Living in the Community – We gain some children

On our first night we had arrived in near darkness and ate alone.  The following morning we were observed by the neighbours and the children in particular were fascinated to see the Foute using the house.  At first they kept their distance but would spend minutes at a time staring at us.  When we waved to them they might get embarrassed or smile and giggle, but a few waved back.  Next day they were a lot closer and started grouping together on the ground in front of the veranda.  We would say hello to them and start asking questions.  After another couple of short conversations we found a few of them up on the veranda creeping closer to us at our table.  Three in particular were from the family next door.  We discovered they were called Sami, Ibrahim and… Ibrahim.   I had to call them Ibrahim 1 and Ibrahim 2.  They would be so happy just to be around us; they were not after pestering or demanding things.  Sometimes they would whisper to each other but otherwise they would spend hours in our company.  In the evenings we had to be very firm about saying “Good night” and making sure they went back to their own families.  But we chatted simply about how old they were, where they went to school, who was related to whom.  I let them play with the items on the desk – they wore my large floppy bushhat and laughed for ages about it – even heading off round the street in it until I had to demand it back.

One day they turned up with a wheel hub and were using a stick to roll it up and down the street.  I asked them to give it to me and I stepped down on to the ground from the house and took it in my grasp and used it as a Frisbee.  They had never seen anything like it – it hovered across the road, landed on its edge and rolled down into the bush.  The kids laughed and went and retrieved it for me and begged for me to do it again.  So I threw it up the hill and this time is skimmed along the bare earth sending up clouds of dust.  The older children started doing it for themselves and realised how easy it was.  I had to help the younger ones who just threw it and it clanked to the ground about two feet away from them.  I showed how to put that twist in the wrist as you are about to release the hubcap.  It was great fun for them but I had to be careful as if a taxi or 4WD came along I had to stop them – I really did not want to be the cause of any traffic accident in this part of the world.  The game ended abruptly when I flung it down the hill, but released at the wrong moment myself and it went sailing up on to the roof of the next door house.  The kids and I sheepishly laughed and decided to make ourselves scarce.

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Ibrahim tries on my hat

Into the Jungle – On to Sumata

Next morning we had another early start.  We had to pack the vehicles with all our kit, pay our bills to the warden – nice that the project would pay for accommodation in spite of being big assistance to their programs.  No point in giving aid if you take advantage of those who you help by taking freebies.  We had given quite a nice tip to our warden on the river the day before; it was a nice extra not an expected right.

We bounced off back to the main road and on up to Fintonia.  A small stop to pick up Momoh who was renting a room there, and a quick stop at the office then we headed down to the paramount chief’s house once more, but this time we turned left into a deep dark river valley and up the other side.  We travelled several miles, past a small hamlet where a couple of families were doing their chores round the house.  Several of these hamlets had grown up over time.  With shifting cultivation, it usually starts with farmers in some central location and heading out to the bush to clear and farm.  Over time, the number of fertile plots decreases close in and people have to travel further to cultivate land; which means more back and forth by foot, or if you are lucky, on a bike or small tractor.  There comes a point where this is too far to be economical or healthy, and families might relocate to a fresh area to start cultivation away from the congested or infertile lands near the village.  My only concern about this is whether these new hamlet have enough access to permanent water, but I assume some borehole or stream was near enough to make it viable.

The next village proper was Sumata and as we drove in, I was taken at how elegant its main street looked.  Not just the substantial houses we had seen elsewhere but both sides of the road were lined with mature mango trees dangling an excess of near ripe fruit.  As we parked up at the top of a street, most of the villagers not in the fields or in town came to greet us and walked down to the chief’s house.  He had a good size veranda that accommodated most people for the meeting, but the surrounding ground was still full of children and onlookers.

The meeting went as the others, and we broke up to take a walk around the STEWARD activities again.  While some side meetings were going on, Gray’s USGS colleague, Matt had seen that the children were following him around, so he made them form a group and take a photo of them.  It’s a scene from any travel blog or writings of the last twenty years.  Some people are still not happy for you to take photos of them (the fishermen at Kabba Ferry were some), and some would like to have some money for you taking their photos, but the big advantage with digital cameras, particularly with the large displays on the back, is you can instantly show your subjects the results.  And the reactions are wonderful – embarrassed teenage girls wishing they had spent more time on their hair, cheeky children laughing and giggling as soon as you show them their mugshot, older men and women just happy to see themselves on this new fangled technology.  Matt got all the children to crouch down and quieten them, but once taken, they thronged around him to get a view from the tiny screen.  Even the local imam took a peek.  Of course once they had seen the trick once, they wanted it again and again and again and again…..

