The Highest Country in the World – New Country, New Landscape

I say that these parts of Lesotho and South Africa are the same terrain, but it was incredible how different the landscape looked once we crossed over.  In Lesotho every piece of flat land appears cultivated – lots of narrow field strips allow subsistence or low income farming to go ahead – mostly hand ploughed, hand sowed, hand weeded and hand harvested. The farmsteads all intermingled with the crops and the livestock roaming everywhere.  And the soil was so dusty at this bum end of the dry season.

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Spot the border – South Africa on the right, Lesotho on the left

In South Africa, there were hardly any villages, just miles of rolling grassland, some of it fenced in for cattle, some being prepared by machinery for the next season’s crops.  There would be a ranch or a farmstead of immense proportions and loads of outbuildings for their kit and storage.  Hidden away often amongst a grove of trees, you might get a glimpse of the African style houses of the farm labourers and their families, but they were not allowed to be cultivating their own crops or hold a lot of livestock.  Maybe the odd chicken.

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The sparsely populated, big fields of the South African side of the border

Here we were in Free State, the big wide open spaces, one of the breadbaskets of Africa, such a low population density compare to Lesotho.  This was scenery on a gigantic scale.  Each time we would pass through a gap between the mountains and a new valley would open up for miles around us it would take your breath away.  We skirted a low lying area called the Brandwater Basin and every time we reached a ridge a new vista would open up.   We travelled for another hour or so before we dropped down into the eastern extremity of the basin  to find the small town of Clarens nestling in amongst all the hills.

The Highest Country in the World – Land borders

We turned off the main road in Butha Buthe as we needed to cross the border in to South Africa.  Still a well maintained road it dropped gradually towards the Mohokare River. I rarely come across manned border posts as coming from an island nation you cannot drive to another country.  Even in Europe with the Shengen Agreement there are few places where they occur.  Lesotho being landlocked is dependent on South Africa alone to allow land transport in and out of the country.  Only a few of the border crossings are open 24 hours a day.  I did use one of these, at the western end of Maseru when I went with some people Maseru on my second trip over to Ladybrand for dinner one night.  I suppose it is not surprising that people can go back and forth fairly easily – it is after all the same piece of countryside, just split into  two different states. The border crossings along the river in Lesotho are a little less arbitrary than some.  I remember passing through the extensive complex at the Sierra Leone/Guinea border crossing on the edge of a town, and then being told that the actual physical border crossing is about 10km north of there.  I could not quite understand why people would set up immigration and customs posts so far away, but I suppose there is always a question of whether you can purchase enough land to build all the car parks, offices and inspection huts needed for a busy crossing.  The funniest part of the Sierra Leone , Guinea border was that it was very clearly marked on the road.  The Sierra Leone side had been tarmacced under a recent EU funded infrastructure programme, the Guinea side was a potholed piece of metalling that had seen no maintenance for twenty years.  And the line in the road was obvious, not to mention the change in smoothness of carriage.

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The border between Guinea (foreground) and Sierra Leone (background) marked by the new tarmac and road markings put in by the EU

The Caledonspoort border control near Butha Buthe was both very modern and heavily secured.  On both sides approaching the river the roadside was heavily protected with razor wire atop high chain fences.  Cameras and even look out posts were strategically placed.  Having said that the crossing guards on both sides were very friendly.  The Lesotho buildings slightly up from the flood plain  on a plateau, then the bridge over a dramatic gorge (but no photos of course) and then the South African control in a steep sided valley.  The road takes advantage of this valley to work through another escarpment of hills, and then we were away.

The Highest Country in the World – Village Life and the “not the capital” cities

We passed through village after village where life was going on – funny how so often in African villages the routines never seem to change. If you didn’t consult your calendar, you would have trouble working out whether it was the weekend or not.  Men always sit under trees or close to bars and drink, there are always women cleaning clothes or cooking pots, kids either doing chores up at the water pump or carrying wood or shopping or containers from A to B, or else when you pass by they are distracted from their games and grin and wave.  Only the increased amount of church or mosque could indicate what day it was.

