Tag: Basotho

:: horse racing across the mountains ::

“Bo-Ntate, you need to move your cars, that is the finish line.”  Standing in a brown field surrounded by mountains, Basotho and horses, we didn’t realise that the two piles of white painted rocks were the finish line.

Horse racing in Lesotho is not like in the US or UK. There are no grandstands, betting windows or tracks for that matter. In fact, there aren’t even any agreed upon races beforehand. Owners show up and haggle over the cost of entering, race length and winner’s purse. Then there is an informal parading of the horses followed by a slow walk out across the fields to the start line. A flag is dropped and off they charge back towards the assembled spectators. No finish line technology, just a guy sitting on one of the ‘finish line’ piles of white rocks in order to provide an “eyeball finish” if needs be.

These informal, but very competitive gatherings happen around the country, but some of the biggest, and oldest, occur near Semonkong, a market town about two hours from the capital. This is the epitome of horse country, with very few roads and no major cities for more than 100 kilometres in any direction. Here in the Maloti Mountains horses are a source of transportation, agricultural labour and pride. People with few other material belongings revere their horses and back them to the hilt in these races.

The horse races generally occur once a month between March and October, though if there is someone staking an extra large amount of money then an extra race day can occur quite suddenly. The money isn’t huge, but there is a lot of it flying around the crowds! Betting is chaotic and anyone can bet anyone else. If you agree terms, you have a third party hold the money, then winner takes all. You add this chaotic betting system to the official negotiations for the terms of the races and rag-tag jockeys riding unfamiliar horses and it is best to watch from a bit of a distance!

We went for the Independence Day races, one of the bigger events of the year and we were not disappointed. What started slow and low-key became louder and more energetic with each passing race. Horses are paired based on age and size, with the races progressing to older, stronger horses. By the end, it became a straight match race – one on one. We have no idea what was really happening, but the excitement after the winning horse came across the line was intense and great fun to be around.

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There is something special to behold from the joy that the Basotho get from their horses.  Seeing it in the natural setting of the fields around Semonkong and Maletsunyane Falls was all the better. These horses don’t belong on the manicured race tracks of Saratoga or Aintree, but rather on rock-strewn dirt tracks streaking across the mountains of Lesotho.

Here are a few videos of the event to give you a real feel for it – first the parade, followed by a win. Please excuse the poor quality and line across the middle…

:: basotho blankets ::

If clothes make the man, then blankets make the Basotho. Men and women, rural and urban, summer and winter, blankets are a constant sight in Lesotho. Vividly colourful with intricate meanings and hierarchies, these blankets are a common cultural thread in Lesotho and beyond. Yet, their beginnings come from the cultural collisions of European missionaries and traders with Basotho, the people of Lesotho.

In the 1830’s French missionaries coming north from the Cape Colony came across King Moshoeshoe I and his newly formed Basotho people; an amalgamation of many different tribes and clans uprooted by conflict with the Zulus and brought together under the benign rule of Moshoeshoe. The King welcomed the missionaries and became an early Christian convert, thus providing access for missionaries and traders to move freely around what was then known as independent Basutoland.

In 1860 a British trader presented King Moshoeshoe I with a blanket, or kobo, and he immediately took to wearing it around his shoulders. Within a short period of time, Basotho started wearing animal skins, colourful cloths and blankets over their shoulders. Noting this new trend, an English trader called Donald Fraser introduced a specially made blanket for the Basotho which became an instant status symbol. The wool and mohair blankets were perfect for regulating body temperatures and staying dry and warm in the variable climate of the Mountain Kingdom.

It was the launch of the Victoria line from the trading store Frasers in the late 1890s that really kicked off the insatiable demand from the Basotho. This first specially made blanket resembled leopard skin and was made for royalty, but its popularity quickly led to an expanded line of designs and common Basotho bought the blankets in droves. Each year for the next century they produced 100,000 blankets and demand always exceeded supply. The Victoria label had become a symbol and everyone wanted one.

Today the blankets are no longer made by Frasers, but by blanket manufacturers Aranda in Johannesburg. Several traditional styles are still available while they work to introduce new designs each year to accommodate the changing tastes of Basotho.  Vivid colours, iconic symbols of Lesotho and two or three pin stripes running through the design are the key identifiers of the traditional Basotho blanket.

