Lessons From Lesotho: A Visitor in the Mountain Kingdom

Published in Offprint Magazine // February 13, 2015

Mokhoro huts in the village of Lithakoaneng, part of the Makhotso village cluster. All photos by Liz Cantrell. Shot on Fuji Instax Wide film.

Mokhoro huts in the village of Lithakoaneng, part of the Makhotso village cluster. All photos by Liz Cantrell. Shot on Fuji Instax Wide film.

Delirious and sleep-deprived from nearly 60 hours of travel, I stop on the tarmac to collect myself. The African heat wraps around me as I raise my hands to shade my eyes, trying to crystallize the landscape, adjusting my vision like a camera lens.

On the last of many flights, I had nervously peered down at the craggy mess of mountains and tiny roads criss-crossing the land like scars. Now, here they are, mountains on top of mountains. It is called the Mountain Kingdom or the Kingdom of the Sky, and with good reason. If anything, what you will remember is the mountains, I have been told. They are imposing, overlapping, inescapable.

Other passengers shuffle past me on their way to customs. I turn and begin the short walk to the two-room airport, my olive green hiking pack thumping against my back.

I limp inside and exhale deeply when I see the sign I have been waiting one year to read: “Welcome to Lesotho.” 

*   *   *

Lesotho, which is landlocked inside South Africa, is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland [1]

Lesotho shown in red.

Lesotho shown in red.

There are roughly 140 miles between the capital of Maseru and the village cluster of Mashai, our final destination. Considering it takes between six and eight hours to travel that distance, most likely over two days due to the unpredictable departure time of taxis, one quickly begins to feel that Lesotho is much, much larger than Maryland.

It is not an exaggeration to say that many of the villages in the highlands are accessible only by foot or horse. Almost no one owns a car. Our destination was far into the province of Thaba-Tseka but was reachable by “taxi,” which is more accurately described as someone’s van that technically seats 15. On one of our taxi rides, I counted 18 people, including four children shoved in corners and squished between laps and backpacks. The taxis depart only when the vehicle is full enough to cause one to take shallow breaths, and when enough baggage, groceries, packages and village mail are wormed into each free crevice. Careening on dirt roads and bouncing on questionably inflated tires, the journey into the mountains begins.

*   *   *

After a daring two days of travel by taxi and a night in Thaba Tseka camp town, we arrive at my friend’s village, Lithakoaneng, which is part of the greater village of Makhotso.

An unfinished mokhoro.

An unfinished mokhoro.

Her home is a simple circular hut, called a mokhoro. The villagers typically live in these one-room huts with two or three generations of family. Made of intersecting layers of brick and mud and smoothed with white paste on the inside, the huts are topped with tightly woven thatched grass. The huts are cool and dry, which is a relief in the summer, but is less desirable in winter. With no heating systems and the high altitude, Lesotho winters are brutal.

It is late afternoon, and as we begin to unpack in the hut, some of the children begin to wander by. Idle without school to occupy their time, they gather at the door of my friend’s hut, hoping to catch a glimpse of the lekgowa, a white person. They are curious about me, but some keep their distance, instead speaking basic Sesotho (the native tongue) or practicing their English, as my friend is their teacher.

I practice a few phrases. Lumela, (pronounced du-mela), hello. U phela joang (oo pee-la-jwang), how are you? Ke phela hamonate (k pe-la ham-a-nate), I am fine.

It is not long before my friend sees a tall, thin woman ambling down the road, and shouts excitedly, “’mme!‘Mme is the word for mother, and it is customary to address adult women this way. One also refers to all adult men as ntate, father. It is a sign of extreme disrespect to call someone by their first name without a title of ‘mme or ntate.

The woman is my friend’s host mother. Her full name is ‘Mme Ma Karabelo, the Mother of Karabelo. When a woman has her first child, she takes on that name as her own, rather than taking her husband’s name. ‘Mme begins chatting with my friend about my visit, while I stand on, impressed that my friend is fluent in Sesotho.

The Ramone family. Left to right: Mme Ma Karabelo; Rorisang; Moeko; Karabelo; Relebohile (Kara); Refuea; Ntate Lerato.

The Ramone family. Left to right: Mme Ma Karabelo; Rorisang; Moeko; Karabelo; Relebohile (Kara); Refuea; Ntate Lerato.

Soon enough, the host father, ntate Lerato, joins us. Ntate Lerato is the village chief, a position inherited from father to eldest son, although a son can renounce his title if he wishes. Ntate Lerato is gentle and smiles at me often. I struggle with my phrases and try to nod as much as possible.