As well as the dozens of villages,  we also passed through several towns;  Maputsoe, Hlotse and Butha Buthe.  This last one was a substantial city which contrasted strongly with Maseru, and shows why in my line of work why you should escape the capital.  The types of people I tend to have meetings with are going to be government officials or heads of agencies and NGOs.  Their offices are either large brick or concrete blocks in the centre of the city, or leafy compounds, or grand villas in the upper class suburbs of the city.  Apart from the little pieces of ordinary capital life you get as you drive by, you get a very distorted image of the country.  You can start believing that the capital is the only thriving location – everyone in the rest of the country either longs to travel there or has already migrated.  While the little villages and towns may seem like little hick locations in comparison to the capital city, I can see the civic pride in some of the larger provincial cities like Butha Buthe that sort of say “Yeah, Maseru is the capital, but who needs all that hassle when we have everything we need here”.  Butha Buthe has that air about it, even from the vignettes you observe in the ten minutes or so it takes to drive through.

The Highest Country in the World – On the main road through Lesotho

So to date, apart from a few visits around Maseru’s hotels and restaurants, including a rather dodgy Chinese restaurant near the bypass, that had been my experience of Lesotho.  So I was looking forward to at least traversing through the more populated regions before heading out to Clarens in Free State.

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Our little Kia

Our car was a little bright orange Kia, we packed our overnight bags in and drove round to pick up Becky’s friend, Christine.  She was another peace corps volunteer working out at an orphanage in Peka but had been down in Maseru for meetings during the week.  We planned to take her north to Clarens then drop her off back home on the way back.  It was nice to be out with Becky away from the office and we began to talk less about our work and more about life in general and life in Lesotho in particular.  Christine was great company too and we loved the road trip up north.

The route is one of the busiest roads in Lesotho, connecting half a dozen of the biggest towns in the country.  It was easy to tell that we were travelling through the most fertile and forgiving part of the country, and ominously standing over us to the east was the massif of the really high snow-capped mountains where life was immeasurably more harsh.  In the big scheme of African Roads it was generally well maintained although there were a couple of chaotic road works where you ended up deep in hardened ruts made by hundreds of lorries which had already passed by.  There were the potholes, and the tarmac did flake away at the sides in many areas but compared to most African roads, it was serviceable and we made fast progress.

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Hope he has good suspension – in Leribe

It being the weekend the commercial traffic was lighter than normal, and most of the larger vehicles seemed to be pickups taking football teams to matches, or minibuses containing church group outings.  Black smoke belched out of the local and intercity buses  ato nd the odd four wheel drive (many with South African plates on) would roar and try overtake.  Considering this was one of the main roads in the whole country, I was taken aback at how quiet it was.

The Highest Country in the World – King Moshoeshoe’s last resting place

Our other excursion outside of town on that first visit was a morning drive to a famous tourist site, a few miles north east of Maseru.  Lesotho is a monarchy, although the legacy and continuity has sometimes been disturbed.  One of the recent kings, King Moshoeshoe II, reigned from independence in 1966 to 1990, although he had a struggle with another guy who wanted more presidential power.  He was then forced into exile, only to return in 1995 to reign again. His second term was cut short by a tragic car accident, but he was buried at his family grave, which has now become a place of pilgrimage for many locals and tourists.

Chris and I drove east towards Roma once more, but then turned north just where the city peters out.  The grave sits atop a flat mesa, called Thaba Bosiu.  Although there was a sign on the road, with a car park, and a visitor centre was under construction, the pathway up to the grave was not marked.  We walked up the most likely route passing through a small village.  Two young boys were pumping water into their family’s containers and posed and smiled for us as we took photos.  After that we saw no-one else.  The route was rocky, but dried grass still bushed up either side of us, and the odd pine tree gave some much needed colour to the brown landscape.  We were walking up the vegetated scree, and the mesa like so many was capped by hard rock that formed a sheer face all round the edge.  I wondered how we reached the top, but the pathway led us into a small gorge between two massifs and before long we were on the flat summit.  The vista back to Maseru was stunning under the clear winter sky; every detail of every farm, road, field and tree was crystal.  We tore ourselves away from the view and commenced exploring, we only had a couple of hours before we had to get back to Maseru, pick up our bags and drive back to Johannesburg to catch our overnight flight back to the UK so we had to keep moving.

