|Stephen Scourfield Writing
Lesotho: The Promise
As a nine-year-old, I promised myself I would go to Lesotho one day – a wild and romantic pledge by a little boy in England, to
himself, to visit the high, poor, remote mountains and villages of the only country on the planet completely surrounded by one other
country. An island and outpost surrounded by South
Today, thirty-seven years later, is that day.
But as we approach from the west, from KwaZulu-Natal
province, the heavens suddenly open. The temperature drops by 4C in two
minutes, then another two, and another two, and, in
minutes, until it is 10C lower than it started, and the firehose rain cuts deep channels down and across the dirt
And we haven’t even got to the infamous Sani Pass – the “Pass of the San people” - an 8km climb up rocky switchbacks to 2840m in the no-man’s between South Africa’s border at the base of the Drakensbergs and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho at the top.
For a few minutes, it looks as if the road might quickly become
impassable, with clay being washed away and turned to slip second by second.
But Greg Garson has climbed the Sani Pass many times, to a place that also holds a precious place in his
heart. As a nationally accredited South African guide, he has been taking people to Lesotho longer than any
other. He looks less perturbed than is the man beside him who fears losing a boy’s
Greg and I met in Perth when he came to talk about the trip that Zulu Adventures is offering
Australians, starting in Durban, where he lives.
I am not sure how Lesotho came into the conversation, but it
did. I told Greg that I had been inspired by meeting Archbishop Trevor
Huddleston. To me, as a boy, he was gentle, powerful,
mesmerising. My mother and I went to a talk he was
giving, and he planted indelibly in me a love of Lesotho.
My mother and I ran stalls at fetes, raised money, and sold the housebricks she jacketed in fabrics to make pretty doorstops to send money to projects in Lesotho. The work in schools and hospitals seemed almost constantly in my
“Father Trevor?” Greg knew of him. Archbishop Huddleston died in 1998, but lived in Africa much of his life and led the British campaign to end apartheid in South
Africa. At his memorial service, then president Nelson Mandela said Archbishop Huddleston had touched the hearts of millions of South
Some nicknamed him the Red Bishop after a startlingly bright little bird I have now
seen, which he hated.
“I will take you to Lesotho,” said Greg. “I would like to do that for
And here we are now, just a stone’s throw away, with the temperature still dropping and the rain cascading from the
sky, and me thinking that maybe it is not meant to be after all. A divine
intervention, perhaps. All manner of reasons for me not being allowed onto the rooftop of Africa are swirling around inside
“If we can’t make it, we can’t make it,” I say to Greg.
“Five minutes and everything changes in the mountains,” says Greg.
And then we round a bend, and the sun is out and there is no
Two more bends and we are in sweet alpine meadows, the earth and rock track completely
dry. The yellow of europs, southerlandia, and then the distinctive Lesotho
poker. A suicide gladiolus. Endemic Watsonia, precious to South
Africans, at the 3000m. Leucosidae seracie, locally called
Ouhout, which Basotho infused into a tea to treat eye
More bends and Greg pulls the Land Rover over on to the one place in this no-man’s land where you can stop. “A little time for the little boy in
you,” he says. And I jump out, and he purposely stays in the
Out on a spur, I can wheel around the 360 degrees of sheer mountain
landscape, sucking in the clear cold air, and looking up the green skirts of the steep sides to the eerie of Lesotho
above, somewhere over the black basalt ramparts, lost in a white blanket of
cloud. Sitting at more than 3000m. The Roof of Africa.
It looks like somewhere Jack might have climbed a beanstalk to. Somewhere mysterious in a
And then, there we are, past the barrier and in Lesotho.
We are blanket-wrapped in the cloud, and stroll through dim white light and dampness to the customs and immigration
office. Greg walks in and starts talking soccer with the two young Basutho who are sitting by the fire watching a TV with bad black-and-white
reception. One stamps the passports and hands mine back.
“February 5, 2006. Lesotho Immigration. Permitted to enter and
We pull in to Jonathan and Sylvia Aldous’ Sani Top Chalet, “the highest pub in Africa”, and file past a rack of old
skis, faded photographs of Lesotho in the snow and its famous horsemen sitting
wrapped, equally as famously, in colourful ceremonial
It has windy corridors, solid walls and old wooden
bunkbeds. The kitchen is filled with the constant
laughter, singing and chatter of women.
