The sun has been up for no more than an hour and its strong rays are already warming me up as I contemplate the village of Malubelube. From the rock on which I am seating on the top of the mountain dominating the settlement at 2675 metres, I have a 360° panoramic view on the endless surrounding mountains. The morning light bathes the traditional rondavels with their thatched roofs scattered along the slopes. Fields are already being ploughed slowly lane by lane with the help of working bulls, and seeded by laborious men. A man wrapped in a dark blue blanket is galloping on his brown horse through the corn fields. Young shepherds are heading to grazing patches with their goats. Smoke rises up from the fires on which women are cooking pap, the traditional thick corn porridge, the base of every meal. The sounds from the village come up to my position: happy discussions, a loud laugh of a man, kids playing, a cow mooing, a rooster cock-a-doodle-doo-ing and dogs barking. Time feels different here in the highlands of Lesotho that we have been horseback riding through for several days.
Lesotho is an enclosed country within South Africa set up on a high mountain-top plateau that was shaped by 30 million years of volcanic lava flowing, forming a 1.5-kilometre thick basalt layer. For the past 150 million years, water erosion formed the beautiful valleys and dragon-like cliff line that separates Lesotho from South Africa in the east side. The kingdom in the sky was created in 1827 by the beloved and wise king Moshoeshoe. As he was pushing back the Voortrekkers who were settling on his fertile western lands, the king addressed the powerful Queen Victoria for protection from the British Empire, as he was calling for peaceful tribes to join his Basotho people to form a unified nation. As a British protectorate, the king remained in charge, and Lesotho was not included in the 1910 Union of South Africa hence escaping the cruel apartheid regime. Lesotho has remained a proud country, never defeated.
Lesotho could maintain its strong cultural traditions through a king and village chiefs ruling along with an elected government in charge of Western-like administrations (healthcare, education, transport, energy…). As the land belongs to everyone, in the remote villages we are passing through, local chiefs define where livestock should graze, and where new rondavels can be built. The circular-shaped houses are traditionally made of volcanic stones, insulated with cow dung and covered with a conic thatched roof. If the family leaves, the rondavel will decay and merge back with nature. Villages that are not linked by a dirt road show more broken down houses amongst inhabited ones conveying harmony with nature and a sense of time and evolution.
As our horses are going down a steep rocky path to what will become the mighty Orange River, we come across several young shepherds in their traditional woollen black blankets with grey stripes. They greet us with a shy wave or a thumbs up. As they become difficult at home, teenage boys are sent to the mountains for several months to take care of the family livestock. Living on their own in small rondavels, they mature fast learning to be responsible for themselves, and the precious animals that are seen as savings, hence a measurement of wealth, here in Lesotho.
Seated by the river in the welcoming shade of the only trees around in this barren landscape, we are savouring a delicious lunch. The heavy homemade bread made by the family in whose house we slept the night before is topped off with locally grown baked beans or green peas. The horses are grazing on a green patch where clearly more grass grows than on the overgrazed mountain slopes, a consequence of the overpopulation of livestock.
After a refreshing swim, we are soon galloping along the river, and crossing it a few times before the steep ascent to Malubelube (pronounce “madubidubi” as the Sesotho language was put in writing by French missionaries in the 18th century). The compact horses, also referred to as Basotho ponies are cut for the mountains. A crossbreed between short Javanese horses and full European mounts, they are raised by voice by our Basotho guide Jon and his family. Very reactive and built for rugged terrain, and as such, they are the traditional transport for locals. They are impressive in the way they take these bridle paths and rocky slopes, whether up or down, with great agility. Nevertheless, they are quite happy reaching the village, and rolling on their backs as soon as their saddles are off! They are grazing freely at the foot of the rondavel where we will spend the night while we are taking in the wonderful view.
Our contemplation is soon interrupted by the local kids, happily greeting us. Before we have time to realize it, we are already playing soccer with an improvised ball made of plastic bags! No one is left alone, and laughter is the common language. Taking advantage of a short break, we wander in the village. Kids run from everywhere to greet us and have their photos taken. They proudly point out the school buildings to us. A white flag flapping in the wind by a rondavel means that the traditional beer based on corn is available. Without hesitation we walk towards it and are warmly welcomed for a tasting. Christeen, our knowledgeable South African guide passionate about Lesotho and collaborating with the Basotho guide Jon explains: “As there are no fridges to conserve food, a smart flag system signals where meat, vegetables or corn are available thanks to a red, green or yellow flag respectively.” Indeed, there is no electricity, nor running water. Just a few solar panels generate enough electricity of to charge a couple of low-intensity lights and cell phones. Some taps are scattered through the village where women fetch water that they carry back home in large containers they balance elegantly on their heads. As the sun is setting, we head back to the house for dinner. The temperature drops fast and the well-insulated house is warm. In the simple and small interior barely lit by an oil lamp, the table is covered with cooking pots: the inevitable pap, baked beans, a local spinach finely chopped and cooked, chicken, and mashed potatoes. Despite the poorness of the country, its cheerfulness is communicative, and our small group is a very happy bunch, thoroughly enjoying the moment, swinging between laughter and curiosity. Stepping outside to either visit the dry toilets or brush our teeth by the closest tap, we fall in awe with the millions of stars dotting the fabulous sky above these dark mountains. The village is asleep at barely 8pm as people go with the sun. We are happy to follow after another day full of new adventures and impressions.
As we fall asleep, we are reflecting on our immersion among the Basotho people and their openness, strength, pride, hospitality and communicative happiness. As modernity has stepped in, Lesotho is facing changes. Road access leads to the building of cement houses contrasting with the traditional rondavels, a new way of expressing wealth. Several dams are being built to sell water to neighbouring South Africa. Some villages and some of the paths we took will be flooded, also depriving inhabitants from much needed farming and grazing lands. Roads and telecommunications are being improved, and modernity is inviting itself to remote villages. We can only hope that the precious Basotho culture will be maintained in this context.
Claire & Marcella
We would like to warmly thank Christeen Grant for her excellent guiding services and valuable insights about Lesotho and the Basotho culture.