"Mahlapane's Story" by Jerry Eckert

Jerry Eckert

Jerry Eckert

Jerry Eckert's first career spanned 40 years working on agricultural development, income inequality and poverty in Africa and south Asia. He wrote over 150 articles and policy analyses to guide governments in South Africa, Lesotho, The Gambia, and Pakistan. Two papers won Best Published Article awards, five op-eds in the Christian Science Monitor changed America's South African policies, his monograph restructured Lesotho's agriculture. His most influential writing, however, became the first economic policies of the Mandela government. He now devotes his second career to an old love which has been waiting for him all these years—creative nonfiction writing.

Mahlapane's Story  


A slanting blade of yellow light sliced through the cracks of a handmade door, slid across my face and jarred me awake. Around me, rough-hewn stone formed the walls of the one-room rondavel, the traditional round hut of southern African villages. Overhead a roof of thatching grass kept morning chills at bay, sealing in the smells of last night's smoky cooking fire. I had spent the night in Ha Potsane, a village of perhaps 300 households, perched on the gentle grassy slopes of Lesotho's lowlands. It had been a fitful night in an unfamiliar bed. Unknown insects from the thatch above had visited, leaving a sprinkling of welts across my exposed skin. I rose and stood in the doorway, stretching out the cramps. The air brought whiffs of dew and dung smoke. At each rondavel, cotton white plumes from breakfast fires escaped through vents and crevices. In the cool heavy air of morning, this blanket snaked downward through the slanting village, hugging the ground, past a spring where a pair of horses drank, and out across the widening valley below. Small stirrings here and there, children's voices, a pot being scraped, told of a new day.

I had recently arrived in Lesotho, a nation on the southern African map no larger than Maryland. I was leading a team of academics who would spend the next three years strengthening the capabilities of young professionals in the Ministry of Agriculture. This was my first African assignment. Everything about this land was new to me. I had much to learn.

I brought with me a driving commitment to helping the poor. For eight years I had worked in Pakistan where income inequality was extremewhere twenty million Pakistanis lived on ten U.S. cents a day while twenty-two families of industrialists averaged incomes of $4,000 an hour for each family member. I watched these inequities crush the vitality from villagers' lives and destabilize their government. I lived with them in their villages, shared their meals of flat bread, tea and a boiled egg because that's all there was, and heard their anguish over whether their children might ever imagine something better. Then I wrote policy prescriptions that offered a possible way out for Pakistan. Now I wondered if these policies might also be needed in Lesotho. To answer this, I needed to find and to understand Lesotho's poverty.

I had to get out of the capital city, to visit a village and meet some rural people who rode Basotho ponies to work instead of polished black limousines. In an accident of perfect timing, I met an American, Judy Gay, who was researching women's roles in village life for her doctorate in economic anthropology. She kept a rondavel in Ha Potsane as her field research base. In Ha Potsane as elsewhere across Lesotho, women head seventy percent of the families living in those rondavels. As an added bonus for Judy, the regional chief, a woman of influence and grace and a member of the royal family, lived here and ruled from her substantial compound. When Judy invited me to spend a few days in her village, I leapt at the chance. It was a casual offer, but one that would change what I knew of Africa dramatically. We drove out to her village one afternoon in time for an evening meal of corn grits, beef sausage and tomato gravy. Then it was early to bed with a big day ahead.

The morning after our arrival, Judy and I took off across the village to meet with some of the women whose lives and thoughts she was recording. We threaded our way through a bleating flock of iridescent white mohair goats, kicked a rolling soccer ball back toward some laughing urchins, and ducked under a clothesline hung with laundry. I tagged along, all eyes and ears, hoping my presence wouldn't bias her conversations. Judy was uncovering nuances of power linked to social and kinship relations. She seemed to be on anthropology's cutting edge and I was thrilled to be here, on the sidelines, watching. I pestered her with questions and she taught me a great deal that week. But the lesson from that visit that still humbles me today came from an unexpected source.

Her name was Mahlapane. She was a wisp of a girl with a shy smile, penetrating eyes and a recent high school diploma. At 19, she was exactly half my age. She worked as Judy's research assistant, making introductions, translating from Sesotho, and explaining deeper meanings of what was said. Her real strength as a research partner came from her insider status in this village. She knew these people intimately. She was accepted as one of their own, trusted with her culture's inner knowledge, it's hidden meanings. Mahlapane eased Judy's entree to village women in their rondavels. Her presence added an aura of trust and encouraged candor from the women as they answered Judy's penetrating questions. She provided bits of local history and social insight as well. During my visit, she hung around Judy's rondavel after work, mostly making small talk. Maybe she was just curious to see who this new white guy was, who had come to her village from abroad, and to figure out just why he was here.

We spent that first day in interviews. I sat hunched at the back of conversations on rondavel stoops, trying to be invisible yet ogled by big-eyed, half naked children. By quitting time, I wasn't sure if I was any closer to finding real poverty in this village although I thought I had seen some hints. Some women wore dresses purchased new in South Africa while others made do with ill-fitting hand-me-downs. Some horses were well fed, others scrawny. Some children were nicely dressed and clean, others wore mostly rags and street dust. A few houses had corrugated metal roofs but most were only thatched with grass. I hoped that Mahlapane might explain these things to me.