And I sit now in my room with wind and rain beating on the same metal lattice windows as my grandmother’s house, staring out at the
cloud, just as I did in her hilltop cottage in England when I was studying maps of Lesotho, making myself a
The nine-year-old would never have dreamt that he would come here as an
Australian, and see a Basutho thumb through a passport with a kangaroo and emu on the front, filled with the stamps of the
world. I am so humbled to be visiting Lesotho, and to revisit the boy I was.
I am overwhelmed to be here. I am overwhelmed to have greeted myself as a boy and felt all I felt
then. Even the shape of the word Lesotho means so much to me that to see it worked into the tapestry on the wall makes me feel as if I have always belonged
here, just never arrived.
All night long, the windows are lashed by wind and rain (as they should be in a romantic
odyssey) and I am warm in the reminiscent texture of flannelette
sheets, under tight-tucked, old-fashioned blankets. I lie awake through the night and savour
it, and let the feelings of childhood back in.
I think about the London judge I met last night, who is retired and now studying a degree in theology –
coincidentally, the one thing I have thought of myself as a decent retirement
project. “It will be interesting to see whether, at the end of
it, there are things – ‘decisions’ – you would have done
differently,” I said. “It happened in the first week,” he
admitted, meeting my gaze with a frighteningly disturbed
honesty. “I have connections. I talked to them about it.” I thought that was it. But he
continued. “There was one case in particular. Street robbery …
mugging. It was a young black man. I know that when he walked in, I thought he was
guilty.” Preconceptions. The agendas organically bred into us. “I have talked to people about
it,” he reaffirmed.
The night is light enough to throw a V through the
window, and now I have something to think about. Honesty,
integrity, belief, ethic. I often trace my life’s themes back to a brief encounter with Father Trevor.
I promised myself I would go to Lesotho one day, and today really is that complete
day. February 6, 2006. I arrived at 4pm yesterday the border below below Sani Pass into South Africa closes a 4pm
sharp, and we must be there. Today is the day.
We set out early, saying goodbye to what already feels like a familiar and loved
home, the Sani Top Chalet. I allow myself a brief moment’s envy of Ute Heidrun
Schwaibold, who spent time here whilst gathering data for her doctorate “Foraging Biology and Habitat Use of the Southern African Ice Rate Otomys Sloggetti
The smooth-skinned young woman who puts up a blank professional face allows herself a very African throat-note to some silly joke I make as I
pay. A moment off-guard. A moment of intimacy with this
tall, proud woman. I am sad to leave the comfortable old
room, and its textured walls, which remind me of my grandmother’s same
cottage. I slept like a nine-year-old in a safe home last
night, happy in the jumble of old furniture, a candle by my
bed, just in case.
I pack the pens and notebooks and, less comfortably, boiled
sweets, I have brought up for local children. And the copy of my book to leave in the country I tried to help as a
It is damp and misty outside. We are living in the
clouds, in the roof of Africa. The precious roof timbers of a hut stand against the white – in a country where wood is highly
valuable, they will rot there as an old man passed on
inside, and it is against tradition for the wood to be used
again. This place is full of ritual and ceremony and the word “die” is not
I should set the scene for today by saying that Lesotho is rated as the third poorest country in the
world. It has a population of 1.8 to 2.2 million – no-one is quite
sure, for various reasons – I am told.
It is estimated that between 70 and 100 people die every day in Lesotho as a result of HIV/AIDS and
The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel – an Anglican
organisation, but with the mandate to “enable people to grow
spiritually, to thrive physically and to have a voice in an unjust world – has long been working in Lesotho. It was to them that mother and I sent
money. It says it works alongside churches and communities around the
world, providing the resources – people, money and ideas – that they define as necessary to meet local
needs. “Our work involves pastoral care, social action and supporting training
Colin Sillett has been employed by the Diocese of Lesotho to develop HIV/AIDS awareness programs and a primary school education
programme. He has helped to set up an HIV/AIDS Peer Educators’ programme in high schools in Lesotho which urges young students to change their behaviour and cultural traditions to avoid the
Colin says: “We are teaching the children to look for solutions and choices from within themselves and not to rely on miracle cures or instant fixes. Younger
adults, not set in their ways, benefit more than older
He is also co-ordinating training in AIDS counselling for
teachers, and developing basic mathematics and English courses for children in primary schools and
“Every day I come across small signs of hope among those with HIV/AIDS, the poor and the
hungry. This society amazes me with its positive, friendly and grateful temperament despite enormous daily
The backdrop to his work is high incidence of disease and low life
expectancy, which is leading to a declining population. The numbers of street children and orphans are on the
increase. He says there is a basic need for sufficient food, clean
water, adequate shelter and sanitation, and a decent education system.
