An index to this series appears on the first post.
August 11, 2017
I awoke early this morning, filled with purpose. I was traveling to another country! Clarens, in the Free State, is very close to the northern periphery of Lesotho, but I was driving to Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. As a consequence, I had a couple hours of driving ahead of me, and Free State highways are renowned for their potholes. Until this day, those seemed like urban legends, but the stretch of R26 between Fouriesburg and Ficksburg taught me differently. Litchi bounced along, but she didn’t lose her grip on the road. Of my KFC breakfast at Ficksburg, the less said the better. From there, I hopped down the road to Ladybrand, where I had a surprise. When I merged onto the N8, heading east, the road swooned down a massive slope. That is not what I had imagined in entering “the kingdom in the sky!” Instead, the border crossing came at a bridge across the Mohokare River (which later flows into the Orange).
I botched my first border crossing with my new passport. The South African side seemed mostly intent on passing people through, and so when I arrived at the Lesotho side, the inspector was alerted by the absence of my exit stamp from South Africa. I ended up parking my car, walking back across the border, and then asking the South Africans at the pedestrian booth to stamp me. Then I walked back across the river, visited the tourist booth for a map, and then returned to the Lesotho inspector for my entrance stamp. Solved! I also got my first taste of Lesotho hospitality. I met a wide variety of Basothos in the course of the day, and none of them treated me like a stranger. I felt greeted like a long, lost friend!
Let’s have a word or two about this landlocked country. First off, one must pronounce the name as though it were spelled “Lehsootoo.” The people of this group are called “Basothos,” and the language they speak is called “Sesotho.” We see something similar with prefixes in other languages, such as Zulu and Xhosa. Although the official currency of Lesotho is the loti, the value of one loti is pegged to the value of one South African rand, so one can spend ZAR as though they were loti (highly convenient). To summarize conventional wisdom about Lesotho, one would say “impoverished,” “HIV epidemic,” and “politically unstable.” My visit, however, was to touch something special about its foundation.
My goal in visiting Lesotho was to visit Thaba Bosiu, in many ways the nation’s historical and even spiritual capital. Before I launched into that visit, though, I decided to establish myself the the Kick4Life Hotel, just south of central Maseru (the capital and also my point of entry from the Free State). I knew very little about this organization before the trip, but I must say I was deeply impressed by the impact this organization has produced. All of its customer service people at the hotel, it associated restaurant, and at Thaba Bosiu put in extra effort to make me feel at home. I think the “Football for Hope” effort is paying serious dividends for its participants.
Driving in Maseru was a bit challenging. I am accustomed to the approximate adherence to traffic laws that we see in South Africa. For example, I don’t blink when I see a shuttle bus taxi picking up passengers on the shoulder of the national road. It’s expected! Maseru releases the rule-following impulse a few more notches. Their main highway leading south from the capital, the A2 (don’t expect labels on Google Maps, BTW), is littered with speed bumps so that drivers don’t kill pedestrians. I saw people reversing their cars into oncoming traffic with little warning. On two occasions, I saw cars driving against oncoming traffic by using the shoulder. It’s only workable because there are far fewer cars on the road in the city than one might expect. I was jarred when I encountered a long funeral procession, led by a motorcycle cop.
With an omelet in my belly from the hotel (and some time rationalizing Google Maps with the insufficient tourist map in a hand-drawn sketch), I was ready to plunge ahead! Thaba Bosiu is within an hour of the border, but I must say my navigation was weakened by a variety of factors:
- I had seen photos of the site that were of the wrong mountain.
- When I saw the cultural center, I thought it was a resort rather than recognizing it as another “living museum.”
- I was looking for a road leading south from the B31 to a visitor’s center.
All of these contributed to a bad bit of navigating. I drove right by the Thaba Bosiu Cultural Village, entirely missing that the mountain across from it was Thaba Bosiu. The mountain I thought was Thaba Bosiu came soon after, but I didn’t see any way to get there except some doubtful-looking dirt roads. I continued for another five km, when finally the blacktop of the B31 gave way to very bouncy rutted gravel-on-dirt. I stopped right where I was. A herd of cows was being guided forward by two young teen boys and a primary-school aged boy. I tried my pronunciation of “Thaba Bosiu,” but that didn’t seem to help. Showing the spelling on my hand-drawn map, however, elicited a response from one of the teenagers, directing me back where I had come. The small child said “money!” I pulled a couple R10 notes from my wallet, and the teen speaker reached into the car to grab them. I let the herd pass, and then I U-turned and headed back in the right direction.
