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.


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.


Maseru’s suburbs start to give way to countryside

The Adopted Dog – Small but Packed

On my first ever visit to Kingstown I was in the Cobblestone Hotel in the centre of the city.  When I started this project I could not get a room at the Cobblestone and the house rental had not been established so I was put in the New Montrose hotel on the west side of town .  I had briefly stayed in this hotel for a workshop a few years beforehand, but the effect of approaching the town from the west every morning was novel.  You saw different elements of the morning commute, you passed by the a new range shops opening up in the morning or shutting down in the evening.

Kingstown is a bustling little city; although one of the smallest capital cities in the world it has all the functions of primacy you would expect; the government offices, the key commercial and retail outlets, as well as the institutions of religion, society and culture, albeit on a much smaller scale than a mega city like London or Tokyo.  But as well as that it just hums like a busy market town.  People come in to the city from four directions; from the suburbs themselves on the hills behind the city centre, from the leeward and windward coastlines of St Vincent and across the sea from the string of Grenadine islands to the south.

Eduardo and I met up for that first trip; Edsel was not available.  We interviewed all the different agencies and tried to understand the detail of the scope of our job ahead.  Part of the project would be to analyse case studies using GIS to solve particular land issues.  As we interviewed people they all gave their opinions on what topics we should look at.  Towards the end of the trip, we had two days to investigate a couple of these in more detail; which gave us a fantastic excuse to explore the islands.

The first of the field trips was to head back to one of my most favourite islands in the world, Bequia.  I may have given the impression that this was a sleepy idyllic island elsewhere, but it had similar problems to everywhere in the world; one of these being population pressure.  Islands can suffer more than most from this.  Maybe the sheer numbers of population increase are not as great as in, for example, South East Asia or the urban centres of Africa, but the amount of land available to house those new people is much more restricted, and the effects on the environment much less absorbable.  On Bequia plans were afoot to subdivide land parcels.  In most of the world land is owned by someone, and the ownership is recorded geographically by the boundaries of parcels or plots on the ground.  Some people own one small rectangle of land, others huge swathes of countryside.  And those people might be individuals or they may be families or institutions such as government.  In many of the Caribbean islands, the government took on the ownership of the big plantations – the sugar on Antigua, Barbados and St Kitts, the bananas on St Lucia, Dominica and St Vincent.  This meant they have a land bank that when the population increases they can subdivide their own plots and sell them off.  There was a plan on the north coast of Bequia to do just this and it would be a useful trial of the National GIS to see what could be provided geographically to help this process.