These beautiful Basotho blankets often have special meanings, and many designs are designated for specific occasions like funerals, weddings and initiation ceremonies.  There are also special blankets for royalty and the different traditional clans.  Most recently, Aranda has honoured Semonkong, where they shoot their blanket advertising campaigns, with a new design made to celebrate Maletsunyane Falls.

It isn’t just the iconic blankets that are ubiquitous here in Lesotho. Drive out into the countryside and you will see blankets hanging out to dry in every village. Simple ones, tatty ones, new ones and yes, traditional Basotho blankets made by Aranda. Fastened with a special blanket pin, there are many different ways to wear the blanket, but you’ll always see them worn prominently.

Women wear blankets as an extra ‘skirt’ layer in winter, around their middle to keep babies close on their backs as they work the fields or town, or draped over their shoulders for warmth and protection.

Herd boys make, and fix, their own blankets out in the mountainside pastures, or use those given to them by their family or initiation ceremony.

Older boys can be seen cloaked in traditional blankets as part of their initiation ceremony in which they become men.  Throughout the country, men and women of all ages wrap themselves in a warm blanket to fight against the frigid winter morning cold, strong wind, harsh sun or driving rain.

In recent years, Basotho blankets are even becoming high fashion couture. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about Thabo Makhetha, a Basotho designer in South Africa, who is turning these quintessential cultural icons into jackets, dresses and shawls. Other designers are creating men’s jackets, while other sources in Europe and America are adapting or stocking these blankets, including Anthropologie.  Some claim that even Burberry took their inspiration from the Basotho blankets when they sent some of their models down the catwalk cloaked in wool blankets earlier in the year.

Perhaps imitation is the ultimate form of flattery but it is unlikely that these new converts to modern forms of the Basotho blanket will truly understand the influence they wear on their shoulders. After all, how can a trendy New Yorker or Parisian fully comprehend “bochaba ba mosotho ke kobo” – “the nationality of the Mosotho is the blanket”? Maybe they don’t have to, but we hope they at least become aware of this fantastic little mountain kingdom and the beautiful local cultural importance of the designs they choose to wear.

 

:: dogs of lesotho ::

It goes without saying that we are dog people. We love dogs and we have a very close bond with not only our black labrador Mosa, but many of our friends’ dogs both here in Lesotho and further afield.

This emotional connection to any dog caused us to bury an unknown dog yesterday near our house. We don’t know how she died, she may have been hit by a car or perhaps just died of old age, but we found her lying in an abandoned and overgrown area at the end of our road. Along with our gardener, who owns several dogs, we dug a hole, buried her and laid a stone and some greenery on top of the grave. It was a hard thing to do, almost as if the physical act of digging a hole was a form of closure we never had with Guinness more than two years ago. The whole unexpected encounter made us think about dogs and their lives here in Lesotho.

We of course have a very western view of dog ownership, one that allows dogs to be in the house and part of the family. Here, the Basotho have a very different attitude towards dogs. Like many cultures around the world, the Basotho treat their dogs in a much more functional way, using them for security, livestock control or simply as companions out in the countryside. Basotho frequently ‘collect’ dogs, so that it’s not uncommon to see one person with four or five dogs trailing beside and behind.

The dogs are not necessarily healthy, but generally they are fairly well treated. That is not to say that Basotho can’t be cruel to their animals, as they definitely can from our perspective. Their actions towards animals are however borne out of a mentality of them serving a function and not from the same type of emotional bond that we maintain with our pets. This means that throwing a rock at the dog to control it or hitting it with a stick to make it listen are instinctive.

The dogs are of course the same as dogs anywhere – loyal, playful and potentially mischievous. A knock to the side with a stick is better than starving and as I said, the dogs are usually treated well. These are hearty dogs after all. They sleep outside at all times, frequently chained up, and endure the drastic daily temperature swings and fierce sunlight. They don’t have soft donut beds or toys to chew on, but rather each other to fight with and animal bones to eat.

For all the hardships endured and administered, dogs and Basotho are inexorably linked. On almost every hike in the countryside or walk in Maseru with Mosa, someone asks us: “give me your dog”. We shake our heads and say she is our dog, but you can see the respect for a beautiful dog that so many Basotho have. Perhaps it is a view of dogs as a commodity, one that can be bartered or sold if needs be, but I prefer to see it as a love of these loyal companions.  Hopefully some day Basotho dogs will have a few more creature comforts!

