Lesotho: Butha-Buthe and Roma

22nd June - 29th June 2002


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Rebecca and I had been travelling all day on local minibus taxis from Winterton near the Central Berg in KwaZulu Natal. By the time the sun had set we had reached Fouriesburg just 10km north of the Caldenspoort border post. I had been travelling with Rebecca, an Australian girl, for the past week since leaving St Lucia and we had just spent three days hiking in the Central Berg. We were now off to discover some of the hidden secrets of this little known mountain kingdom, known locally as 'The Kingdom in the Sky'. There were four other people on the minibus travelling to Lesotho, including two girls returning from work in Qwa Qwa for the weekend. We all paid an extra two rand each to the driver who drove us down to the border crossing, stopping at a shop along the way so that everyone could buy something alcoholic to drink; it was Friday night after all. The two girls befriended Rebecca and myself and we crossed the border together into Lesotho. As we walked in the dark across the bridge over the Mohokare River we left the modern world of South Africa behind us and entered this secret mountain kingdom.

The Lesotho immigration post was very relaxed and the border guards huddled around a fire to keep warm as we had our passports stamped. There was no transport on this side of the border and we walked together into the night along the rough, dirt road, the two girls swigging their bottles of what looked to be cider. Soon, out of the dark appeared a minibus, which we flagged down and hitched a ride at an unsafe speed the short distance to Butha-Buthe, which in the local language means, 'The Place of Lying Down'. One of the girls invited us to stay at her family's house, which we accepted as there really weren't any other cheap lodgings in town and it was getting late. I have also found that staying with a local family is always an interesting insight into the local culture and these two girls seemed honest enough. Before taking a taxi to her house we stopped in the centre of town for them to buy some more alcohol and I grabbed a quick meal of beef stew and rice. Everyone in town this evening appeared to be drunk, people staggering along the road in the gloom claiming to be our friends before asking us for money. We didn't hang around too long. While being in South Africa I found this environment of dark, chaotic streets populated by mostly drunks rather intimidating but at the same time exciting as I really didn't know what would happen from minute to minute. We jumped into a battered old taxi and drove the short distance out of the town centre along the Maseru road to the girl's house.

The house was a small distance from the road and was a simple cinderblock structure under a corrugated iron roof. We walked through the front door and into the kitchen where the girl's family were sitting; they appeared to be overjoyed to see us and stood up clapping, welcoming us into their home. The house was larger than I thought it would be; aswell as the large kitchen there was a large dining cum sitting room and three bedrooms at the back of the house. It was just as cold inside the house as it was outside on this clear winters night. We were ushered into the sitting room where the Mama lit a paraffin heater and the whole family and ourselves gathered around to keep warm. There was no electricity in the house; candles and a kerosene lamp lit the room. They told us that one-day soon they hoped to have electricity connected. In anticipation of this there were two television sets sitting on the sideboard as well as a stereo system, which appeared for the meantime to be powered off some flat batteries. The reception on the radio was hopelessly out of tune and just emitted a drone of white noise all night interrupted occasionally by a few bars of music.

I lost track of the number of relatives and children in the house, even though we were introduced my memory failed me miserably. There were brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, second mothers, cousins, fathers and mothers; it all became very confusing very quickly. The house was soon packed as word spread through the neighbourhood that two tourists from distant lands were staying tonight. The conversations were interesting covering the usual topics you would expect; where are you from? What do you think of Africa? What work do you do? etc. We had a discussion about movies and I had to quickly refresh my memory on eighties cinema and Rambo movies. I think it was one of the uncles who went out to buy some more bottles of cider during the evening. Even the kids were drinking the stuff; one two year old drunk more than I did and whenever he had his glass taken away he would start to scream until a full glass was returned. One of the kids, I think he was fifteen, was very sensible and had a clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life. He already owned four cows, a donkey and a snow-white dog and was studying agriculture at college. He wanted to be a farmer and definitely had the right ideas and I hope that he is successful in the future; he deserves it.

The commotion of the evening came when I went outside to use the latrine. The fifteen-year-old kid escorted me and introduced me to his cows and donkey that were tied up at the back of the house. It was dark and in the gloom I could see a lot of people milling around. Word had spread far about our arrival in this neighbourhood. Most of the characters hanging around seemed to be drunk, like the people that were in the centre of town earlier that evening. As I made my way back into the house I was surrounded by these drunks staggering about the house trying to shake my hand, asking me for money or asking me just to be their best friend. One of them feebly tried to pick my pockets, there was nothing in my pocket and I grabbed his hand and bent his fingers back until he started screaming and shouting. Chaos ensued as everyone began shouting and my escort quickly dragged me back into the house while a huge argument ensued between members of the family and what they called 'these street kids', although most of them were grown men. The situation settled down again after a few minutes and we continued our conversations inside, although I could feel the atmosphere in the house had changed. Not long after that incident we retired for the night and went to sleep; the Mama gave us one of the bedrooms for us to use. The night under the tin roof was freezing, but at least the blankets on the bed did their best to keep us warm.