This natural fortress is a sacred site for Lesotho.  The Basotho people had been forced to resettle from further north west due to both tribal conflicts with others like the Zulus, and then being squeezed out as white Boer Voortrekkers took over the plains.  The highlands we know now as Lesotho became their home and they defended the territory fearlessly.  Thaba Bosiu was the location of some of the fiercest battles for the territory, and its attributes were well noted by the original King Moshoeshoe I.  He moved his capital south from Botha Bothe on the border with South Africa to Thaba Bosiu .

Once we were on top, we saw evidence of a settlement, some buildings in ruins, others no more than a footprint in the sand.  We tromped across the expanse of the mesa, but drawn to a set of erections poking above the long grass.  They were memorials and graves to the royal family.  The largest was a black marble frame, like a small Greek temple, surrounded by iron railings and set within a small grove of trees.  Across the top were inscribed the words “King Moshoeshoe II”, the grave itself marked by a small grey stone.  Surrounding him were many more graves, most no more than a carefully arranged cuboid of stones, some marked with hand painted inscriptions; one even had a curious naive statue, presumably a likeness of the man buried beneath, but recently painted in dazzling black and white.  There were a couple of hundred graves in this area set aside from Moshoeshoe’s mausoleum.

The Highest Country in the World – Heading to Roma

We were there first time in the winter, as the temperature differences we were experience might have hinted at.  Spring was in the air though, and I saw trees with a delicate pink blossom in so many back gardens and fringing fields.  I was told they were the peach blossom, a delicacy in Lesotho.  They decorated what was otherwise a dull brown landscape, the bare fields had no crops in, the rocks were clear of any moss, and the dirt roads were the same colour as the soil.  We were grateful for any colour we could see.

That is not to say how gorgeous the scenery looked on this bright sunny cold morning, with the blue sky as a backdrop to contrast against the land…. it was just a little monotone. Roma itself nestles at the foot of the first serious step up of altitude, so the backdrop to the city is a stunning set of escarpments and the odd stand alone mountain.  Immediately striking of these were how similar they were to the Basotho hat building and headgear that were a symbol of the country.  A plug of hard square rock atop, a uniform scree all round that formed the cone.

Southern Africa is the place in Africa where you see the locals all covered in clothes – wrapped up in balaclavas, scarves, sheepskin coats, moon boots, and the cold of a Lesotho winter made everyone put on everything they owned and head for the nearest fire.  At this elevation, it took people much longer to warm up than in Maseru.  I wondered how they coped up in the true highlands.  Even when we reached the university we found the lecturer we had come to meet huddled around a three bar electric fire.

The Highest Country in the World – Sizing up Maseru

I was looking forward to this as my two previous trips had given me precious few opportunities to explore the countryside. On my first trip I had managed to get to Roma for a meeting.  Situated about 50km south east of Maseru, it is the seat of the National University, and we had been given a couple of names there to talk to.  Although the distance was short we had to negotiate the suburbs of Maseru first.  Maseru can appear a bit like a coastal city at first sight, with the river marking the border between Lesotho and South Africa as the beach.  The main road from Bloemfontein crosses the river on the tip of a meander, so the city started out on a kind of peninsula. Once through the border crossing there is a wide and chaotic area related to transport.  You find lots of lorries parked up on the tarmac or in lorry parks, there are taxis hanging around to ferry people from the border into town, there are stalls to buy the usual transitory items, air time, newspapers, sweets, snacks and water.  Then the road winds up the hill past some of the most salubrious suburbs of the city.  Both Sentebale’s offices and the house where Becky lived was up the back here.  On either side of the hill were industrial estates, and then the road comes to a major junction.  What was once the main through route passes straight through the heart of the city centre, with all the government buildings, banks and high end shops and restaurants.  Now the traffic veers off to the right along a dual carriageway down and up a river valley.  This road has now attracted modern shopping centres, and the first really big supermarket, a Pick n Pay, that Maseru had ever had.  This was one of Becky’s delights to have a proper big store like the ones back home stacked full of goods.