:: a forgotten kingdom no longer ::

Lesotho’s cultural imprint is extremely limited in the wider world.  Some people might have heard of this small landlocked country, but they couldn’t tell you much about it from a cultural perspective.  There is no mention of the Basotho and their blankets or the Sesotho language, nor the prominence of horses in this mountainous and rural country. Even in southern Africa people tend not to know much about Lesotho, only that it is cold and remote.

Perhaps a big reason for this ignorance comes from a dearth of cultural references about Lesotho.  There are no TV shows or movies that showcase Lesotho, while the music and arts scenes are locally limited.  With a large and culturally dynamic neighbour like South Africa influencing Basotho, it is not hard to see how Lesotho can be left in the shade.

A new award winning film, however, made by an American filmmaker, is offering people the chance to explore Lesotho through the movie screen.  The Forgotten Kingdom is filmed in Sesotho, shot almost entirely in Lesotho and features many Basotho as actors.  It is the first feature film ever to be shot in Lesotho and offers a visual labor of love about this phenomenal and overlooked country.

Last night we had the chance to see the movie at an outdoor screening in Morija.  The film producers have been touring Lesotho putting on free community screenings in key locations, especially ones they filmed parts of the movie in.  So, with our picnic blanket and bag of popcorn in hand, we joined approximately 300 other people to watch a movie projected onto an outdoor pop-up screen, surrounded by flashes of lightning as a storm threatened.

This was a fantastic way to experience the movie as most of the audience was Basotho and they vocalized their emotions at key moments of the film. Sitting outside in the countryside that was so viscerally displayed on screen only heightened our enjoyment of this cinematic novelty. 

The story is universal, with a troubled youth trying to find his way in a life torn between the traditions of his parents and the reality of his life in South Africa. When his father dies, he embarks on a journey back to Lesotho to bury him. There he reconnects with the life he had left behind as a child and takes a journey to rediscover his roots. 

It is a lovely little movie that holds extra meaning to those of us who have spent time in this magical country. It is soon to be released in the Maseru cinema as well as in South Africa.  We hope that it will also have the chance to appear in the US or Europe, but hopefully at least a netflix or YouTube version will become available. 

If you can find it near you, we highly recommend it, as it will show you a place that you cannot hope to understand any other way – unless you come to visit us!

Watch the trailer and get hooked:

 

Another little plug for this film is it was supported and partially funded by PEPFAR, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, so U.S. Embassy Maseru has been involved in many aspects of production and screening of this beautiful film.

:: reservoir in the sky ::

As the rain hammered down, we slowly picked our way through the twists and turns of the ribbon of asphalt winding its way up the mountainside. Regular flashes of lightning illuminated the towering peaks across the valley and cracks of thunder were so close the car shook. With the scenery thoroughly hidden by the elements our focus was on the road up and over the Mafika Lisiu Pass.

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At 3090 metres, the pass is the third highest road pass in Lesotho and not a road to be taken lightly. In just 30km the road goes up over 1400 metres! Leaving the hot lowlands behind, you quickly reach cooler high alpine pastures on the other side of the pass.

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The tarred road to Katse was built as part of the first stage of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and provided a key route between the dam and some of the outlet tunnels in South Africa. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is an amazing feat of engineering, shifting copious amounts of water from the drenched highlands of Lesotho to the parched areas around Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa.

The dam wall stands 185 meters high and 710 meters wide at its top and is the second largest dam in Africa. Nestled within the mountainsides of the central Maloti range, it is very difficult to see the dam until you are almost right upon it, making the expanse of concrete all the more impressive. It took 22,000 people approximately six years and 2.3 million cubic metres of concrete to create this massive engineering feat.

The surroundings of the dam are startlingly beautiful, with the 50km reservoir following the twisting confines of the mountains that rise majestically above the water. Sitting well above the edge of the cliffs, it was fabulous to see the sheer scale of the place and lay back to watch the shifting clouds and fading light.

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We stayed in a small house built originally for the dam workers, but now tied to the lodge that overlooks the dam. From the terrace of the lodge you can sit, have a drink and admire the cross section of man made and natural beauty. Though we had a less open view from the house, we could still see the water and mountains from our back garden, perfect for relaxing breakfasts.

One morning we went for a hike and wandered along the Malibamatso River, below the dam. Following the lovely lazy river to the sound of birds and crickets made us feel miles away.  We only passed six or eight people, a surprisingly low number for Lesotho where, even in the most remote places, you almost always come across a surprising number of people wandering up and down the various hillsides.