I meet Mme and Ntate’s children, my friend’s host siblings. There is 10-year-old Karabelo, the oldest boy who will likely be chief one day; brothers Moeko, 6; and Rorisang, 4; and 2-year-old Refuea, the youngest and only daughter. Refuea is terrified of me and runs back to the hut, but Rorisang seems more amenable. The older boys play it cool and whisper with their friends.

These are the Ramones, my friend’s host family. She loves them as her own and they have embraced her as their daughter. She tells me that when a teenage boy stole from her, Ntate was angry because it was offensive that someone would steal from his family. She took this as a sign that she had earned her place.

Though it is the first week of summer, the sun sets at 7 p.m. because it quickly sinks below the mountains. Conversation dies down and the Ramones leave us. My friend and I retreat to the hut. With no electricity, there is no incentive to stay up late. No one goes out at night, except teenagers sneaking away to a shallow gorge at the edge of the village, for a rendezvous.

*   *   *

The flies wake us early. They buzz briefly at the tips of our ears and dash away as soon as we wave a lazy hand to disperse them. Unable to ease back into sleep, my friend rises and begins to prepare coffee, taking a carafe of water from her bucket, twisting the gauge on her petrol tank and lighting the stove with a match.

Outside, the village is beginning to wake, shaking off the dew of night as the sun rapidly begins to heat up the day. We can hear the sheep bleating, begrudgingly following the men to the fields. Mothers whisk their children out of the huts and off to play.

I think of how long it took to get here, how very far I am from everything, from anything. And how I don’t mind.

The name for a person from Lesotho is a Masotho. Collectively, the people are called the Basotho, and the Basotho are nosy. There is no other way to say it. They want to know how you are doing, where you are going, what you will be doing, how long it will take and who will be with you. Greeting someone is a constant custom.

I witness this ritual on Christmas Eve. My friend takes me on a village tour, introducing me as Ausi (sister) Itumeleng. This is the name Ntate gave me. It means, “We are happy you are here.”

My friend is known as Ausi Relebohile (we are thankful), but in school the children must call her Madame, as the Lesotho educational system imposes formal British English.

At each hut we visit, the questions are always the same, but no less genuine. Each person will ask you something and then smile, holding their grin until you complete your answer, then follow up with question number two, number three and so on.

It is not uncommon to spend a full five minutes greeting one person. In American time, five minutes feels like an eternity. Five minutes is a missed bus, a cup of coffee, a scan of the day’s headlines. In Lesotho, your sense of time — in literal hours and minutes or the duration of time it takes to complete a task — dissipates. You are at the mercy of time.

During our tour of the village, I stay quiet, occasionally using a few Sesotho phrases to greet the mme’s who are eager to chat with my friend. Some of them are grandmothers, mothers, or aunts of the children in her classes. They are very surprised someone like me would come all the way here. My friend tries to explain how I got here, by airplane, but it doesn’t quite translate.

I look around at clusters of mokhoro, at the imprints of life — buckets for carrying water, clothes drying in the sun, dishes waiting to be cleaned. I think of how much is the same. Children still play, teenagers still flirt and parents still fuss. Boys fancy themselves men, and girls gossip or tease one another. I cannot understand the jokes, but there are plenty of them.

*   *   *

The Basotho has lived in Lesotho territory since approximately the 15th century, although they are descended from much earlier Bantu tribes who slowly migrated from equatorial Africa to the southern part of the continent over thousands of years.

In the first decade of the 1800s, Lesotho was occupied by a loose band of tribes. In 1818, the Basotho people consolidated and moved to the mountains to escape challenges from the powerful Zulu tribe of South Africa, uniting under King Moshoeshoe [2].

The modern nation-state of Lesotho began, as was the case in many African countries, with European encroachment. At the same time United States was fighting its Civil War, the Boer people —white settlers from South Africa speaking a blended Dutch-native language called Afrikaans— began to infringe on Basotho land in the current territory of Lesotho [3]. However, while Lesotho did experience colonial rule and is a former British protectorate, it was never fully occupied in the way that South Africa was. And, unlike the country which envelopes it, there is little racial diversity in Lesotho— the population is 99.7 percent Sotho, the native ethnicity — and therefore little conflict. Of course, South Africa’s racial history is far more turbulent.

Today, about three-fourths of the Basotho population lives in the remote, rural highlands and relies on subsistence agriculture. Lesotho’s geography and climate are not suitable for a variety of crops. Mostly, people grow corn, sorghum, beans and a leafy vegetable similar to collard greens. There are some apricot trees beyond my friend’s village, and we get to sample a few. They are small and perfectly sweet.