Missions first set up here in the 1700s, with French Eugene Casalis an important figure over the
years. They largely brought the education that is here.
There are several things for which the people of Lesotho – Basotho – are quietly
renowned. They are excellent mountain horseman and both
they, and their Lesotho mountain ponies, are revered.
Basotho also are know for wearing big blankets wrapped hard around themselves and, slightly less
famously, for their accompanying gumboots.
You really feel like you are on the roof of Africa – on a high plateau jammed into clouds that everyone else can only look up at. This place has the highest lowland of any country on Earth, and it is the highest place you can drive a vehicle on the African
continent. The damp sticks to you and permeates your
cold, and then the cold wind bites into it, all on a summer’s
Dry stone walls, round, thatched huts and Angoran goats in the mist. A Basutho horseman looms from the cloud which sits hard on the
ground. He is wrapped in a blanket, with a home-woven hat, feet sticking out and down. Our eyes meet and he frowns
fearsomely. I smile and he smiles back – a big, booming smile that shows bright
Lesotho’s ponies are renowned for being hardy, skilled in running over the rocky terrain without becoming
lame. Their riders are also renowned for their skill.
There are skill, shared by shepherds and Basotho in
general, is for suddenly appearing in the landscape and, equally
quickly, disappearing again. It really is quite spooky.
They tend herds, while for each white confetti of sheep there seems a
shepherd. In gumboots and blankets, they watch for the jackal
buzzards. Grazing is an important industry, Lesotho making income from the sale of mohair wool as much as through its labour for the gold mines of neighbouring
Opposite the two government shearing sheds, to which flocks are brought to have their
high-quality, high-quality Mohair and Merino fleeces
removed, is a small village; a cluster of round huts with thatched
roofs. There are some 70 people in the village, 20 of them
Flags fly above some – white meaning beer has been made and is for
sale, green for vegetables, red for meat. There is a blue
flag, but when you ask what this is for, you get only mysterious
“They come for the shearing and we make the food for
them,” says Aleni Sebilo, in her little hut, which took a year to build
She lifts the lid of the camp oven in the middle of her
hut. There is only one triangle left of the huge loaf she bakes for every
breakfast. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are bread and
moroho, an endemic mountain cabbage. By the two-shelf unit which comprises her kitchen are a plastic barrel of wheat
flour, more than a metre tall, and a sack of mealie (maize
meal). “Sometimes meat,” she adds. If a sheep or goat is
injured, it will be quickly and skilfully butchered. But it is worth more
Sometimes eggs, sometimes chicken. She walks a kilometre to fetch water from a mountain
stream; washing is done in the river.
The hut has a single door much less than two metres tall, facing
north. The prevailing wind is from the south and the light from the
north. The weather can be savage, at this altitude, living in the
clouds. Winter, spring, autumn, and even summer, can see the land quickly covered in
snow. The temperature can plunge quickly to –14C, plus wind chill
“How do you keep warm?”
Aleni points to the fire. In fact, the dry-stone walls are heavily plastered on the inside and the floor is finished with
dung. But below the floor, there are big boulders, carefully placed and filled around with
sand. The heat from the central fire heats these rocks, and the hut and stay warm with this underfloor
To the left of the doorway, a low seat – solid, built-in and plastered – curves around the wall to the kitchen shelf
unit. Behind the door, to the right, is a neat stack of
chests, bags and sacks full of the family’s belongings. Just past
that, sensibly in the darkness thrown by the open door, is an iron bed covered in the blankets Basotho sleep
The roof timbers are precious and solid, and covered in
thatch. It has rained very hard all night – certainly too hard for the corrugated tin roof of the Sani Top Chalet – but the inside of Aleni’s hut is completely
There is no chimney – it would simply blow off in winds regularly up to 180kmh. At lower
altitudes, the smoke also helps to keep the thatch free of
But the disadvantage of having no chimney and the local low-grade cold is apparent in the youngest of Aleni’s three
daughters, a nine-month-old toddler-in-arms with a
rasping, rattling chest.
Her eldest daughter is living with family in Mokhotlong, so she can attend the Lesotho Education Centre.
