I should start then by explaining joala. I know you don't know what it is because I barely know what it is—and I've had buckets of the stuff. Joala is Basotho-style corn beer, or corn liquor, or corn-something. And to be precise, it's actually maize beer, not corn beer, although it is at times sorghum beer.
Generally speaking, you can identify joala by one of the following: either a) you are standing in the joala district of Mokhotlong, which is a row of shanties where the ancient grandmothers sit stirring their steaming drums of possible industrial byproduct, or b) you are down by the turn in the river, where the occasionally paved road curls up toward the hospital, and you are heading toward that slim crooked tree where the ancient grandmothers now sit with their joala for sale, decanted into plastic buckets.
Generally speaking, though, you cannot speak generally about joala. Each joala is unique, each its own precious snowflake of intoxicant. I've had joala that was the pale color of dead skin, and I've had joala that looked like orange juice. I've sipped it from old coffee cans, and I've sipped it from cereal bowls. There is no consistent joala experience.
The best joala I ever had was the brew 'M'e Malereko cooked up in a rinsed-out laundry detergent bucket. That batch sat behind a couch for two weeks, keeping its own counsel in the dark. When Malereko finally unveiled it at Nthabeleng's birthday party, it had mellowed into a lovely apricot color, sweet and winy on the tongue. At the birthday party, as I watched Nthabeleng and her siblings do a synchronized hop-step routine to pulsing clubby kwaito music, I dipped my cup into the communal barrel and watched as raisins bobbed to the surface. They looked like tiny dried mermaids coming up to wave hello. Hello, little mermaids, I said to no one in particular.
First, a word about Nthabeleng, since she's the reason we're here in the eastern highlands of Lesotho, up here through the cloudscreen, in this rugged mountain district of Mokhotlong.
Nthabeleng: she is about four feet tall, this tiny dynamo, and one time she tried to strangle me. She runs an NGO that fights against the ravages of the AIDS pandemic, which affects 24 percent of Lesotho's population. That's the third highest rate on the planet. Compare, if you wish, against the United States at 0.6 percent, or the UK at 0.2 percent.
Ah, but what can you say about Nthabeleng? She is the showrunner, the point guard, the boss of the Basotho, and the mookameli of Mokhotlong. Up here in the mountains, Nthabeleng runs a safe home for children orphaned by AIDS, captains an outreach team that voyages into the loneliest corners of this alpine district.
Above all else, Nthabeleng is a fixer. Can't get antiretroviral meds? She's the person to talk to. Don't have food for the baby? She'll hook you up. Need a ride to the clinic? Hop in. She sees all, hears all, knows all. Out of a sense of benevolence, she may let you think you are getting away with something. You are not. She lives in your thoughts and dreams. She knows your malfeasance before you fease it mal. She speaks better English than you do. She tells funnier jokes in her third language than you do in your first. She is ferocious in the way that only the very tiny can be. I once heard her ream out a two-timing employee and it sounded like a fireworks factory burning down. When Nthabeleng walks by construction sites, nails plunge themselves into wood. Cement mixes itself.
If this description sounds Paul Bunyon–esque, if it sounds tall tale–ish—I suggest you call me on it. Go ahead, say something out loud, in the comfort of your home, or your work, maybe as you wait for the bus. Say her name—"Nthabeleng"—say something bad about her.
She is standing right behind you.
But you are missing the point—this story isn't about Nthabeleng, even though one could potentially make the argument that all stories are about Nthabeleng.
As I said at the outset, I'm pretty sure this is a story about joala. And eventually, talking about joala is always talking about Retselisitsoe Mohlomi, he of oversized noggin and joyous drooling grin.
Retselisitsoe is one of the forty-odd children who pass through Nthabeleng's safe home during a typical year. Some children stay for weeks or months, some even longer, until they can be safely reunited with extended family. Most of them are here because they are dangerously sick and have lost one of their parents. All of them are here because AIDS has rearranged the accepted tenets of how a childhood should work.