The Highest Country in the World – Landscapes, Histories and Neighbours that make the Lesotho Character

Then we joined a tarred road again, the main road between Maseru and the town of Sefikeng.  This one traversed the Berea Plateau, which also gave the district its name. This road was a lot quieter than even the main road, and it was getting late on a Sunday afternoon when people would be in church for evensong, or in a bar getting drunk, or snoozing under a tree being drunk.  You could tell by the lack of roadside stalls and fuel stations that this was the road less travelled.  It was bliss – uninterrupted panoramas of the agriculture in the depressions on both sides of the plateau, plus all the activity on top here.  Sometimes the road would get close to the escarpment itself.  We stopped many times to soak it all in.  The weather had not been as crystal perfect as the day before in Golden Gate, but that meant we had a superb cloudscape of wispy cirrus, dark looking cumulonimbus in the distance and the characteristic fluffy cumulus of southern Africa all around us.  People were few on the ground, but there were a number of children out and about.  Becky pointed out some playing on a roundabout in the middle of one village which had been placed there by one of Sentebale’s partners.  The charity Play Pumps has put together a remarkably simple concept.  Children are often told to get water for their families, but it is a chore.  Children like to play but play time means that they are not collecting water.  So Playpumps have put in different equipment that you might find in any playground the world over, but connected the moving parts to the water pump.  So a kid pushes a roundabout around and water is sucked up from the water table and into containers. It also gives kids a bit of extra exercise but is fun.  Critics have likened it to slave labour but I think they have lost the plot not to see the mutual benefits for everyone.

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playpump

And children have a hard enough time in Lesotho, why not let them combine play and useful work?  Once more this was brought home to me as we drove along, just below the small midridge of the escarpment.  We were taking photos off the cliff to the east again, when I noticed that silhouetted against the western sky, right on the tip of the ridge, were two teenagers.  They were dressed up and with woolly hats and anoraks maybe they stood a chance to keep warm in the rapidly cooling air.  They were squatted on the grass, their gangly legs bent skywards, and both were holding long canes.  These were herdboys and we could hear and, here and there, glimpse a cow as its head reared above the ridge.  Whether the boys  had mothers or fathers, we had no way of knowing.  They were probably nothing like the feral children out in the mountainous regions.  But here they were, out in the fields on a Sunday afternoon looking after stock rather than socialising with their peers or their family.

Once more the late afternoon sun made for a marvellous light, but this time, instead of the whole landscape being bathed in a warming glow, the clouds kept some areas in the dark, and shafts of light floodlit particular features, a hillside here, a valley there.  It was a magical ever changing scene on my last night in Lesotho.  I tried to absorb as much as I could.  I could not help to notice that despite the stark beauty of this open landscape heavily cultivated, it was much denuded, and so many stretches treeless.  Soil erosion is a huge problem both taking away valuable land while choking up and killing life in the rivers.  Lesotho may look beautiful, but has so many environmental and social problems.  Looking out of the window of an aircraft flying back to Jo’burg the contrast between the lush, well maintained and vegetated fields on the South African sides and the pallid washed away fields on the Lesotho side.  For evidence of the social fabric being ripped apart you need look no further than seeing Sentebale colleagues being excused from work a couple of afternoons a week to go to friends’ funerals.  Big chunks of working population being lost through HIV/AIDS, and the knock on effects on particularly the children, but also the older generation who find themselves having to go through parenting once more when they should be sitting back.

Despite its frustrations and huge problems, the people of Lesotho are stoic.  I suppose to preserve their independence when other regions were first absorbed by South Africa and then subjected to the perversions of Apartheid must mean you either had stoicism or you developed it pretty fast.  While the poverty, health and environmental issues are being thrown at them, they still have the resilience to deal with each challenge.