The next morning everything was quiet and still as the sun began to stream through the dusty windows and the household woke up and prepared breakfast. That morning it was hard work to try and get out of the house and back on the road. One of the uncles offered to get his car and drive us to Maseru; the girl who originally befriended us said that she would come with us to Maseru for the weekend. In these situations I often find that it is easy to get hijacked by a family. We politely turned down their offers of help and said we didn't want to put them out anymore and that taking the bus to Maseru was not a problem for us. The Mama served us a large breakfast of homemade doughy bread with peanut butter, donuts and a large pot of tea. Before we left the whole family gathered outside the front of the house to pose for photos. We gave the Mama some money to thank her for her hospitality, which was greatly appreciated, and then we walked to the main road and waited for a minibus to Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho.

It was a Sunday morning and everything was very quiet, hardly any traffic moving along the road. Presently though, an old minibus came towards us that was going to Maputsoe, about a third of the way to the capital along the A1 road. We waved goodbye to our hosts and were once again back on the highway and travelling; our planned destination was Roma, 35km east of Maseru. This was our first chance to see Lesotho in daylight and it appeared to be a very different country compared to it's neighbour South Africa, which surrounds it. This was a land where oxcarts plodded alongside the road and tribesmen rode past on horseback wrapped in their traditional blankets called a kobo to keep warm. In this mountainous country the Basotho pony, which is a hardy, sure-footed horse, has become the preferred method of transport. Small villages of round, stone huts with thatched roofs were dotted alongside the road and in the valleys. In the villages there was an interesting system of flags on various huts indicating what was for sale there. The most common flag was either white or yellow signifying that the local home-brewed sorghum beer was available. A red flag meant that meat was for sale and a green one, vegetables. As it was the middle of winter the landscape was devoid of anything green, the grass was dry and brown, the few trees that there were, mostly along the rivers, were bare of leafs. The fields were fallow, some still with the previous seasons maize crop standing dead and dry waiting to be harvested. Small herds of cattle and goats grazed in the harvested fields and the dry grass.

Lesotho is a land of rugged mountains and covers an area of just over 30,000 sq km, about the size of Belgium with a population of 2.1 million people, the majority of who are Basotho. Over three-quarters of the country is highland with the highest peak in Southern Africa, Thabana Ntlenyana at 3,482m in the southeast of the country near the Sani Pass. Even the lowlands along the northern and western border were the capital lies and the majority of the population live is between 1,000m and 1,800m. The Basotho culture is still very strong and thriving. It is centred on the family, village life and the seasons of the year with a respect for the older generation. So often, especially on the African continent, I have found that traditional cultures have been abandoned or swamped by Western culture and all the hollow promises it holds. It was exciting to see the Basotho culture flourishing hand in hand with the modern world.

The minibus dropped us at the junction to Maputsoe on the A1 where we waited with some locals in the cold, crisp air for a Maseru bound bus to come past; litter of plastic bags, cans and bottles drifting in the wind. There was still very little traffic on the roads this Sunday morning, but presently another minibus came past that took us all the way into the city. I was surprised to come across a traffic jam when we arrived in the city as we turned off Main North and onto Market to the minibus station. The road was a chaotic mix of minibuses, cars, pedestrians, hawkers and market traders; we eventually inched our way into the bus park where a local women on our bus showed us where to catch a minibus to Roma. The bus park was no different to the road leading up to it and was a bustling hive of activity, very different to the organised bus parks of South Africa and much more like an African transport hub. We were the last two passengers to board the bus to Roma and once again were driving through the commotion in the surrounding streets and back out of the city.

It was only a short drive to reach Roma, but as we left the capital the skies looked heavy and grey and it wasn't long until it began to rain. By the time we arrived in Roma it was raining heavily, which is very unusual weather for this time of year; winters are generally clear, sunny, cold and dry. We planned to stay at the Trading Post Guest House, which was 2km west of town, but had passed the turn off on the way into Roma. We tried phoning the Trading Post but there was no answer and there were also no taxis in town so, in the pouring rain, we explained to a driver of a Maseru bound minibus where we wanted to go. He dropped us back at the turnoff on the main road just as the rain stopped and we walked the short distance to the guesthouse. As we approached children surrounded us all asking for money and sweets with big smiles on their faces. The owners of the guesthouse were out, hence why no answer when we had phoned, but the weekend caretaker showed us in and we made ourselves at home.

Roma is a university town, although like the country it is a small place. The town was founded in 1862 when Moshoeshoe the Great, the father of the Basotho nation, allowed Father Gerard and his missionaries to settle in the area and establish the first Catholic mission in the country. The National University of Lesotho was founded in the town in 1945 by the church and is now run by the ministry of education. The Trading Post was established in 1903 by John Thorn and is still owned by fourth generation Thorns, Ashley and Jennifer. Over the years the family used this base to pioneer their trade into the Blue Maluti Mountains and established other trading posts including one in Semonkong. The guesthouse is in an old sandstone building in a beautiful garden setting alongside the original trading post building, which is still busy with trade today. Tribesmen still come from the surrounding mountains on horseback to buy supplies or to have their maize milled; it had a very frontier feel to the place as though nothing had changed over the years. Despite a respite in the rain when we arrived during the afternoon, by early evening a heavy thunderstorm passed up the valley. Jennifer, who ran the guesthouse, told us that it never thunders here during the winter.

Continue reading this journey: Morija and Thaba-Bosiu