Retselisitsoe Mohlomi, like so many before him, arrives at the safe home a pre-corpse. He is HIV-positive, a hollow-eyed skeleton with an oxygen mask engulfing his face. He lingers around the edges of death just long enough to ruin everyone's month.
And then he recovers.
(See, this is what Nthabeleng does—takes really-should-be-dead children and converts them into most-certainly-alive children.)
Gradually, gradually, Retselisitsoe's body adjusts to antiretroviral meds. His metabolism stabilizes. He acquires muscle mass and bone density. Later he learns to walk, which is what children his age would have done a year prior. When I comment on this transformation, Nthabeleng yells at me, as she will do.
"Hey, uena! Don't you know this place is where we turn babies into balloons!" She draws out the double-o in the word balloons, inflating those vowels in the same way that she inflates the children.
A year passes. Now Retselisitsoe is a fat and yowling toddler-tank. He is a doe-eyed bruiser, a knocker-down of children, a goofy stumbling future rugby star. The mental image of his initial form—that skeletal pre-corpse—is crumpled and pitched into the wastebasket of unpleasant memories.
And finally, after a year, Retselisitsoe is healthy enough to return to his grandparents, who are caring for his four siblings in a small village about an hour's drive from the safe home.
Do I need to tell you that both of his parents are dead?
Perhaps this sounds like a difficult life: five young siblings cared for by two decrepit elders. Assuredly it is. And in Lesotho, especially up here in the mountains, it is a far-too-common way of life.
But I must note, for the accuracy of the permanent record, that Retselisitsoe and his siblings do have something special going for them, that maybe their situation isn't the absolute worst. This is because Retselisitsoe's grandparents are among the most endearing and resilient human beings I have encountered. In an effort to avoid overly windy descriptions, I present here a list of the adjectives I most frequently deploy when describing Ma and Pa Mohlomi:
also: incredibly doting
also: possibly drunk
What is shocking, then—against the backdrop of this male-female muddle—is that Ma and Pa Mohlomi, these two crusty souls eking toward their eighties, seem deeply happy to be married to each other. Proud, perhaps, of their shared decades scraping together a living in an earthen hut on the side of a mountain.
And maybe now you are wondering: When two people do share decades in an earthen hut on the side of a mountain, how exactly do they scrape together a living, especially when that side of a mountain is in eastern Lesotho, notoriously devoid of arable land and distinctly cordoned off from any agricultural ease-of-life?
That answer—like all answers—lies at the bottom of a bucket of joala.
We have inched the 4WD along the edge of a gorge, my wife and I, where small goats caper over loose rock below, and we are heading for the rondavel of Ma and Pa Mohlomi. We have come for joala.
This is how Ma and Pa Mohlomi make their living, brewing joala in large stinking barrels in their hut. As we approach, they are standing in the doorway. Pa Mohlomi puts his arm around Ma's shoulders and introduces her—mosali oaka, my wife. He grins proudly and she laughs like a teenager and they welcome us inside. On a nearby branch, a white scrap of cloth flutters in the breeze, indicating that homebrew is available inside.
I suppose I should admit that our visit does not revolve entirely around joala. We have come mostly because we miss Retselisitsoe, that little piss-and-vinegar destructoid, and somewhat because we need a joala fix, but also because we are bearing a stopgap supply of Retselisitsoe's antiretroviral meds.
Ma and Pa Mohlomi, in addition to keeping Retselisitsoe happy, healthy, coddled, and clean, have also mastered his HIV regimen—a dizzying daily concoction of Medicine X (4 ml, morning and night) and Suspension Y (2 ml in the morning, 3 ml at night), and Syrup Z (3 ml in the morning, 2 ml at night)—despite the fact that both cannot read and neither have received even the most rudimentary medical education. But today they have gotten word to Nthabeleng that Retselisitsoe's med supply will run out before their next chance to get to the rural clinic, which is a several-hour hike beyond their village.