At the crossing where these two routes diverged stands one of Lesotho’s iconic buildings, the Basotho Hat.  It is a conical building, shaped like the traditional hat worn by the Basotho, the majority tribe in Lesotho.  I was to see this shape repeated time and time again on my visits.  Although a modern glass fronted building the majority of the high conic roof was thatched.  I ate in a restaurant on the first floor a few times – a great place to watch the traffic coming in and out of the country from the border road.

All this was crammed into a relatively small area and it was easy to mistake Maseru for being a small to medium sized provincial city.  But head up the east end of Kingsway and you started to realise how big Maseru really was.  The ordered ,, almost sterile, civility you got at the west end broke down and you got the real sense of a vibrant, chaotic southern African market place.  There are a few more institutional buildings up this end, such as the Roman Catholic Cathedral,  but then following the main road out of town you are into a pattern of fuel stations, car and bike repair shops, small retail outlets, seedy bars and cafes and residential blocks of all types, shapes, statuses and sizes.  And when you go over a hilltop you get a peek at the expansive suburbs carpeting every hillside around as far as the eye can see.

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The Roman Catholic Cathedral as we speed by

Eventually the suburbs do thin out – although you see the building work going on in the fields out here that shows it is not long before Maseru will creep further east.  Like so many cities the infrastructure is not catching up – although a good highway, the single carriageway road we were driving on is the only decent route through the area.

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Maseru’s suburbs start to give way to countryside

The Highest Country in the World – Becky

The other times I was not in a hotel, but was invited to stay with one of the project officers.  Becky Banton had been working in Lesotho when I first visited, but had not been recruited by Sentebale.  Originally from the Blue Grass state of Kentucky, she had volunteered with the US Peace Corps and built up an impressive CV of immersion projects in Lesotho.  It was her job to pull off this Letsema project.  Progress, like in so many similar projects in development, was slow but she was diplomatic and a great respecter of Lesotho culture and norms which helped grease the wheels.  She was also a big mama, a large lady, and I think, despite being white, that also gained her a lot of respect from many people who interacted with her. To be honest, it was more her fluent Sesotho, the main language in Lesotho, and her mannerisms and approaches to getting work done that was so impressive.

She had almost free reign on a large villa style house in the back suburbs of Maseru.  It had big rooms, a deck out back and a fair sized garden shaded by jacaranda and other trees.  Her only requirement was that if her boss said, she had to share it with project visitors.  This was not a problem as Becky and I hit it off pretty well from the first day.  The more I showed how the Excel spreadsheets I was creating and the Google Earth mapping I was doing could help her visualise her results she started to be really enthusiastic.  I remember one time I showed her how the spreadsheet was manipulating all the information from the different agencies she was logging, and turning it into some kind of code.  I would copy all this code and paste it in to the legend of Google Earth, and all the points would appear in the right places on the map, with symbols and labels telling you the details about who the organisation are, where they are, websites and what they do.  Becky would say “that is magic” as I seemed to throw the gobbledygook from the clipboard  onto Google Earth.  I taught her how it worked and she and I kept up a dialogue on how to refine it both throughout the visits and subsequently.

Becky was a great host at her house (she was happy cooking for me as she was vegetarian and didn’t want me poisoning her with meat) and we sat and drank a few beers and learnt about each other’s past history.  All my trips to Lesotho were quick week long visits, and this last one was no different.  I had one weekend where time was my own, and Becky proposed that we did something together.  One option was to head up into the mountains and base ourselves in one of her favourite villages.  The second was to travel over the border into South Africa and spend some time in a lovely little town called Clarens.  Both were appealing for different reasons; the first because it would expose me to village life in Lesotho and make me see some of the more mountainous countryside that Lesotho is renowned for.  The second would give the opportunity for more of a road trip and be in a place that was more for pampering than for raw experience.

