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The Cana Chicken Incident

Gregory Knight
Lesotho

I never discovered why Cana Primary School moved its three hundred layer hens from the new chicken house to the standard four classroom, and to this day that bothers me. I had planned an easy Friday and the day started normally enough. The familiar pack of wild dogs woke me at five, and as I listened to the six o'clock news on the BBC, a tiny herd boy clothed in only a ragged shirt chased a black pig across my porch. A week earlier high school students had rioted and burned the local school, and at seven that morning I heard workers repairing the buildings.

"Ntate Thabo!" Three school girls waved at me through my hut's open door. They smiled and ran towards my house, where the tallest approached me and held out a folded piece of white paper.

"Ke lebohile," I thanked them.

"Buh-bye," they said in high-pitched squeals and ran down the hill.

The letter from the Peace Corps office in the capital had been forwarded to me by my friend Mike two weeks before I received my own copy, but I read the short message anyway.

There is a Security Situation in Maseru. Remain at your sites and remember that travel restrictions are in effect. Do not visit other volunteers or travel to camp towns. Troubles may escalate, so listen to Radio Lesotho for further information.

Radio Lesotho had since been shut down by the army, so I dismissed the note and proceeded with my day's agenda as an agriculture technical advisor to primary schools.

I sensed something amiss when I approached the hen house and heard nothing. Complete silence seemed unnatural for three hundred chickens, so I stood on concrete blocks and peered through the steel-barred windows into the back of the stone building. It was empty. I thought that the red chickens had been stolen, or else removed by the teachers and students for de-licing. I proceeded into the school compound, where I heard squawking in a classroom, and through a dirty window saw the birds shuffling around on a thin layer of dead grass spread over the concrete floor. The nesting boxes remained in the chicken coop, so eggs--most of them broken with hens devouring the insides--dotted the classroom floor.

Two years in Lesotho had taught me never to seek reasons, but curiosity made me question the nearest teacher.

"Madam, why are the chickens in the classroom?"

"Yes." She smiled. "The birds are in the classroom."

"I see that, but why are they in the class?"

"I do not know. You must ask that one woman."

"Oh...that woman. Is she that side?" I pointed.

"Yes." The teacher smiled and counted money from the previous day's egg sales. I was getting nowhere, so I looked for the agriculture teacher responsible for the layer project. I found her and the other instructors in the absent head teacher's office huddled around a paraffin heater.

"Ntate Thabo! Hoa bata!" they said as I entered the closet-size room.

"Yes," I answered in the sixty-degree winter heat. "It is very cold today." I wore only a tee shirt and jeans but shivered for their pleasure, then got straight to the point.

"Madam, why are the hens in the classroom?"

"Yes, Thabo . The chickens are in the classroom." The largest woman answered and the others nodded in agreement.

"All right," I continued slowly. "Yesterday the chickens were in the hen house. Correct?"

"Yes," the woman answered again.

"Okay, good. Now, today, right now, the chickens are in the classroom. Correct?"

"Yes," she answered.

"Why are the birds in the classroom?"

"Yes, Thabo! The chickens are in the classroom."

"Madam, can you please come with me?" She nodded and followed me from the office up to the chicken coop and adjacent classroom. "Yesterday the chickens were here, right?" I walked over and stood next to the chicken house.

"Yes."

"But today they are here," I said, and walked to the classroom.

"Yes."

I breathed deep and then asked, "Why?"

"Yes, the chickens are there."

I panicked until hit by sudden enlightenment. I had it! "Madam, you are going to put the students in the chicken house!"

"No, Thabo." She shook her head at my stupid suggestion.

"So Madam, the building will remain empty?"

"Yes." She smiled as I hit the nail on the head.

"Madam, I am very confused. When the head teacher returns, will you tell him to visit me?" She nodded and returned to the school office. I entered my hut and waited until my counterpart (the woman teacher responsible for my sanity) appeared at my door with two trays of eggs.

"Thabo , these are for you from the school. Eat these when you are confused." I laughed and thanked her. "And Thabo, your friend Mike is here." Across the clearing Mike walked through the row of aloe plants that surrounded my house, and I remembered seeing a vehicle driving across the soccer field towards the school.

He began with an order. "Pack your stuff. We're out of here."

"What?"

"There's fighting in Maseru. They're evacuating us to a safe house. Grab your stuff. The van is waiting."

It took only a minute for me to pack and say goodbye to my counterpart. Mike and I each grabbed an egg tray and loaded ourselves into the already crowded van. The mini-bus drove past the school compound on our way out, and one of the other Volunteers noticed the chickens flying around the classroom.

"Greg, why are your chickens in the school and not the layer house?"

"Yes," I answered, smiling as if I knew all the answers to the question, why. "The birds are in the classroom."

Gregory Knight (Lesotho)

Gregory worked with a crop extension program as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho. He has a B.A. in English and is originally from Colville, Washington.

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