Aleni’s husband is working in Pietermaritzberg, coming home every three
months. Her sister Beleni lives in the hut next door. They giggle together and constantly
smile. The slightest thing sends them into girlish, hand-over-mouth
Girls are initiated at puberty into the ways of keeping house and looking after the
family. There isn’t the mutilation of some other African
Boys are initiated into “the ways” by older men. They are taken up into the hills and a temporary home is
built. They are given a stick, which they will decorate with
beadwork. Each is unique and you see young and old men carrying them. These sticks will be with them all their
lives, “going on” with them (the word “die” is not
used). When the instruction is finished, the boy – now a man – will set fire to the temporary home and walk away from
it, not looking back.
Her father, Tseko Sebilo comes, wrapped in traditionally-designed blue-and-cream
blanket. He gets out his lesiba to play for me. This is the traditional instrument of the
Basotho, and rarely seen these days. It is an instrument dying out – most of the young men do not know how to play it.
The lesiba is a thick hardwood stick, about as long as a man’s arm. It needs to have a slight bend in it. Plaited horsehair is fixed around one end and then run down the length of the
lesiba. There, it is tied through a tiny hole in the end of a piece of bone which is
shield-shaped, not much longer than a thumbnail but
narrower, and secured through the timber with a wooden
Tseko is careful how he organises the grip of his two hands around the end of the lesiba with the
bone. It is something like the hold on a harmonic, but not as
even. And then he appears to blow over the end of the horsehair and
bone, though he also makes sound with his throat, which seems to vibrate along the “string”. It is an eerie and haunting sound and entirely suited to these
mountains. It is an unforgettable moment, this playing inside a traditional Basutho
He happily sells me the lesiba for 50 Rand, dealing in the South African
currency, rather than Lesotho’s maloti, which I do not
Mokhotlong is 57km away – more than two hours on the
rocky, muddy, mountainous track which is the main national
highway. It winds through the alpine meadows,
We round a bend and see a donkey standing in the road, laden with sagewood and marmalade bush
(helichrysum trilineatum), used for thatch roofing and
fire. It stands a lone. A little further on, we spot a man gathering the plants and strapping them to another
Along the way there are little stone holding pens and solitary
huts. The road winds down a massive valley, following a growing
river. Lesotho red-hot pokers grow in clumps, livid beacons against the rock.
Lower down, off the highest part of the plateau, the hillsides have been terraced by hand or plough behind
beasts, to grow maize.
Mokhotlong has grown from a trading post to be a busy rural
town. Street stalls have sprung up around the supermarkets in which people
queue. Another store has basic clothing, shelves of blankets – now mostly synthetic and made in
factories, not handwoven – and white, red-soled gold mining gum
Horsemen tie up their mounts outside, they sit round
gossiping. A man sits on a high seat, with the sign Public Phone above his
head. Women carry containers on their heads; even water.
Donkeys set off home along with sacks of maize meal across their
backs, to be caught up later.
Two horsemen ride with three donkeys alongside.
Lesotho is a sovereign kingdom, proud of its heritage and
independence. The people of the Sotho nation, who migrated to eastern Africa in the 1200s and were then largely pushed here by Zulu king Shaka’s acquisitive aggression in the 1820s, love the king Letsi III, who follows in the footsteps of “The Great One”. Though it is a nation born out of
deprivation, neither Zulus, Boers nor British have been able to make inroads into the
For the people of Sani, in the harsh east of the country, it by far easier to go down the Sani Pass and into South Africa for any
services, particularly medical, that they need, than to travel to Lesotho’s
The steep Sani Pass, which hairpins up through the uKhamlamba Drakensberg Mountains for 8km from the South African border post
below, was the idea of David Alexander, who conceived it as an infantryman negotiating steep mountains in Italy in 1944 in a Jeep. That same
year, he and his sister mounted an expedition on horseback to test its
The district commissioner of Mokhotlong, Brian Grey, supported the
idea, and Godfrey Edmonds, in a Jeep, and Basutho horseman forged the first route.
When we get back to the border, the customs office is full of young
men. I think only two are Customs officers, but there are nine in
there. One – not a Customs officer – sprawls across the
counter, blocking the windows, so we step inside. He is neither sick nor
asleep, just relaxing. The rest are huddled round in
blankets, being in society.’
I hold out my passport and one young man takes it, snorts at the
photograph, casts a glance at the soccer on the TV, eventually turns back to the little blue
book, and stamps it. It clearly is irrelevant to him who I am, what I think about Lesotho, what it means to
me, or that I am now leaving, 24 hours after entering. And
that, I reflect, is probably how it should be. It is his
reality, my dream, and it was my promise.
* I would like to offer my personal thanks to Greg Garson for helping me to keep a
promise, and for his informed, educational, amusing and cheerful