I tried my luck with the dirt roads to the peak I thought I recognized. The road kept winding on and on through a mix of formal (mostly cinder block) and informal (shack) housing. I stopped by a well-built brick building, some distance from the peak I thought was the right one. A woman reclining in the building entrance explained that I was looking at the peak after which the traditional chief’s hat was designed! She pointed back toward Maseru. The huge plateau back to the west was Thaba Bosiu. She mentioned, as an afterthought, that I was standing in the city hall for the modern Thaba Bosiu settlement.
After some photos from the site, I returned to my car and headed back to the west. In no time at all, I found the information center. The docent (a Kick4Life graduate) sat down with me at a table to profile King Moshoeshoe, the central figure of Basotho history. (Pronounce it like “Muh-shway-shway,” quickly.) As a young chief (1820), Moshoeshoe was faced with a problem. The Mfecane had resulted in a brutal social Darwinism throughout southern Africa in which tribes that could muster large armies absorbed their weaker neighbors, thus releasing desperate refugees into neighboring areas, sparking more conflicts. Moshoeshoe’s solution was to find a home for his band that was secure from attack. He made the bold decision of moving his tribe from Butha Buthe (near the northernmost point of Lesotho) to Thaba Bosiu, essentially the distance I had driven that morning.
Why Thaba Bosiu? The Basothos gave it this name (“Mountain at Night“) as a neat bit of propaganda; they alleged that the mountain had magical properties that would make the apparent hill in daytime grow ever larger at night! The plateau, being considered as a World Heritage Site, has an area of approximately two square kilometers, more than enough for a substantial village, and the surface offers several water springs. Seven passes allow one to reach the top. 150 years ago, each would have been guarded by a trusted family member. I decided to make the trek by the “ancient” route rather than the nicely paved ramp. I reminded myself several times on the ascent that I am a middle-aged professor. I felt proud to make it by that route, though!
Moshoeshoe was also a gifted negotiator. He allowed other refugee groups, running from the Zulus under Shaka or the Ndwandwe or the Ngwane to join his band, but in each case he demanded that they contribute whatever skills that they could. He applied this logic to his contacts with whites, as well. He welcomed missionaries who had education to offer, and one can still see a Blue gum tree atop Thaba Bosiu along with several stone buildings that came about through his interactions with Westerners.
The Basotho position atop Thaba Bosiu was sufficiently strong that the group could repel assaults by hostile tribes and also by aggressive Voortrekkers; the settlers of the Free State made a few attempts at “King of the Mountain,” but the plateau surface never fell to attack while defended by the Basotho. His diplomatic skills were his best weapon, though. In 1868, Moshoeshoe asked for British protection from the Boers, and he retained control of the territory even with that help. In 1884 Lesotho was listed as a separate British protectorate. Moshoeshoe, incidentally, was personally responsible for the tradition of blanket-wearing among the Basotho. He acquired a blanket from a trader in 1860 and began wearing it around his shoulders; those who revered him soon took up wearing blankets rather than the traditional “karosses.”
One should not think of Thaba Bosiu as a simple historic site. When King Moshoeshoe died in 1870, he was buried at the top. When King Moshoeshoe II (a few generations down) died in 1996, he was buried at the top! This plateau continues to have cultural relevance for the people of Lesotho. When I approached the top of the pass, I saw two people begin their descent by the same route. The man was dressed in a brilliant green robe and carried a religious staff. The woman was dressed in brilliant pink and also seemed ceremonially dressed. I saw remnants of candle wax and other sacramental leavings across the plateau. In times of trouble, the Basotho look to Thaba Bosiu as a source of strength.
Lesotho had been granted the status of a separate protectorate by the British, then called “Basutoland.” At Moshoeshoe’s death, the British tried to annex the protectorate to the Cape Colony, but the Basotho raised havoc in the Gun War, leading to the British relinquishing effective control. When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, the Basotho rejected being included. Lesotho turned away from later proposals to integrate the nation into South Africa, particularly once Apartheid laws had been enacted. They were granted independence from Britain in 1966.
I first learned of Lesotho from my friend Marky Pace, whom I met in the Nashville in Harmony choir. I wanted to do something special in her memory since she had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in this country many years ago. My poem, written the day before at Mushroom Rock in Golden Gate, is titled “For Marky.” I read it from the shelf of Thaba Bosiu, where one can overlook the mountain that gave the chiefs the shape of their conical hats.
“Life is too short to shake hands,”
she said with a hug.
Her memory brought friends
from far and near.
Her family, by choice and by blood,
Touching others with her spirit
of joy and love.
As I reach a place that shaped her,
I am moved by her once more.
As I return to the world I’ve chosen,
I will strive to be present, like Marky.