Our 2007 Trip to Lesotho
In 2007, my wife and I spent 2 months on a "service holiday" in The Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho in Southern Africa. Below are several posts and pics from that trip describing our work and experiences, made possible by generous donations from our friends and family.
April 20, 2007
We have four primary goals for our trip:
1. To enjoy rich experiences and grow together as individuals;
2. To learn as much as possible about the community’s needs and resources, while considering the delicate challenges of funding sustainable projects, so that we can put these funds to the best use possible;
3. Develop a lasting relationship with the local community, that will likely bring us back for many years to come; and
4. To grow a respectable beard (Me, not Meg)
At least three of these goals are achievable. I’m already working on 2 projects that I think are really exciting. They’re still in the early stages and there is a lot of local buy-in that I need to obtain. But both should have a very strong and lasting impact on developing the local economy.
The Rough Guide to Malealea…So Far:
We arrived in Johannesburg on 3 April, after a fairly comfortable flight from London. We had enough time to visit the Apartheid Museum and enjoy one of the last hot showers we'll get for the next two months.
Some of you may have heard that Johannesburg is a scary place with some of the most dangerous slums of any city in the world. We heard that one too. I can't say if it's true or not, but trying to find a bus to Maseru (Lesotho's capital) at City Park Station was terrifying. A bus station in any city (developed world or otherwise) is usually a place of graft, misery and despair. This one was no different.
It turns out that there are no regular bus lines running to Maseru from Johannesburg and that we had to take a mini taxi. Unfortunately, the mini taxis running from City Park Station did not go to Maseru. We had to jump in a regular taxi and drive across town to a mini taxi "depot" which served Maseru and other destinations in the region (Free State and Lesotho). The "depot" was a parking area the size of your typical squash/racquetball court. However, this court was filled with about 10 mini taxis and 100 people, pushing and shoving, to get into their respective taxis. We waited patiently for our names to be called and boarded our first ever "chicken bus" for the 4.5-hour drive to Maseru.
For the uninitiated, a mini taxi is a stripped-down minivan. Whereas American minivans have developed into high tech grocery-getters complete with DVD players, satellite navigation systems and automatic doors, a mini taxi is a more basic mode of transport. By basic, I mean padded benches for seats, no seatbelts, and 20 adult passengers (with luggage) in a space designed to fit about eight.
All things considered, the ride wasn't that bad. We were mostly comfortable, though some of our luggage sat on our laps the entire ride. And despite my describing our vehicle as a chicken bus, there were no live animals on board that we could see. At Maseru, we took another mini taxi to Malealea. This time, we had to wait for about 1.5 hours for enough passengers to fill the van. A mini taxi never disembarks without every cubic inch of space allocated and full. Door-to-door, the trip took us 10 hours.
Orientation and information
Malealea Village is situated in (surprise) the Malealea Valley. The valley is located in the southwestern corner of Lesotho, about 60 kilometres from the capital, Maseru. The valley is surrounded by mountains on all sides, with a base elevation of about 4,000 feet. It's entering autumn now, and we should see snow on the top of these mountains before we leave. The rainy season just ended, supposedly. However, prior to our arrival, it did not rain for 3 months. The result is another failed crop. However, it's been raining a lot since we got here – a good sign to the locals we hope.
The valley is home to about 1,500 people spread across over 24 villages. There are no phone or electricity lines into the valley. Any electricity that exists is generator or solar powered. Water is supplied by ample run-off and wells.
Our first night was spent at the Malealea Lodge. This establishment is an oasis for tourists in what can otherwise be described as a rural desert camp town. Mick Jones and his family run the joint and have built an amazing destination for tourists to experience local culture, pony trek among the breathtaking mountain landscapes, and generally relax comfortably in the countryside. Mick also sits on the board of the Malealea Development Trust, which supports projects that help develop the local economy and empower the local community. Most of the work that The Trust undertakes is funded by donations from guests of The Lodge. We work for The Trust as well.
We stayed at The Lodge on the night of 4 April. As of this email, that was the last time we had a proper shower (more on bathing below).
Where to stay
We are renting a rondavel from a local woman called M'e Makomiti. A rondavel is a stone and plaster home with a thatched roof, which is shaped in a circle. The floor is packed mud. There is no running water or electricity. Our rent is ZAR 100 per month (about $14). This is slightly less than what we paid in London. Included in the rent is a built-in alarm clock – 3 roosters that start their day no later than 6 AM.
M'e Makomiti is an incredible host. She's determined that we become proficient in Sesotho, the local language (more on this later). She spends time every day teaching us useful phrases and terms. She's extremely well respected in the community and we need only say that we live with her to gain valuable "street cred" among the locals.
We've got all we need to live comfortably. There is a bed and some furniture. We have a propane stove for cooking. We fetch water from a well about 250 metres down a hill. This is not sweet because we have to carry the full buckets up this hill. The local women carry buckets on their heads (like everything else). M'e Makomiti (aged 50) can carry a 10-litre jug up the hill easily. Meg and I struggle to drag half that amount between the two of us.
Our toilet is a corrugated metal shed in the yard. There are worse toilets in Malealea, but this one is still appalling. Luckily, we've not yet encountered any intestinal issues that require me to spend too much time in there.
We bathe with a bucket and a rag. This is both entertaining and sad. I'd rather not talk about it.
Meg and I eat canned food, mostly, as it is easy to store and prepare. We really love the local bread, di phapata, and get fruit from local vendors. There are no supermarkets in Malealea, but only small shops, usually found in corrugated metal shacks along the road. We share an occasional meal with M'e Makomiti and her family.
