The first person who said it to me yelled it over fives times, “Lekhooa! Lekhooa! Lekhooa! Lekhooa! Lekhooa!” They continued until I turned around and then he happily waved. Was it just my attention this small boy was trying to receive? The direct, loud, and harsh manner in which he said the exclamatory word did not seem like he wanted to be my friend, or even enthusiastically greet me. The exchange left me confused as I walked to Peace Corps training.
The first person who warned me of the word’s significance struggled to come up with a definition. She was one of our language and cultural facilitators in training. Surely if anyone could explain what it meant it was her, but before I even knew its meaning I was being warned to not take it offensively.
The first person to define it, an older Peace Corps Volunteer, told me some of its many translations. She said it meant foreigner, white, boss..but was not quite sure which was more correct than the other. For the first time I wondered to myself if it mattered. Is a word is only given meaning through the way it is used? Shit, for example.
The first person to tell me they were sure of its origination said, “It comes from South Africa. Its what Xhosa people used to describe the white water on the beach. You know, the dirty, foamy part.”
The first person I heard use it as a nickname from one Mosotho to another was on the volleyball court. At the time my Sesotho was still developing and the slang used there went way over my head. For months I thought they were referring to me. “Everyone calls each other Lekhooa here. It’s a good nickname, sort of like BOSS,” my friend Joseph described.
The first person that stood up for me against the word was a small child no more than five years old. I was walking past the primary school on my gbme fromg the store and the kids all ran toward me, “Lekhooa! Lekhooa!” They only wanted me to smile and say hello, but in Thaba Tseka kids I am not familiar with yell it at me every single day, over and over again, to get my attention. I used to glance at them and wave and they would joyfully shout “Bye Bye!” waving back. Sometimes I would say, “Ke na le lebitso bana. Ke ‘M’e Kenny.” I have a name kids. I am Miss Kenny. But this time I had decided to ignore them and continue heading home until I heard a tiny voice say, “Ha ke lekhooa, ke ‘M’e Kenny.” Thats not a Lekhooa, that’s Miss Kenny. At the time I don’t think I had ever smiled so big in Lesotho yet.
The first person to make the word sink in and hurt me was a spectator at a volleyball match this past Saturday. It was the final match of the tournament and we were fighting for first place. We had hardly began when they started yelling and I could see them across from me on the other side of the court… laughing, shouting, angry. The score was 2-1 when I heard, “Lekhooa. Ha u tsebe ho bapala. Lekhooa! Ha u Mosotho.” Lekhooa, you don’t know how to play volleyball. Lekhooa, you are not Mosotho. Then in English pronounced slowly and loudly so I, and everyone else, could understand, “Get-the-fuck-out-of-our-country.”
The score was 2-1 and I could hardly play. They continued to yell for the whole match. If I did something good they told me, “get the fuck out of our country.” If I made a mistake, they told I didn’t know how to do anything volleyball related and the anger and intensity it created in me was not aiding my game. I was so angry and hurt that here, in front of a Peace Corps staff member, in front of my team, in front of my friends, no one stood up for me. I had felt volleyball was a safe, normal place that I was started to belong to. My team told me to, “brush it off. You can’t let it affect you. Its just trash talk.” I thought about the primary-aged boy from a few months earlier who understood, in some way, that Lekhooa is not just trash talk, it is not just a word. It’s the way its being said.
I don’t think anything anyone could have told me before Peace Corps could have prepared me for a completely healthy, positive outlook for this type of harassment although I was warned of the fishbowl effect and the unwanted attention I would experience. For the 400 days I have spent in Lesotho I have heard the word Lekhooa every single one of them. For 400 days I have ignored it, used humor or other ways to deflect the catcalls, marriage proposals, town gossip, long stares, and invasive questions.. “U ea kae?” Where are you going? “U tsoa kae” Where are you from? “U lula kae?” Where do you live? “kae kae kae…” and the shouting. Everything is shouted at me, not spoken.
They are shouting at me because I am white, because I am a foreigner, because they think I have sweets or money. They are shouting at me because they don’t understand me and how else do we treat things we don’t understand? It helps process the new and the unfamiliar. In Lesotho I will never not be Lekhooa, in whatever meaning its being used. No matter how well integrated I am into my community, no matter how much effort I put in to doing so, this will not be the last moment like last Saturday. The legacy of money, racism, sweets, and nice cars that others have left here is a perspective I will have to work to change every day for the two years I am here. These are the things I could have never prepared for. Adversely I have seen changes in myself because of the understanding and cultural differences I have learned to accept and because of the difficult aspects of my life here. Those hardships are not the defining part of my Peace Corps service, but the ones where maybe the attention given to me created one of the most important relationships I have made here. The moments that are less guarded, open, comfortable, humorous, and normal.