‘We met the bishop chatting to a local politician in a supermarket car park...’
Us Community Fundraising Manager David Brand reports on a trip to Lesotho to see first-hand a pioneering church-led community development programme.
It’s hot in Lesotho this April. A dry heat, the kind that grates on the back of your throat and makes your lips crack. I should have brought Vaseline for my lips, as was recommended before I left the UK.
It’s currently autumn in Lesotho. Soon, the warmth will give way to another freezing winter. The sky is the bluest I have ever seen it, due to the altitude and the clear air, and the brightness hurts my eyes, so different from the grey London I left.
Flying in a tiny jet aircraft into Maseru, the capital of the landlocked Mountain Kingdom, reveals just how remote most settlements in this country are, set among rugged flat-topped mountains and steep valleys.
The slopes of the mountains are grooved with parallel lines – like the contours on a map – and between the lines are agricultural terraces growing maize and sorghum.
Maseru airport is a 12-hour flight from London via Johannesburg. The Kingdom of Lesotho, roughly the size of Belgium, is surrounded by South Africa on all borders.
Lesotho’s only airport has one tarmac runway, accommodating two daily flights from Jo’burg.
When stepping onto the tarmac, myself and the other 30 or so people – businessmen and tourists, I assume – are greeted by the tiniest of terminal buildings and a team of two immigration officers.
Having negotiated passport control, I walk through the frosted-glass automatic doors into the foyer and I’m greeted by a smile and African-style handshake that will become familiar over the next week.
The grin belongs to Thabiso Nyapisi, a Mosotho [the people of Lesotho are called Mosotho (singular) or Basotho (plural)], who works for the Cape Town-based Anglican NGO Hope Africa.
We are going to drive from the airport into the centre of Maseru (population 250,000) to buy food and provisions before we begin a three-hour drive east into the mountains. We’ll ascend to around 2,800 metres above sea level on the twisting winding pass that leads to St James Mission Hospital in Mantsonyane.
It feels familiar to step into the passenger seat of a right-hand-drive car, a surprisingly powerful Ford Fiesta. The radio is on. I ask what language the presenter is speaking in. ‘English,’ Thabiso laughs, ‘you obviously need to get used to our accent!’
In addition to English, people in Lesotho speak Sesotho, and Thabiso will be my translator in the rural communities I am here to visit.
We drive into the centre Maseru. The main roads are in decent condition: wide with a yellow line down the centre and white lines at the edges. Suddenly, it hit home that I’m in Africa! The speed of our car is in sharp contrast to the people and livestock strolling along and across the road we’re driving on. White taxi vans, crammed full of people, also lurch along slowly, precariously.
My reaction, probably similar to many people visiting from the UK, is that Africa a place of contrasts. Some things look uncannily familiar – the billboard adverts; the supermarket shopping centre with its high street names from the US.
Other things look alien to my eye – the extreme poverty; the people in corrugated-tin huts by the roadside selling fruit and other produce; the police roadblock checking the taxis. The scene bombards the senses and I sit quietly in the air-conditioned car observing the everyday life surrounding me. I catch my breath, probably a combination of the altitude and the fact I am out of my comfort zone.
As if to emphasize what a small close-knit society Lesotho is, we bump into three people Thabiso knows in Maseru: we meet one of his cousins in bureau-de-change, a friend in the supermarket, and, most oddly, the Bishop of Lesotho, who is chatting to a political minister in the car park of the shopping centre.
Lunch eaten, the drive begins to Mantsonyane. Our little car works overtime, engine revving as we head into the high mountains. The road is good and wide and with a crash barrier at the edges to prevent vehicles from tumbling down the ravines. The scenery is stunningly beautiful, and below the tree line the yellow-green foliage is lit up by the bright sunshine. There is almost no motorised traffic on the road; about every ten minutes or so we’ll overtake one of the white-van taxis, as always packed to the gunnels with passengers.
‘How long will it take to get to St James?’ I ask.
‘Just relax, Dave,’ says Thabiso, sensing I’m tense. ‘We get there when we get there!’
About two-and-a-half hours is the answer. The 120km road to the hospital is tarmac to within about 500m of the hospital site. En route we have seen herdsmen driving sheep, goats and cattle to pasture, green-uniformed children walking their 15km journeys to school (there and back), and donkeys carrying firewood or bags of maize on the way to town market.
Thabiso points out the traditional colourful felt-like blanket that many are wearing, together with headwear, such as a grass hat. Many of the herdsmen wear balaclavas, an indication of how cold it will get during the winter.
Thabiso estimates around half the population here relies on subsistence farming, while the other half tires to make ends meet selling produce at market.
This part of Lesotho is remote and inaccessible and the new road has helped movement of goods.
Housing is mostly round mud-walled buildings, with thatched or sometimes corrugated zinc roofs.
From what Thabiso says, and what I’ll observe over the coming days, the culture here is traditional, with defined working roles for men and domestic roles for women. A respect for hierarchy, authority and formality is clear.
Over the next few days, I’ll come to love this country and the people who live here. I’ll encounter hospitality, positivity, innovation, resilience and some life-changing work.
Read more about David’s visit to Lesotho in our August email newsletter.