In the end the decision was made for us.  A friend of Becky’s was in need of a pamper, and had access to a house in Clarens.  I hired a vehicle from one of the rental companies that operated out of the big hotels, and we were set.

The Highest Country in the World – What a temperature range!

I’d travelled to do some volunteering with a colleague.  I was invited back a while later under my own company to do more work, and a third trip occurred later on.  Based on the MapAction experience we were able to extract all the locations of different agencies and based on type and service make a map on Google Earth.  There was to be another angle which was to identify how many children needed what help – so called case loads.  I never was able to see it through but the plan for looking for demand for services and showing where current supply was to be a great tool for all people helping OVCs.

I could focus more on this, but there are plenty of places to look at the work done by Sentebale and Letsema, and since my assistance in Lesotho both programmes have moved on a long way.  I prefer to focus in on the last trip I did where I had the chance to get out and see more of Lesotho than just the capital.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Maseru.  On my first trip I stayed in The Lancer’s Inn, a motel very close to the main street, Kingsway.  While the reception and dining area were your average brick buildings, the guestrooms were all rondavels.  The beds were covered in layers and layers of sheets, blankets and spreads, including a cowhide.  I soon was grateful as on the first evening the temperature dropped to -9 degrees.  I had to have the heat pump on full; first time I had used one of those things in Africa to heat up the room instead of air condition and cool it.  My colleague, Chris, and I had five layers of clothing on for breakfast. But hour by hour, with the sun out, the temperature rose and a layer came off.  By 2pm the thermometer was reading 26 degrees and we were just in t shirts.  But then it dropped like a stone again and the clothes came back on.

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Our rondavels at the hotel – and Chris in mid morning clothing layers

The Highest Country in the World – Orphans and HIV

HIV/AIDS has ravaged the population in Lesotho.  Migrant workers heading to Johannesburg and the mining communities would become highly promiscuous and have unprotected sex, and the virus came back in to Lesotho.  It spread like wildfire in the communities, and middle aged men and women were most prone to fall victim.  It has meant that the working population has been decimated, and that thousands of children have been left without parents, left to grandparents to bring up, or elder siblings to take charge, or worse still, left roaming the countryside or cities and vulnerable to starvation, poor health and education or vice.

HIV/AIDS is not the only causation for the huge number of orphaned or vulnerable children (or OVCs as they are called)  in Lesotho.  In the mountainous areas of the east, the tradition of herding cattle has exposed another problem.  Kids are told to take the cattle up to the mountain tops in the summer to graze and not to come back till the snows start.  There are few adults up there and the boys lack any education or social support.  In some ways they have become feral, establishing their own rules and society.  Not so harming up there in the hills but when they do come back to their communities it can cause serious problems; a lack of social skill can cause disrespect for others, in the worst cases they can rape young women and children.  And herd boys have a very low life expectancy with all the hardships up on the mountains.  If they do get to their mid twenties, and herding is no longer an option (as younger kids work for cheaper rates), a lack of education severely limits their life choices.

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A multitude of other issues can cause children to be vulnerable, as they do in so many African countries, and hundreds of agencies try and help out.  Rarely do any agencies cover the whole of young people’s needs; they focus in on education, or health issues, or maybe shelter and nutrition.  Or perhaps psychological assistance.  A few have a wider remit, such as those faith based organisations looking after kids in orphanages, but there they may not have a great geographical spread; only able to take in a few children from the surrounding villages.

Sentebale was set up to try and better coordinate the provision of services to OVCs, and in particular help channel funds and resources to those places in which they were most in need.  The Letsema programme was to set up a network of agencies providing these services.  They had been quite successful at encouraging the larger agencies in to this family, but they were struggling to reach out to the more community based ones, especially those way away from the capital Maseru.

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Sentebale’s headquarters in Lesotho