Posts Tagged ‘Stereotypes’

[The following post appeared Nov. 29, 2011, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – There’s so much to say, I don’t know where to start. So how about with a Sesotho-language greeting: Dumela!

I moved to Lesotho just one week ago; it’s too early to explore themes and spout theories. (There’ll be plenty of time for both.) I’ll stay humble, knowing I have a hell of a lot to learn about these people, this country, this region, this continent.

On the Lesotho side of the South African border, a poster warns of human trafficking. (Photo: mjj)

Instead, I’ll stick to what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing, the experiential and the sensory, about the look of the place, the look of the people – and our dramatically different lifestyle amid both.

Lesotho is a deeply troubled place, plagued by poverty and HIV, violence against women and human trafficking, alcoholism and obesity, among many other afflictions. Nothing is more telling than the fact life expectancy for both men and women is a measly 42 to 43 years … my age exactly.

Lesotho is ravaged by the world’s third-highest HIV rate. A country of 2 million is home to an astounding 100,000 AIDS orphans. Five percent of the population? Or much higher? The scale of tragedy is unfathomable.

Funeral homes are certainly ubiquitous around Maseru. Today I asked a wiry-looking guy for directions; up close I realized he was downright skeletal. On the first day I met our housekeeper-babysitter, I asked if she had any children: “I have one son … but I had three children.” I froze, afraid to probe any further.

So, let’s turn for a minute to the positive.



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BRATISLAVA – You couldn’t miss him: a 30-something Rom, on crutches, with five-day-old stubble. (Matching mine.)

He had planted himself smack in the middle of the stone-paved Old Town, his feet pointed inward, like an extreme case of pidgeon-toed-ness. He was begging from passers-by, who averted his eyes and refused to break stride, the prejudice against “Gypsies” too deeply ingrained.

Normally, I would check him out, but not stare too long … and probably keep walking. I just couldn’t imagine doing what he was doing. What line do you cross when you start to think, “Then I’ll go beg.”

It occurred to me: Why do I feel sympathetic to a bedraggled Caucasian in the streets, but not this guy? Because I’m not immune to the nasty stereotype of the Roma as beggars? Or that it’s all some kind of “scam”?

(To my eye, and I’ve lived in the region since 1993, beggars represent the thinnest sliver of a widely diverse nation that numbers anywhere from 10-15 million. For some reason, though, the ethnic majorities who the Roma live among often conflate the two, defaming an entire people.)

I was hurrying to have a productive afternoon, so couldn’t stop to chat. Yet there’s always time for a brief interaction. I flipped through my memory bank and pulled out So vakeres? That’s Romani, I believe, for “What’s up?”

Fishing out a euro, I approached his open palm. I tossed out my friendly greeting. He locked onto my eyes, smiled large, and uttered something in Romani. (It certainly wasn’t Slovak or Hungarian.)

It was a cool moment, on a cold but sunny day.

I don’t quite know what it meant to him. (Let’s assume it was meangingful, OK?) For me, though, I realize that after a year of training young Romani journalists in how to explore interesting Roma topics, I’ve become a Roma-phile. I can’t help but humanize them whenever I can.

If this fellow wants to earn a living this way, why not help out now and then.

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