blackwater.
Where’s that place?
Between Kenmare and Sneem.
We pull into the the wide expanse of the bus arrivals area, minibuses are spilling out passengers, luggage and parcels. I see Ntate Mankoe waiting at the Jeep, it‘s so good to see him. He’s wearing a Kerry jersey to welcome me.
Lumela ‘Mé Eileen how was your journey?
Long, Ntate, long. How is your family?
They are well.
The word Ntate, meaning father, is a form of respect; I’ve known Ntate Mankoe for over five years and even though we‘re the same age I wouldn‘t consider calling him by his christian name, Tarcisius. He‘s a trusted community leader, a great teacher and guide to Basotho culture; infinitely patient with my plodding efforts to learn basic Sotho greetings that are the warp and weft of friendship. He’s managing operations for an Irish nongovernmental agency, focusing on food security and enterprise.
Crossing the border into Lesotho is a rite of passage, I can’t believe I’ve arrived; but before the hub bub of Maputsoe is the ritual of the border crossing, lines of people waiting to get their passport stamped; exiting South Africa they cross the bridge between the two countries, burdened with their luggage, walking above and over the Caledon River to arrive at another border post in Lesotho. Some, without a passport or temporary documentation, leave it until night and swim across the river in the shadow of the bridge; the other side holds the hope of work. It’s a political boundary and more than that it’s a psychological road that leads from the memory of apartheid into a place that is fiercely independent. Somehow the Lesotho check point seems friendlier, people smile in recognition and my fatigue evaporates.
When I first travelled around Lesotho in April 2006 I stayed in a number of inns, the first being Lancer’s in the capital city Maseru. In the dining room of the hotel the walls were hung with paintings signed with the name Meshu. As I went from place to place photographing I saw more and more of Meshu’s striking images of the human figure. Having circled the country I returned to Maseru determined to track down the artist. Our first meeting was in the Basotho Hat where some of his drawings were being displayed. He arrived with a rolled up painting under his arm.
I’m not a young man you know
You look brilliant Dad
At that time Meshu was eighty one years of age, looked an energetic sixty years and was still producing work in his studio every day with the hope of selling a piece of art to buy bread and feed his grandchildren. It was one of the most important meetings that I was to have in Lesotho, the beginning of a long conversation. We walked to Lancer’s Inn and sat down to talk surrounded by his paintings.
I was a peripatetic scholar and learned as I was trotting around the world. My work was influenced by the African expressionists. People have said that we have a distortionist approach, but for us it is reality and how we see ourselves. I have arrived at a point, now I can express my feelings through the human figure.
Our conversation was interrupted, as it would be on many occasions, and Meshu was whisked away to meet with the Prime Minister. Collectors of Meshu’s work live in Africa, Europe and America; he is valued in Lesotho for his life experience and the advice he can give as much as for his artwork. A political advisor to the Prime Minister and recipient of a lifetime award from the King he is highly regarded yet still lives on the edge of poverty as an artist. Many of his peers have moved to South Africa or Europe to further their artistic careers, Meshu has taken the hard road but for him the only road.
We are sitting under an intriguing painting; there is a snake in evidence.
I’m a humanist; the boundaries between faiths is so thin. I grew up in in the remote village of Qeme near a big mountain that seperates it from Maseru. The people are very traditional. The medicine man may hunt for snakes and the herd boys look after the cattle; you watch the tall grass and if it shakes continuously you know that a snake is there, it shakes in a pattern. That information has always lived with me. In 1994 I drew a snake, I was trying to recollect the days when I was a herd boy; we were approached by the medicine man in the village and we were asked to hunt for snakes and bring them back to him. I just remembered those days and that‘s the story behind this symbol against disease, the war against disease. The medicine man used the snake and used his spear to help those who suffered.
This morning I telephoned Meshu to let him know that I am writing about him and that I have a book of poetry for him by a Mosotho who lives in Paris, the front cover is one of his paintings‚Woman in a Moment of Puff.
How are you Meshu?
Trying to keep above the water level. I’m not sinking.
It’s good to hear his voice, strong and full of vitality and humour. On my next trip to Lesotho I am in Meshu’s small studio to talk, photograph and pick up a charcoal drawing of a miner that he has created for me. Mining has become one of the dominant symbols that floats through all the stories that I see and hear. The drawing is in front of me on my wall in Bantry as I write and remember.
A culture comes in and becomes an avalanche. When I left the village I went to the mines in South Africa to get cash. Whilst I was there I was lucky, the management of the mines promoted me to a clerk. It was an experience I started questioning. We went to the depths of the earth. It was traumatic; the first two weeks my sleep was different. They gave us good food, things we did not have in the village. Monthly payment. Mining culture; I found myself at odds with it even though it was enhancing my life – a conflict of interest.
Ultimately I started rejecting the mining culture and tried to politicise against dehumanising, deculturalising, – no soul, no spirit. What I experienced in the mines makes me more convinced against a mining culture.
When we leave our communities the communities are not balanced; its destabilising to a family, the family is not whole.
We used to leave the compound and go and look for women; syphillis and ghonnorea was an everyday thing in the mines. No protected sex, people dying, it was hazardous.When they began the men were strong and healthy, at the end of the contract dilapidated. A strong man engaging in a destructive situation – victim of a power far beyond his understanding. Go into a location and please the girls. Weekend – money and girls, Monday – disease and the doctor. I want to see freedom from self enslavement. The culture of the mines is destructive and is enslavement.
I remember my mother. I asked her, ‘Where is my father?‘ She said to me, ‘He is coming.‘ That answer has always intrigued me. Eventually he used to come. The longing for him I am unable to describe. The one who you know is coming but is yet to arrive.
Perhaps this explains the many images that Meshu has created of the mother and child, the family, the lone woman, women cooking and women grieving.
When my father left Clonakilty he went to work in the mines in Doncaster
Do you remember when you were in the mines Dad?
I used to have all my water finished before we got to the bottom of the pit. You’d have to keep your lunch in a tin otherwise the mice would get to it.
I made my last trip to Lesotho in 2010. It was the final trip because it was clear that my parents needed help and within a short space of time I moved from Kerry to Bantry in south west Cork. And I was lucky, I had a further four years to enjoy my Dad and learn from him.
Looking through my archive of Lesotho photographs in 2015 it is evident how important the images are to me. I can visualise the situation in which each one was taken, the conversations with people whose lives and health was so challenged and the fortitude with which they faced extreme poverty. The photographs were seen by over 50,000 students in Irish universities in public exhibitions. I had the opportunity to present lectures, to inform, and also to encourage young people to volunteer their time in Lesotho to learn from Basotho about true community develpment.