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The walk itself had a little of everything – some rolling fields, rocky flood plains, small copses of trees and a little rock scrambling. If we had been inclined we could have gone for a swim, but we left that for our return trip to Maseru where we found a nice little place to swim in the reservoir itself. There we were joined by two boys who had been fishing nearby. One actually joined us in the water, while the other just smiled and laughed at us from shore. Mosa came in as well for one of her first proper swims ever, which I think really amused the boys!

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From there it was back over the Mafika Lisiu pass, this time in the clear sunshine.  We took advantage of the better weather and stopped at Bokong Nature Reserve. This small reserve offers fantastic views out over the Maloti Mountains as well as the opportunity to discover ice rats – a small rodent species endemic to Lesotho.

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The visitor centre is perched precariously over a 100 meter drop into the river valley below, but offers views of a waterfall and the river that take your breath away. A quick 30 minute hike takes you to the top of the waterfall and a perfect picnic spot along the babbling stream. Thankfully the hike is over relatively flat ground, as the 3000 metre altitude really kicks in, even for us who are used to mile high Maseru.

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Headed back to Maseru a while later, the good weather gave way to an amazing landscape with soaring mountains and waterfalls crashing down the sheer cliff faces. It was well worth going back the way we came, though the road was almost more scary in the daylight than in the pouring rain!

A few more snapshots of our weekend away…

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:: spectacular semonkong ::

“Ntate, can you drive us to pick up the keys for the digger?” These are not the words you want to hear as the weather closes in around you while stuck on a single track road running down the side of a mountain. A truck was stuck in the mud ahead of us and the only solution involved using the digger on the construction site. We never found out why the keys were at a construction office more than 10 kilometres back up the road, but we provided a ride to fetch them and eventually we got through past the stranded truck using an alternate path they created.

Semonkong is solidly in the middle of Lesotho. A small market town surrounded by mountains, it only very recently became more accessible via a 65 kilometre dirt road. The first half of this mountainous road has been tarred, but the second half is still a work in progress, hence the diggers, trucks and mud tracks. In a country of ever improving infrastructure, this was a nice reminder of our surroundings and the power that nature has to turn somewhat challenging roads into a proper test of automotive capacity.

With our temporary tenure as a taxi service and a slightly nervous mud slide behind us, we arrived at Semonkong Lodge well after dark and set about erecting our tents.  Nestled down in a river valley, complete with large overhanging willows and rushing water, it felt more like England than the small mountainous southern African country of Lesotho.

The big draw of Semonkong is Maletsunyane Falls, a 192 meter single drop waterfall. Looking down into the gorge and watching spray lap up the cliff walls, it’s easy to understand how this area is also known as the Place of Smoke. The gorge itself is fantastically beautiful as it suddenly appears from within the rolling hillsides that surround it. A great gash into to the earth, it’s well over 200meters deep in some places and stretches far into the more rugged mountains to the south.

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The best way to get to the falls is on foot or horseback. We hiked it, which took us right into ‘rush hour’ traffic as we navigated past cows, sheep, donkeys, horses, school children and adults – all either heading to town or back from it.  Though we passed through one small scattered village, the majority of people were actually coming from villages unseen behind mountains that even fit people would struggle to walk up.

The views along the way to the falls are immense – enormous green fields running into the base of mountains that reach into the sky.  Dotted along the horizon was the occasional donkey or groups of sheep and cows tended by herdboys cloaked in their traditional Basotho blankets.  The sheer scope of nature and the beauty that surrounded us took our breaths away.

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As we approached the gorge, we wandered along the opposite cliff edge, taking in the awesome scale of the gorge, falls and landscape behind.  From there we could see the small river, no more than twenty feet across, tumbling over the abyss and reforming two hundred meters below. It is truly a spectacle of nature at its finest and one not to be missed. 

IMG_0611001While admiring the views and watching birds of prey effortlessly glide on the up drafts, the clouds darkened and the distant rumbles of thunder echoed across the cavernous landscape. We made it halfway back to the lodge before the storm really closed in on us. Luckily we were able to find shelter under some trees to wait out the worst of it. 

Most of us are brought up learning that you should avoid trees in a storm, but this was by far the safest option we had at the time. Standing in an open field next to rocks whose mineral content attracts the very serious lightning of Lesotho was just not an option.  Watching the storm pass, cowering under its thunder and seeing huge lightning bolts arch across the sky and strike mountainsides was quite an experience. 