The local diet primarily consists of papa. Papa is a starch meal of ground maize, similar to corn. It's a lot like grits, accept they don't drown papa in butter (butter is far too expensive). They accompany papa, usually, with seasoned cabbage, onions, or beans. Meat is a massive luxury. We've yet to see it served with meat in by any of the local families.
The problem with papa is that it is pure starch. It contains few nutrients. It fills the belly, but does not nourish the body. The affects of this are obvious. The local Basotho are tiny, usually with a pot belly storing the excess carbs. Few grow to a height taller than 5'6" and adults my age look as if they are in their teens. While this is great for my ego, it is not good for the local Basothos' chances of raising themselves from the cycle of poverty that oppresses Lesotho. There is no way for me to assess the further affects on mental development, but it is safe assumption that it further hinders educational advancement.
Sights and activities
As mentioned earlier, the valley is surrounded by mountains on all sides. This makes Malealea one of the most beautiful places that we've ever seen. The Lodge facilitates guided hikes and pony treks into the surrounding mountains as its primary activity. We've done some hikes, but haven't been on the ponies yet.
On a typical day, we walk between 4-8 miles. That is because we live 2 miles outside of the main village, and we don't have a car (no one does). When we go for a wander to explore villages or hike into the mountains, we can walk 12 miles or more.
Since we arrived, our local liaisons have been too busy to get us started on our respective jobs. A group of school children from Yorkshire ("Yark'-shaw") and Barnesley ("Bonz'-lay") have been here as part of a bi-annual development trip where they fund and work on local infrastructure projects. It's quite an operation and required the assistance of the entire community. Therefore, we joined in and spent our first week digging trenches, moving stones, building roads, planting trees, and various other labour-intensive projects. This was a far cry from the desk jobs I've been enjoying for the last nine years. Combined with the walking and reduced diet we've enjoyed since we arrived, the pounds are starting to come off.
Meg will start to sink her teeth into her projects this week, while I've already been able to get started with mine. Meg will be working with "learning circles", which are designed to extend education into the villages through community discussion. Topics range from the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the greater community to basic nutrition. I'm tasked with micro-level economic development. Luckily, I've got a Peace Corps volunteer to help direct my efforts.
Most of the generalisations you hear from people before you come to Africa have to do with the people. "They are so friendly and happy, welcoming and warm… they love to sing and dance… despite the harshness of their lives, they still smile and greet with unmatched hospitality." Like most generalisations, these are pretty far from the mark. The people are people like any other. They greet outsiders with equal measure of distrust and self-promotion. It's taken us this long to demonstrate to the community that we are not tourists, which are easy prey for a quick handout. The Basotho are not overly generous or hospitable either, relative to other cultures we've experienced. They are simply people, trying to get by on what little they can scrape from the land and the local economy.
They do like to sing though. And when they do, the harmony is chill inducing. We have been going to church both to integrate better into the community as well as hear the incredible singing.
Like most cultures, a little bit of the local language goes a long way. We really underestimated the importance of proficiency in Sesotho prior to our trip. Being that Lesotho is a former British protectorate, the second language is English. But in the countryside, it a bad assumption that everyone speaks English. It's taken us a week to get the basic niceties and greetings down. Now we are getting to a point where we can decipher the typical questions we encounter: "Who are you?.. where are you coming from?.. where do you live?.. where are you going?.. do you have some sweets/money/pens to give?" Unfortunately, the questions don't always go according to script and we struggle to keep up. But we're improving and everyone we come across as we walk is eager to teach us a little Sesotho before they move onward. It's great to have 1,500 Sesotho teachers at our disposal.
We've been given Sesotho names as well. This always draws a chuckle when we introduce ourselves as Ntate (Mr.) and M'e (Mrs.) Sechaba. Sechaba means "the people'.
The local economy revolves around The Lodge. The Lodge brings tourists, which bring in money. The Lodge hires 25 full time staff, plus provides walking and pony guides with an income. The locals own the ponies and make a solid income from their use. Where possible, The Lodge buys produce, eggs, and souvenirs locally. As mentioned before, it also accepts and manages donations from tourists.
There seem to be only three other ways to make a living in Malealea: farming, owning a mini taxi, or running a shop. There are not many options out here, and many children are forced to leave school early to provide for their families – often without parents who've died from AIDS related illnesses. It's no surprise that unemployment (like the HIV infection rate) in Lesotho is at 40%.
Hopefully, Megan and I will be able to put our skills and your money toward changing this. It is part of the mission of The Lodge and the Malealea Development Trust to direct funds toward projects that enable the local community to pull itself out of poverty. There are no handouts. All projects funded are aimed at providing sustainable benefits to the greater community, rather than a short-term fix. Not surprisingly, a lot of money is wasted in the area. I've heard two telling examples since we arrived. First, a well-intentioned (always) group funded and built a science laboratory at the local high school. The facility is beautiful, complete with stocks of chemicals, beakers, a vacuum hood, and electricity outlets at each of the 20 or so work stations. There's one catch though: there is no electricity in building. 90% of the equipment is useless and the room serves primarily as a classroom like any other. The second example is one where a tourist wanted to pay for the schooling for two local boys for a year. The Trust encouraged the tourist to funnel money through it, so that it would be spent appropriately. Unfortunately, the tourist chose to give the money directly to the two boys. It was spent on clothes and food.
I come back to our objectives for this trip. A significant portion of our time here will be spent taking a close look at where your money can go furthest, while trying to avoid some pitfalls similar to the ones I've just described. Spending money is easy. Putting it toward projects that provide sustainable benefits, mesh with the needs and culture of the local community, and allow the community to help itself is the tricky part.
Oh, and we're having an amazing time out here.
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