Moshoeshoe’s hegira retraced

This year's Moshoeshoe Walk was joined by Queen 'Masenate who adressed the walkers. (Shoks Mzolo)

This year's Moshoeshoe Walk was joined by Queen 'Masenate who adressed the walkers. (Shoks Mzolo)

Clad in a black overall and sporting a grass hat, the man with a loudhailer repeatedly urges his charges converged outside Maseru’s Pioneer Mall to board the bus. But milling selfie-taking Moshoeshoe Walk pilgrims, a riot of colour, are lost in the thrill of childlike anticipation. Finally, with the first articulated bus filled up, we hit the road in high spirits.

It is just after 2pm on a clear Wednesday.
Jovial pilgrims, here to pay homage to the 19th century King Moshoeshoe I’s hegira, fill the background with gospel, traditional and other songs. Liquids flow. Jokes fly.

We hit Leribè (aka Hlotse) for a pit stop at about 4pm and eventually make it to a damp Mate an hour and a bit later.

The Leribè district is home to dinosaur footprints and draws visitors keen at peeking into the past. That too – to touch history – is why I’m embarking on this taxing three-day 120km journey. Lesotho’s mountainous terrain, coupled with curving roads and rocky hills, mock numbers, as four-time walker Comfort Phiri observes.

The walk, now in its 10th year, is my first. A mix of iffy weather and zero physical training niggles me. What if it rains? What about blisters or dehydration?

The journey retraces the path by the nation’s founder king, popularly known as Morena e Moholo or Morena oa Basotho (Great King or King of the Basotho) and his people, the Bakoena ba Mokoteli. As other people were drawn to Moshoeshoe??I’s sphere of influence, that clan grew into a nation state now known as the Basotho.

It’s drizzling in Mate but Teboho Maleke, from T Connexion, the company that hosts the walk, thankfully pitches my tent in three minutes. The setting is ravishing and the visitors feast their eyes. Like most parts of Lesotho’s countryside, this village is painfully beautiful. But, the sights of want aren’t – and are common.

I learn about labour relations, psychology and religion from Letseka Letseka, who is from Teyateyaneng in northern Lesotho. He is a septuagenarian who, always armed with a book or two, herds his livestock.

Gaorekwe Gaorekwe, a youngster from Botswana, tackles a vexing subject: cultural imperialism. It annoys him that South African radio stations still shun the music from neighbouring countries but promote music from the United States.

I wake at about 2am to the sounds of my neighbours in their tents getting ready for day one. Did they sleep? I drift in and out of slumber, finally waking at 4am, this time to the sound of a loudhailer – a wake-up call.

Two hours later, I’ve finished packing and have had my breakfast: motoho (a fermented porridge), bohobe (bread), steaming coffee, an egg and a banana.

Next up is a brisk walk to Menkhoaneng, or the kingdom’s own Bethlehem, as renowned historian Tseliso Ramakhula likens it, because Morena e Moholo was born here. A moving praise chant to the founder king elicits approving ululations, cheers and whistles.

Queen ‘Masenate Mohato Seeiso, the Queen Consort of King Letsie III, delivers a six-minute address to more than 600 people, including visitors from Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland and the United States. She weaves the present with the past and explains why Moshoeshoe I deployed scouts to find his clan a new home: to avoid Shaka’s mfecane – known in Sesotho as lifaqane – an extended time of warfare coupled with drought that resulted in large-scale deaths and displacements throughout Southern Africa. 

King Moshoeshoe II, the sixth-generation descendant of his namesake, retraced the journey in 1976, the queen says, announcing her decision to join what is now an annual ritual.

It’s time for the national anthem. In keeping with tradition, men take their hats off and everybody turns to the east.

The long walk kicks off at 8am to the cries of “khotso, pula, nala” (peace, rain, prosperity). The drizzle turns into a scorching day. The schedule says 32km on day one. A steep rocky hill awaits. We slog on.

One walker, Taunyane Hlopolosa, points out the first casualty – the sole of one of his shoes is detached.

When we negotiate the winding Malaoaneng Pass, in single file, I can feel the 1824 hegira. I’m swallowed by history. The moment is sacred.

So is the “Moshoeshoe moment”, wading through the waist-deep river at a ford that spells a summit. I pick up a stone as a form of tribute.

The sight of Makhoaneng, another village boasting a picture-perfect landscape, spells lunchtime. Rhythmic dancers perform the celebratory and very old mokhibo dance.

Gaorekwe’s hip complains as we approach the Outward Bound Centre, where we’re to retire for the night. Luckily, masseurs are at hand. The hot water runs out, and some pilgrims take a cold shower. Then the taps run dry.

Blaring music awakes me rudely on day two – “Moshoeshoe day”. My options include sleeping in and joining the walk at lunch time. As if hearing my thoughts, the station plays Simphiwe Dana’s Ndiredi. That’s my cue.

A river of headlamps and torches meanders through Ha Sai village and eventually reaches a summit. Villagers, up long before 5am, cheer us on in the dark.

The sunrise ... “is heart-of-watermelon red/ Mellow like an amber slice of moon/ As it emerges from high rock and low cloud/ Suspended near the blueless sky”, wrote Keorapetse Kgositsile. The poet could have just as well penned Morning in Tunis from this spot.

Day two, a sunny Friday, is downhill. In the zombie-like state, I fall. Many others fall. Phiri’s knee complains but he pushes on. Several quit at lunch. Queen ‘Masenate, who I catch sight of amid ululating villagers at Mahlatsa, forges on and waves to beaming crowds along our path.

A woman from Maseru complains that “this is torture”, but a well-fed man from Mangaung, in South Africa’s Free State, is ecstatic – he claims to have shed 6kg.

For Jeanette Maserumule, a young Gautenger, the walk is as tiring as it is refreshing. She lets me in on what it’s like to be a young South African today, in the post-apartheid project.

It has been 18 hours of toiling for sleep-deprived pilgrims, who saw sunrise eclipse dawn and sunset fleeing nightfall. As we retire, the stars appear dim. Midnight is hardly an hour away.

Being in the Berea district, on day three, takes me to an era gone by. It was here that Queen Victoria’s men, under George Cathcart, fell before the Basotho in 1852. Moshoeshoe’s sons, including Prince Letsie (after whom the reigning monarch is named), distinguished themselves.

We arrive at a drizzly Thaba Bosiu, a history-rich site, in late afternoon. Moshoeshoe I established a stronghold on the plateau beneath the mountain to withstand attacks during the various Basotho wars.

This shrine is Moshoeshoe??I’s final resting place. The three-day journey took millions of steps and a great deal of faith.

It offered much in other ways too. It’s over. We part.

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