Eventually the storm let up and we made our way back through the muddy tracks back to camp and warmed ourselves inside the lodge drinking hot chocolate and playing games. The rain didn’t let up all night and it took the promise of a lovely cooked meal at the lodge to make us move from the cozy confines of our tent. It was well worth the short, wet walk as the food was rich, hearty and warming. We were even treated to some entertainment by some of the men of the village who displayed the gum boot dancing that many Basotho men have acquired from the mines in South Africa. 

The following day dawned bright and dry, so we hiked back to the falls for a second majestic view. Not surprisingly, the water was flowing even more strongly and the plume of smoke seemed to reach halfway across the gorge, lit by the gorgeous sunshine. Our return to Maseru later that day also proved far easier with no unexpected rides or mud slicked mountainsides. Instead we contented ourselves with the glorious landscapes of the Mountain Kingdom in the Sky wherever we looked.

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:: morija ::

Since we arrived in Lesotho at the end of July we have learned a few basic greetings in Sesotho. We have noticed that the limited sayings we know almost always elicit a smile and often times polite claims that we are fluent, which we patently deny. We both really want to learn more of the language in order to communicate better with staff at the embassy, our guards and Basotho in general. To this aim we went to Morjia for a Sesotho Language and Culture Weekend at the Morjia Guest House.

Morija was the first missionary station in Lesotho, founded in 1833 by two of the three French missionaries that arrived at the request of the then Basotho leader Moshoeshoe [pronounced Moshwayshway]. Moshoeshoe noticed that areas near missionaries usually had fewer violent confrontations and so he decided to ‘buy’ some missionaries for his territory. He then installed two of them in Morija, which was directly between his stronghold on top of Thaba Bosiu and a group of his enemies to the southwest, thus creating a buffer.

Morija has continued to be an important cultural location to this day and hosts a number of events including an annual Arts and Cultural Festival that sees dancers, musicians and artists arrive from all over Lesotho. It is also home to the oldest church, printing press and English school in Lesotho.

Perched above the hamlet is Morija Guest House, a beautiful homestead which combines Basotho tradition with modern ammenities. Morija Guest House was the vision of David Hall who was born in Morjia to South African missionaries. His birth in Lesotho gave him rights to a plot of land so he selected a large barren rock overlooking the valley. Most thought that his selection of a plot with no road access, flat land for farming and difficult rock terrain was unwise but his vision was extraordinarily prescient.

Now in their eighth year and run by David’s wife Brigitte, the Guest House hosts a weekend a few times a year dedicated to helping expats to understand Basotho culture and the basics of Sesotho. ‘Me Mamokola, responsible for training US PeaceCorps teachers and volunteers, joined us on this weekend and gave us several short lessons of key Sesotho greetings, verbs and vocabulary. We all followed along at varying paces but eventually we were able to use the common greetings, introduce ourselves, talk about our work and put together some short sentences.

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In between our Sesotho lessons we had a whole suite of other activities that made for a very interesting weekend. Aside from learning some foundations of the language, we also had the opportunity to discuss different aspects of Basotho culture. Understanding some of the key Basotho traditions and customs around weddings, funerals and home life was really interesting. Even more interesting was talking about different attitudes, behaviors, gender roles and the work ethic in Lesotho (more on all of that to come).

In addition to our cultural chat, we also had a lovely demonstration of some of the traditional Basotho dances by the children who live in the village below. Although the dances are traditionally danced by older women, the girls did a fabulous job in their respective dances.

The first dance is known as litolobonya and was performed by a group of young girls. Wearing skirts made out of shredded maize bags with bottle caps underneath banging together to sound like bells, they danced a special dance which is normally only done in private by women with other women. I asked our guard to tell me a bit more and he mentioned it was quite secret and men will never see this dance performed by women. Our Sesotho teacher explained that at times the dance was used to see if women who had just had a baby were ready to go back to work at the end of three months.

The second dance was done by a slightly older group of girls on their knees and involved an impressive display of shoulder movement and rhythm. A very old traditional dance passed down through the generations, the mokhibo dance is traditionally a celebratory dance which you will often see performed on Independence Day, the King’s birthday or other festive occasions. For those of you in the UK who may have seen photos earlier this year of Prince Harry’s visit to Lesotho, this was one of the dances he was photographed attempting.