Inside the hut, Retselisitsoe has just woken from his nap. He is disoriented and—perhaps understandably—begins screaming when he sees us. Ma Mohlomi slings him onto her back and wraps him in a blanket, assuring him that we are not on a repo mission for the safe home. And soon, in the comfort of Ma Mohlomi's swaddling, Retselisitsoe begins laughing and making faces at us. We swoon. Something about his enormous inverted pyramid of a head, which threatened always to topple him over backward, something about his brute and oblivious pinball trajectory through the other children as he chased a rolling ball, something about his skeleton-to-calzone transformation, like a perverse before-and-after photo—it all inspired the crushing desire to wrap him in your arms, tuck him deeply inside your clothing, and spirit him away. Once, back at the safe home, I held him in my arms as I pulled an enormous snot from his nose. It came out like a great green garden slug, massively occupying his nasal passage. Retselisitsoe's eyes went wide with the attendant release of pressure. He gaped rapturously at me, and for the first time I understood that parental and godlike desire to protect and soothe and destroy pain.
We hand over the antiretroviral meds, and Ma Mohlomi offers us a seat, a cylindrical chunk of chopped log. Their rondavel is a squat circular hut, the piled-stone walls insulated with a mud-'n'-dung plaster, the same cohesive mixture that makes up the mud-'n'-dung flooring.
And now that we have transferred the meds, it is time to sample joala. Ma Mohlomi—with her imperious eyes and mouth perpetually on the horizon of an outright smile—skips over to the giant barrel of joala stewing in the corner. Retselisitsoe indulges us as we pull him onto our laps. His chunky body has regained that deep country scent, an intoxicating perfume of soil, rain, hay, sweat, minerals, and cookfire smoke. I nuzzle my face into the tight tiny coils of his hair; he smells like a rutabaga freshly plucked from the earth.
We show Ma Mohlomi the bucket we have brought with us: a small cornflower blue pail that a child might take to the beach, able to hold a half gallon of seawater or a half gallon of Basotho moonshine. Joala is always BYO-container.
"Ke bo kae?" we ask, holding up our pail.
Ma Mohlomi eyeballs the bucket for a moment. "Two," she says.
As in two maloti. As in 0.20 USD. As in four nickels.
We quickly huddle, agreeing that two maloti is ludicrous. Instead, we offer to pay twenty maloti, claiming we have no change and feeling okay with a self-imposed 900 percent markup.
Ma Mohlomi smiles broadly and shows us her mouth of no teeth. Pa Mohlomi takes the bucket from us, dips it into the murky vat, fills it to the brim, and puts the lid back on. Then he scoops up an extra cup's worth for us to taste.
We sip the joala carefully and smile with delight. "It is excellent," we say.
It is not excellent.
I have come to realize that the batch 'M'e Malereko cooked up—the sweet, winy, raisin brew—was the exception, perhaps wasn't even joala at all. Real village joala is uniformly terrible. Take, for instance, this batch: it is a sour, porridge-like aberration. It has the tang of turned dairy, a cream-of-leek viscosity, and the scent of old carpet. Small, mysterious chunks bob in and out of sight. Scraps of maize husk float by on their way to Hell. This joala is warm—not room temperature, but actually warm—something that hints at the exothermic reactions taking place down in its brackish depths.
The aftertaste is distinctly that of pepperoni or cured meats—perhaps a fine Genoa salami—salty and fatty and clinging to the tongue.
We drink it down and sigh contentedly. We have never tasted something so sublime.
Now—too soon, too soon—it is time to go. We collect our joala pail and chat a few extra minutes in our fake Sesotho-English. We take turns hugging Retselisitsoe and smothering him with kisses. We head out the door, past the crowd of curious milling neighbors, past the tree branch with the scrap of white cloth, past the gorge and the scrabbling mountain goats, and then home. And only once on the road back does the joala bucket nearly explode, the plastic lid bulging suddenly domelike—this non-carbonated brew—pulsing and expanding from the unknowable reactions taking place inside.