One of the many donkey grazing, overlooking mountain valleys.

One of the many donkey grazing, overlooking mountain valleys.

On Christmas Day, my friend is waiting most of the day for her brother, Karabelo, to come to her hut for “the nice food,” as the children keep calling it. She decided we would make macaroni and cheese, and cookies, to give them a taste of American cuisine.

As the day goes on and various younger children from her class come to get their helping, I can see my friend is getting worried and a little irritated that the older boys, like her brother, are in the fields on Christmas.

Animals are a source of wealth and pride, and the men and boys spend each day caring for the animals. If a boy is not doing well in school, he leaves after primary years to begin his life as a herder. When a boy is punished, he is sent to the cattle post miles away with only a bag of papa to last a week, maybe more. Animals are, literally, worth fighting for — owners will defend the herd against would-be thieves.

However, the villagers do not milk the cows, goats, or sheep for fear of tuberculosis. It seems futile to me to raise animals that will neither be slaughtered nor milked. I ask my friend why the people would bother to raise livestock they do not plan to use. She explains that in some cases, it is to be able to pay a debt or a dowry, and to show status and power. One animal is typically slaughtered per year on a holiday, which she says would likely happen during my visit, because of Christmas.

Additionally, after a person’s death, if the family has a cow they will kill it and feed the village at the funeral. One year later, the family places the cowhide on the deceased’s grave, so that he has a blanket to wear in the afterlife.

But mostly, it is an insurance policy, she tells me. If there is no rain, there are no crops, no food. Only then, when the people are starving, they will begin to kill the animals.

*   *   *

This knowledge sits with me on my last full day in the village, when the men slaughter a sheep. My friend says her family will want to feed us meat, to show that they are able. I creep around the corner of the Ramone’s home to the scene of the killing. Ntate Lerato bends over the carcass, swiftly removing organs and preparing the meat for cooking.

While the mutton is stewing over a fire, I scratch some words in my pocket notebook for later during my goodbyes. My friend helps translate my phrases and complete my thoughts. Being able to speak my own language and have others understand me — indeed, expecting others to understand me — is a simple thing and one I take for granted each day. I want to thank Mme and Ntate in their own language, however blunt and un-poetic my words may be.

After everyone has had their share of mutton and dusk is edging closer, I make my little speech. I stand in front of Mme and Ntate, slowly reciting:

Kea leboha hore ke lutse monna le lona. Ke thabile ho le tseba. Lesotho le monate. Kea leboha hore lona le lelapa la Ausi Relebohile. O na le lapeng mona le lona o thabile haholo hoba mona. Sala ka khotso.

“Thank you for hosting me. It has been nice to meet you and to enjoy beautiful Lesotho. Thank you for taking care of Relebohile and keeping her safe in her new home. I wish you many blessings.”

*   *   *

These are my goodbyes, and the next morning my friend and I rise with the flies to begin the long taxi journey out of Lesotho and into South Africa, where we will spend the next week.

As we walk to stand by the road, I see Mme leaving the Ramone’s hut to get started on her morning chores. We wave and my friend calls out a greeting. By the time the taxi arrives, Ntate is watching us leave also. We pile into the taxi and the van begins to lumber down the road. Goodbye, I think. Sala hantle.

Sunset in Makhotso.

Sunset in Makhotso.

When one goes to Asia or to Latin America, one usually specifies the country. It is, “I’m going to China” or “I’m going to Chile.” It is rare to say or hear “I’m going to Cameroon.” Instead the phrase is, “I’m going to Africa.” Before my trip, I did this several times. The statement is accurate, but it is all too easy to paint Africa with one broad brushstroke, to eliminate difference and trivialize the diversity of an entire continent of 54 nations. It is important to acknowledge that we can never really know everything, but maybe we can know some things really, really well.

I don’t pretend to know Lesotho well. I can say that while I was prepared for the lack of some comforts — no electricity, no running water — I was not prepared for the bounty of what I found instead: raw beauty, deep kindness and an informal spirituality defined by human actions and words, not divine platitudes.

It felt strangely bittersweet to leave the village after so little time there. In the scheme of life, five days seems infinitesimal. But I reckon those five days will stay with me. Lesotho’s majesty is in its absence of things and its abundance of space. Space to swallow you, to shock you. Space to fill your lungs and your line of vision. Space that, oddly, makes you feel whole and alive and want to kiss the sky. ‡

[1] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/lt.html

[2] http://www.gov.ls/about/default.php

[3] Ibid.