/ 8 June 2010

The last best hope of Lesotho, a small country in big trouble

“This is the last frontier of tourism in Southern Africa,” said our guide as I gasped and wheezed my way up Thaba Bosiu, meaning “mountain of the night” in the Sesotho language — so named because when darkness fell it appeared to grow in defiance of would-be conquerors.

It is described as the most important historical site in Lesotho but, rather refreshingly, you wouldn’t know it apart from a discreet visitor centre at the base. None of the postcard sellers outside the Colosseum, none of the queues at the Grand Canyon, none of the beggars at the Great Pyramid. Instead, serenity and silence and an eternity of wind, and the puckish sense that you’ve stumbled upon a lost civilisation, like one of the original great explorers.

This high sandstone plateau, towering above the surrounding plains, was an impregnable fortress for the Basotho king Moshoeshoe in the 19th century. His followers fought off the Ndebele, the Boers and the British under Sir George Cathcart, and were able to survive by maintaining livestock with the help of freshwater springs.

We trudged through the thick grass and shrubbery. “That’s the oldest house in Lesotho,” our guide said. “You’re looking at the birthplace of a nation. No sign, no ticket office, nothing.”

I recalled how Runnymede, in Britain, takes a similarly minimalist approach, with a rather understated marker for the signing of the Magna Carta, leaving visitors to roam the meadows and use their imagination.

We approached a series of tombs and stone cairns. This is the Basotho royal family graveyard, unguarded against vandals or memento hunters, grand in their tranquillity and tranquil in their grandeur. There was no need to say anything, just absorb the blue sky and surrounding rugged mountains and feel that if the earth self-destructs one day, this deserted place might be the last to go.

I could also see Qiloane, a cone-shaped mountain topped by a big nodule, apparently the inspiration for the Lesotho national headdress, the Basotho hat.

Lesotho, the “kingdom in the sky” 1 500m above sea level, is tiny and landlocked — in fact South Africa-locked, hemmed in by Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. But any visitor expecting to find the 10th South African province in all but name will get a shock.

“You cross the border and you go a hundred years back in time,” one fellow traveller observed.

It’s a constitutional kingdom, although the king is often seen down at the gym. On a journey through the countryside I glimpsed donkeys dragging carts, children selling fruit and sweets to motorists and men and women wearing the colourful patterned Basotho blanket.

In the capital, Maseru, there were long queues at the cashpoints because it was pay day. That night the casino at the Maseru Sun hotel was a hive of activity. Across the floor, guests dined on a Mauritian buffet while listening to prepubescents crooning from a stage. It’s an unusual place.

Maseru has just gained its first cinema and its first supermarket that stays open after 5pm. Before that, people would often drive an hour and a half over the border to Bloemfontein just to watch a movie and stock up.

Small country in big trouble
I met some British expats who have another headache. “Every couple of months, my credit card gets blocked,” one said. “The banks just can’t work out Lesotho. One time they saw LS and thought it was Laos — what’s he doing there? It doesn’t matter how often I explain, they just can’t accept I live in Lesotho.”

But this is a small country in big trouble. Average life expectancy has dropped from 59 to 41 in a decade. Lesotho has the third highest HIV prevalence in the world. More than half the 1,9-million population lives below the poverty line.

Events in South Africa have triggered a social tsunami here. Historically many Basotho men migrated to work in South Africa’s mines, earning enough money to come back and set up a homestead, but political changes across the border have restricted opportunities: the number employed fell from 127 000 in 1990 to 50 100 in 2007.

Instead it is now the women who go to work, in Taiwanese-owned textile and garment factories in Lesotho, earning a minimum wage that is only a fraction of what the men used to bring home. Many men are unemployed and at a loose end. The fundamentals of gender roles and social cohesion are being rewritten, with highly unpredictable consequences.

One of the last best hopes now is tourism. I met Tom Newton-Lewis, a young British entrepreneur who runs Lesotho2010, which aims to give the country a slice of its big brother’s World Cup cake. It hopes to be an “add-on destination” for tourists in South Africa during the tournament and beyond, with a pitch including hiking, pony trekking and quad biking as well as village tours and the world’s highest commercial single-drop abseil.

Lesotho2010 is also working with the football charity Kick4Life so that tourists can witness its educational work and even play against local teams. Kick4Life is planning a two-day HIV education and testing festival during the World Cup. In its office I found giant photos of Prince Harry, Fabio Capello and the England squad on their visits to the mountain kingdom.

Lesotho, I discovered, is a place of pathos and bathos. We drove up to a mountain pass and got out to admire the epic view. There was a sign embedded in the rock. “Wayfarer, pause and look upon a gate to paradise — Mervyn Smith.”

Later, at the Malealea Lodge, a former trading station, there was another signpost planted in the ground: “This pit toilet, built in 1905, was the first structure to be erected by the founder, M Bosworth-Smith.”

The image I will remember best is of passing a long line of women, wrapped in blankets, making their way home after the funeral of a village chief. In the soft afternoon sunshine, I could see a gathering around the grave and clods of earth flying, and hear the mountain air carry the plangent songs of mourning. – guardian.co.uk