By Dominique Sinagra
I began my search for you on a single stretch of tarmac road in Lesotho.
I sat in the front seat of a four-wheel drive vehicle
with the words Mants’ase Children’s Home on the outside door.
It was July,
winter in the Southern Hemisphere and Lesotho was cold.
A white man named Andrew drove.
He was the son of Barbara, the manager of Mants’ase.
He wore a baseball cap that covered a balding head
and flip-flops that showed unclipped toenails.
He didn’t say much.
He answered my questions with only a nod or shake of the head.
I don’t remember feeling nervous, but I am sure I was.
I gave up on conversation and looked out the window.
As we drove, the sun slid west.
The road was marred with potholes.
Men with blankets wrapped around their shoulders like cloaks, walked along roadside.
Thin dogs hurried behind them.
More than once we swerved not to hit one.
Children also walked the roadside.
Some wore shoes,
some did not.
Scattered over the hills, brown and frozen, were houses,
some made from mud and stone with thatched roofs,
others were rectangular, made from grey cement blocks.
Outside some fires were lit and in others electric lights shone.
We turned off the main paved road onto a dirt track.
Andrew gave no explanation as to why or where we were going.
All around the land mimicked the sky, vast and black, speckled with tiny lights.
We came to a bend in the road, lined by trees swaying in the nighttime breeze
and ahead I could a see a cluster of bright lights.
We drove towards them.
The truck heaved and moaned over the uneven dirt road.
I turned behind me and saw the enormous full moon
hoisting itself above the mountains,
casting a glow over the cragged landscape,
like a pearl around an old woman’s neck.
We stopped at two metal gates, chained with a padlock.
Andrew sighed and sounded the horn.
A few dogs barked in the distance in response.
Eventually, a man appeared, walking with a limp.
He unlocked the gates and we passed through.
I stepped out into the compound of Mants’ase Children’s Home. The man with the limp caught up to us and spoke in a voice higher than expected.
“Hello,” he said.
“Who are you?”
“Me, I am Khotso. You are very welcome here.”
Across the compound there was a door where a bright light shown,
and I followed Khotso and Andrew towards it.
Inside there were rows of metal bunk beds and in them were children.
The room smelt of paraffin from a heater in the center of the room.
The children were lying under grey blankets with UNICEF written on them.
They rested their heads on yellow foam mattresses.
I didn’t see any sheets or pillows.
Some of the children reached their hands out to me.
Others sized me up with suspicion.
A boy crawled across the floor and grunted at my feet.
His knees were heavily callused and so were his hands.
I pulled him up and he stood on thin misshaped legs and grunted again, with enthusiasm.
I put him down and smiled, and he smiled.
I told the children I’d see them in the morning.
Andrew led me to a small cottage just outside the main compound of the orphanage.
He handed me a key and nodded and then left.
I lay awake for a long time that night, listening.
I felt daunted by where I was.
More than once I was startled by sounds I’d heard, or thought I heard, outside my window. The darkness was total.
I felt alone.
I was sure we’d would meet in Lesotho and tell each other our stories:
How do you begin a fairy tale?
With once upon a time.
- Dominique Sinagra