After the girls finished a group of young boys who came in and did several gumboot dances. Originally created by the miners in South Africa, the dance has made its way into Lesotho through the many men who have gone to work there. In the mines they were restricted from using drums and so instead they discovered the sounds and rhythms they could make on their gumboots, aka wellies. This dance has now spread across the continent, particularly through mining areas, and has certainly had an influence on modern forms of urban dance.

When we were not spending time inside learning about the fascinating language and culture of Lesotho, we were enjoying good meals, getting to know the others in the group and exploring the nearby landscape. After learning more about Moshoeshoe and his legacy on Lesotho, we were treated to a hike to the top of the country’s great national monument Thaba Bosiu, the ‘mountain of night’.

Once the settlement of the first Basotho people, this sandstone plateau takes it name after the belief that the mountain would grow at night and so anyone trying to scale it to attack them would then be left stranded by the time day came. Now the mountain is a sacred place where Moshoeshoe and others are buried, home only to a few wild horses and the occasional tourist.

Another excursion led us up the mountain behind the Morija Guest Houses to a very large fallen rock with a surprising set of dinosaur footprints embedded into the rock’s face. The rock had at one time been part of the plateau above but now sits on an angle perfectly displaying a set of fossil prints. Lesotho is known to have the largest concentration of dinosaur footprints in the world, so it was amazing to be able to experience seeing even just a few in this part of the country.

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With everything that was organised for us, the weekend flew by and before we knew it we were on our way back to Maseru. Our heads were swimming with Sesotho expressions and images of the dancers and Moshoeshoe’s legacy. Now the challenge is to take what we have learned, make sure we really learn and practice it, and continue learning even more!

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For those of you who are interested, or who intend on visiting us here in this beautiful country, here are some basic Sesotho greetings:

Lumela [pronounced doomela] = hello

U phela joang [pronounced oh peela joaang] = How are you?

Ke phela hantle [pronounced kay peela haantlay] = I am good

Kea leboha [pronounced kay ya lay boha] = thank you

:: life in the maluti mountains ::

Driving through the beautiful Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho you are treated to an array of wide expansive landscapes and rugged mountains. It’s easy to get caught up in this beautiful awe-inspiring scenery and not see much else. Along the road and dotted in the distance, however, are clusters of villages and homes of varying styles.

Usually built of materials from the earth such as mud, stones or bricks, and sometimes a combination of all three, these houses have the tendency to blend into their natural environment.  As you get further away from the urban areas, the houses become even more traditional and so the shiny tin roofs or glinting aluminium window frames that can often make them stand out against the rugged backdrop become more obsolete.

Every day we see and learn more about the local customs and traditions of home life in Lesotho. Reading about the country, talking to people and simply observing our surroundings has given us lots of insight into the norms of life in this part of the world.  Our recent anniversary weekend ‘community visit’ trip, organised by Maliba Mountain Lodge, gave us even more opportunities to meet locals and see how they live in the mountains.

Just down the road from the lodge and adjacent to Ts’ehlanyane National Park is Ha Mali (pronounced Ha Maddie), a small community of approximately 100 homes that Maliba actively supports.  Our first stop in the village was to visit a traditional Basotho rondavel home and cooking hut.  Called a mokhoro in Sesotho, these huts are made entirely of materials from the earth that trap the warmth in winter and keep the hut cool in the summer.

The main structure is built using stones that are then covered with a mixture of sand, soil and dung.  The interior flooring is made of damp dung that they flatten to make a smooth base.  A thick layer of beautiful locally sourced thatch covers the round structure creating a waterproof roof and shelter that often lasts for twenty years.  Many of the more modern mekhoro (plural for mokhoro) have small windows but those that we visited only allowed light and air to enter through the small doorway.

After our local guide made some initial introductions, a young girl welcomed us to go in to look at the interior.  Dark but noticeably warmer inside, this hut had a metal table and side board, some chairs and a simple bed.  The plain mud wall was transformed by some sculpted shelves that held a collection of mismatched plates, beautifully displayed in a kind of shabby chic way that many designers are now trying to replicate in western homes.

Next door they were busy in a slightly smaller hut preparing a fire.  As we entered we greeted an older woman and some younger children sitting on the floor in the smoke filled space eating out of ceramic mugs.  In the corner one of the young girls demonstrated how they grind the maize daily on a large stone, shaped from generations of this repetitive action.  The ground maize is then boiled to make pap, a kind of porridge or polenta which is a staple food in Lesotho.