That evening, we three were seated on the stoop of Judy's rondavel. The air was still, even balmy. Shadows gradually stretched dark fingers across the open grasslands in front of us. Judy and I were relaxed, Mahlapane a little less so. She wore a crisply pressed blue dress, not unlike a school uniform. Although she didn't say much, she followed our banter intently. I brought the conversation around to poverty and then asked her directly, "Mahlapane, what makes people poor in this village?"

My question drew a quizzical silence. I tried another tack.

"Look, aren't there people in Ha Potsane that you would consider poor?"

"What do you mean by poor?" she asked. Judy tried to help, searching for just the right words in the Sesotho language. Mahlapane didn't think there were poor people in her village. I still didn't think she understood the question. There had to be a few of them. The conversation staggered a bit while the foreign expert and the village girl tried to reach some common ground on which they could explore this issue.

Then I spied what I thought would be my Rosetta Stone. Down the lane from our left shuffled a rather gaunt older man leading three horses out toward evening pasture. His coat was frayed at the cuffs, one sleeve partly detached. His patched trousers had seen many days since their last washing. His unwashed hair was ratty, halfway between trim and dreadlocks. His face, weathered with neglect, was unshaven. When he greeted us, it was with missing teeth.

"There!" I whispered to Mahlapane, "Isn't that man poor?"

"Oh, No." she said. "That is Ntate Thabong."

She emphasized his last name slightly. Thabong was not her relative, so her use of "Ntate," Sesotho for "father," showed the cultural deference reserved for respected older men. Still, just his name brought no clarity to the poverty question. Which must have shown in my eyes, because, after a pause she added, "He is the chief's groom. Those are the chief's horses."

We watched the slow parade out to pasture while I digested her information. The horses seemed more eager than did Ntate Thabong. The procession paused at the little spring just beyond our hut. The horses snuffled up some water, smacked the drops from their lips, and nodded their muzzles up and down.

Mahlapane softly broke the silence with another thought.

"Ntate Thabong's father was groom to the previous chief. And his father's father was groom to Chief Goliath."

This last bit was important. Chief Goliath had been a renowned man, a powerful chief. Even I had read his name though he had been dead for years. In fact, this village had once been named Ha Goliath, the place of Goliath. In my mind, Ntate Thabong's job transformed from one of simple hireling, a tender of horses, into a hereditary position of trust and honor with intimate ties to the regional chiefs and through the royal lineage, however remotely, to the paramount chief himself, His Majesty, King Moshoeshoe II.

"But," I persisted, "he looks like he doesn't even have enough money for food."

"He eats at the Chief's kitchen," she said without elaboration.

"So which one is his rondavel?"

"He sleeps in a room at the Chief's compound."

My exasperation must have shown. I made one final attempt. "But with all that, just look at him. Isn't he still poor?"

Mahlapane looked at me, I would like to think wistfully, but it may have been with much sadness. This village girl with her high school diploma then turned squarely to the international expert with his doctorate and his theories and simply said: "A man is only poor if he knows he is poor."

It took a while, but once her statement sank in, this international "expert" truly saw Ntate Thabong for the first time. This unshaven man with missing teeth likely had no money in his pocket. Yet he also had no worries over food or shelter. He was clothed, if not well. He ate, slept, worked and moved freely about in the center of local power and authority. He had an important patron whom he served faithfully. His Chief was well mounted if he did his job with skill, and in the traditional horse culture of Lesotho, one's horse, tack and regalia were important parts of rank and reputation. His job made Ntate Thabong a local cultural icon. He and his family had been linked to the lineage of chiefs for generations, from which he drew respect and pride. Because of these things, everyone in the village knew his name and addressed him as Ntate. What need had he for money or property? His name, his job and the respect of his village were property enough.

It has been many years since I lived in that part of Africa. Yet still today, a short moving image of this shuffling man with the chief's three horses replays itself quite often in my head. I see the blend of dust and brown clothes, his weathered skin and his slow plodding pace. I hear the horses slup up water, see the drops fall from their lips. I can hear their first bites as they start their evening meal once loosed onto the grassy slope that fronts Ha Potsane. "A man is only poor if he knows he is poor."

Though he never spoke to me directly, Ntate Thabong left me with questions that have thundered through my head for years. Just what is it that underpins a person's sense of self-worth, of personal dignity, of knowing that he or she matters? Maybe these two, the old man and the girl together, were my Rosetta Stone after all; the unreadable, shuffling hieroglyph and the translator who changed him into words I knew. If so, their answer to my question leads me, three decades on, to this belief. Is not a person's true wealth defined in simple things: our physical health and its security, our intellectual and spiritual depth and the freedom to exercise these capacities, and the net balance of our relationships with others and, some would add, with God? I think that Mahlapane would agree.