Now we have reached the end of this story about joala.
I suppose I had hoped we wouldn't get here—hoped maybe we'd get sidetracked or wander down the mountain trails of some other story. There are so many I could have chosen, so many I could have told about Nthabeleng. I thought maybe I could talk around the point for long enough, or tell this story like it really was just about joala, even though I knew it really wasn't.
Over Easter—we learn these details later—Retselisitsoe begins having diarrhea. He is sick, but not terribly so. Ma and Pa Mohlomi decide that they will take him to the rural clinic as soon as it reopens after the holiday.
Ma Mohlomi sets out on foot early Easter Monday, trekking several hours through the mountains. Retselisitsoe is swaddled to her back. When she arrives, she unwraps the blanket and passes Retselisitsoe gently to the nurses. Surely the nurses can see that he is already dead. Ma Mohlomi must understand this as well.
Only four days have passed since he became sick. There was no weight loss, there were no Big Warning Signs. He never even seemed very ill, she tells us later, just suddenly gone, his quiet little body asleep.
Later that day, Ma and Pa Mohlomi will send word to the extended family of Retselisitsoe's dead father, the relatives who—according to Basotho kinship rules—have rights to the child's body, this child they haven't attempted to care for or know in any way.
Retselisitsoe's body lies wrapped in Ma and Pa Mohlomi's rondavel. A day passes before members of the dead father's extended family arrive to reclaim him. They take him and bury him without a funeral in another village.
Pa Mohlomi travels by donkey to see the child buried, then returns, upset that they haven't even used a coffin. Just a wooden box, he says.
This is how the other family sends Retselisitsoe into the earth.
It has been several months now since Retselisitsoe's death. My wife continues to visit Ma and Pa Mohlomi, even though our organization's business with them has technically concluded. Ellen tells them stories about Retselisitsoe's time at the safe home, about how much everyone loved him. When she heads out their way on her dirt bike, Ma and Pa Mohlomi grow happy; they can hear her coming through the gorge, the motorcycle announcing her presence with its onomatopoetic Sesotho name: se-tu-tu-tu.
In the mornings, Ellen tells me, Ma Mohlomi wakes up before light has begun to filter into the rondavel. She has a little ritual that makes it easier to start the day. She mimics Retselisitsoe's tiny voice, calling out for his sister to set the kettle boiling—It is late, it is late—just like he used to do. Even in death he commands them, even in death he bends them to his indomitable toddler will.
Ellen has now printed out pictures for Ma and Pa Mohlomi, which hang on the earthen walls of their rondavel. To me, though, the pictures all look the same. Whether Retselisitsoe is laughing or crying, I can't help but see the sadness in his gaze, the mournful foreknowledge of his own death.
This is a memory I have of him:
Retselisitsoe—his name in Sesotho means we give condolences—is throwing a tantrum, screaming hysterically about something, probably nothing at all. He is wearing a pink and purple shirt that someone has donated, the words Little Princess stamped in fake rhinestones across the front. I take him in my arms and leave the nursery; we walk the hallways until he is calm.
We walk into Nthabeleng's empty office. I stand up on a chair, still holding him, so we can look out the high windows at the edges of the ceiling.
Suddenly Retselisitsoe is entranced, staring out at the land around him, captivated by the pickup trucks on the road, the meandering cattle, the children playing down by the river, the innumerable darting birds. He looks back at me, eyes wide: Are you seeing this? He stares up at the sky, pupils dilating. Then he looks back into the room, notices the ceiling just inches from his head, and reaches a cautious hand up to touch it. His gaze keeps shifting from the dimensionless blue span of the sky outside to the firm yellow plaster of the ceiling.
He looks at me in wonderment, trying to parse these two concepts, how funny it is, how strange, that there is ceiling above us, just over our heads, where there should be sky.