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

The Highest Country in the World – Welcome to Lesotho

Everyone tries to make out they are the biggest, the tallest, the highest, the smallest, the greatest.  I get tired of so many “100 places you must visit before you die” .  So I tend to avoid that kind of lazy travel blog talk in my writings.  So why have I chosen this title for Lesotho?  Well it was such an interesting and charming reason.  They define it very carefully – of course the highest mountain is Everest and that is on the border of Nepal and China (Tibet).  So those two countries should claim to be the highest in the world.  But China goes to sea level, and Nepal’s lowest point is only 70m above sea level where the terrain looks like so much of the Indian plain.

How Lesotho define highest is that the lowest point in Lesotho is higher up than the lowest point of any other country, which of course means that every other point in Lesotho is also higher than that elevation.  Lesotho is perched upon a massif totally surrounded by South Africa.  The lowest point is at an elevation of 1400m, almost 5000 ft (higher than anywhere in the UK by a long way).  The next highest low point is a meagre 900m in Rwanda, also in Africa.  The Himalayan countries do not get a look in.

The lowest point is right on south west tip of Lesotho on the border with South Africa, where the Makhaleng River confluences with the Orange River.  My first time in Lesotho, I entered at another low point, the bridge on the road from Bloemfontein and Maseru.  I’d been doing some voluntary work on behalf of one charity, MapAction, with another called Sentebale.  They were linked because Prince Harry is patron of both.  MapAction’s specialism was in turning lots of disparate information into maps during relief operations after a disaster, and Sentebale had an idea of a new project called Letsema that needed just that consolidation of data.  The primary focus of Sentebale is orphaned children; they tend not to get directly involved in their welfare but enable other charities to make a difference across the whole of Lesotho.

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The border from South Africa into Lesotho