Leaving the warm smoke filled hut we felt the crisp air hit our throats, reminding us of the harshness of the mountains and life here.  We continued onwards in the car and stopped briefly at the local school along the road.  It was quiet that day as all of the students were at home fulfilling their weekend duties with their families but standing there we could imagine the full classrooms and children bustling around.

Scattered about the classrooms were an eclectic mix of desks, chairs and old schoolbooks.  On one board we could see the English writing lessons and diagrams teaching them about the human body.   Remembering our days of science class, it was hard to imagine how the students manage to have enough energy and attention to learn after what is often a long and treacherous walk to school traversing rivers or climbing down rocky mountainsides in the cold of winter or heat of summer.

Further along the road we were treated to a visit to the ‘local pub’.  To the extent that this place made and sold beer, you could almost argue that it’s actually a brewery, but not one that you may be imagining.  As you drive along the road you will sometimes see a white flag flying outside a building or Basotho hut.  This, in Lesotho, is the sign that there is traditional beer also known as joala being brewed and sold there.

The brewmaster, an older man wearing a large winter coat and gumboots, invited us into his traditional Basotho hut to see how he made this local drink.  As he started to explain the process of fermentation of this thick home-brewed beer made from sorghum and maize, my camera and I became a focal point for the children who were not shy and asked me to ‘shoot them’.

So while CW enjoyed the brewing explanation and tasting, I stayed outside and had a grand time with the children taking their photos, sharing them on the camera’s screen and then laughing with them about this and that.  They were keen to show me their litter of puppies, flock of chicks and handmade clay toy sculptures – all of which they wanted me to photograph and then show them which I of course was more than pleased to accommodate.

We could have stayed there for hours playing with the children, talking to their parents and taking their photos but we didn’t want to intrude too heavily on their lives so we said our goodbyes and headed back to the lodge.  Although it was a short visit, it was a tremendously enriching experience and a perfect way to allow us to see and learn more about their way of life in the majestic, but harsh, Maluti Mountains.

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:: lumela lesotho ::

: Lesotho = Small mountain kingdom in southern Africa, pronounced ləˈsuːtu :
: Lumela = Sesotho word meaning hello, pronounced dumela :

As we flew the final leg of our journey into Maseru, the brown wintery fields of South Africa gave way to rugged mountains stretching north and east into the highlands of Lesotho. We had waited a long time to catch our first glimpses of our new home, so looking through the small plane windows and seeing the beautiful mountains below made this whole adventure finally feel real.

We disembarked onto the tarmac into the winter sun and headed to a small terminal building. They unloaded our bags from the plane onto a hand wheeled trolley and before long we were through immigration and on our way towards the city together with our lovely sponsor and hosts. We were at first surprised that the airport was so far away from this relatively small city, but then our hosts explained that this was the closest bit of flat land required for modern aircrafts.

Heading towards Maseru we were mesmerized by the lovely expanses of brown fields and the outline of distant mountains through the hazy midday sun. As we approached the city we started to see a scattering of small stone and cinderblock houses. Most had corrugated tin roofs, some rusted with time while others were gleaming in the sunshine. The roads on either side leading to the houses were unpaved and pock marked with potholes and oversized rocks.

Before long the landscape changed and we started to see more modern brick and stone houses on either side of the road. Men and women were walking along the road, while others were sitting waiting on a rock or other structure. Most people were wearing heavy coats or layers to keep the winter chill out, often paired with bright colored wooly hats.

Off in the distance you could see people standing or walking through the dormant fields where goats, cows and donkeys were grazing. One figure tending some cattle stood out in particular wearing a vibrant red traditional Basotho blanket which we learned are typically made of a blend of cotton and wool to keep them warm.

As we came into Maseru we started seeing larger buildings and a few modern stores. Alongside the road were vendors selling fruit and vegetables right next to others preparing hot food for lunch. In one area there were hundreds of factory workers queuing for food or sitting and eating on top of piles of large sacks. Everywhere we looked there were people walking or trying to cross the road, and taxis overtaking us and honking their horns to pick up fares.

We finally arrived at our hotel, a modern building perched on a hill looking over the capital. We spent our first evening enjoying a glass of red wine and a stunning sunset from the terrace of the hotel, a perfect way to end our first day and start the rest of our adventure here in the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.

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