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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 Africa. 
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 road. 
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 dream.
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 thoughts. 
“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 Africans.
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 you.”
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 me.
“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 rain. 
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 infections.
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 vehicle.
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 movie.
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 remain.”
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 blankets.
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 promise.
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 Robertsi.” 
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 boy.
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 used.
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 poverty. 
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 programmes.”
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 virus. 
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 clients.” 
He is also co-ordinating training in AIDS counselling for teachers, and developing basic mathematics and English courses for children in primary schools and orphanages. 
“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 adversities.”
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 day. 
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 teeth.
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 countries.
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 children.
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 answers.
“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 alive.
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 factor.
“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 heating.
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 under.
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 dry.
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 insects. 
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 laughter.
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 countries.
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 peg.
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 hut.
He happily sells me the lesiba for 50 Rand, dealing in the South African currency, rather than Lesotho’s maloti, which I do not have.

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 donkey.
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 boots.
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 place.
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 capital, Maseru.
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 feasibility.
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 company. 


 

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