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.



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.

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.


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.


Sentebale’s headquarters in Lesotho