Lesotho, the mountain kingdom

Shepherd. Lesotho

Shepherd. Lesotho

“Khotso, pula, nala”. These three words ( peace, rain, prosperity) greet people as they enter the kingdom of Lesotho, a tiny African country completely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. The people are called Basotho ( one person is a Mosotho) and the language is sesotho.

Lesotho is a very mountainous country. Only 15% of the land is flat and fertile enough for farming. However, Lesotho is primarily an agricultural country. The country has often been called the “Switzerland of Africa”. It is the only country in the world with all its land rising more than one thousand metres ( 3.280 feet) above sea-level. Thabana Ntlenyana peak up to 3.482 metres ( 11.423 feet). Until recently, it was almost impossible to drive a vehicle through most of Lesotho. Travel accross the mountains was either on foot or on horseback.

Lesotho’s high elevation accounts for its dry climate. The country is virtually free of the tropical diseases ( such as malaria and bilharzia) found in other African countries, and the sun shines for more than 300 days a year. Winters are harsh and the mountain-tops are often snowcapped.

Lesotho is one of the smallest countries in Africa with a total area of 30.355 square kilometres ( 11.720 square miles). It is similar in size to Belgium or the American state of Maryland. Lesotho’s population is about 1.4 million people, most of whom live in small towns and villages. Maseru, the capital, is home to approximately 75 000 people.

In the heart of the country, modern civilization gives way to a biblical way of life. Shepherd boys tend their herds. Distant cow-bells carry an echo over treeless cliffs. Mothers ( and girls) walk great distances each day to fetch water. The only sign of the modern world is an occasional small aircraft flying overhead.

The history of Lesotho goes back literally millions of years, and yet the country itself is very young. ( The country emerged as a nation between 1815 and 1820 under the guidance of the king Moshoeshoenand gained its independance from Great Britain on 4 october 1966.) Fossil footprints left by dinosaurs are visible. They are thought to be over two hundred million years old. The earliest known inhabitants were the Khoisan ( or Bushmen) hunter-gatherers. Skilful painters, they left evidence of their lives in rock paintings. Later, they were replaced by Bantu people during the first millenium of the Christian era. Among all the Bantu groups who lived in southern Africa, the Sotho settled in present Lesotho and adjoining territories of actual South Africa. The Basotho nation was formed by the unification of several clans in the early 19° century by the king Moshoeshoe. Following a series of wars, the basotho lost most of their territory to the Boers but Moshoeshoe appealed to Great Britain for protection and Basutoland became a British protectorate…since its independence in 1966. Since then called Lesotho, the country is a constitutional monarchy, an homogenous nation constituted by almost one ethnic group, the Sotho.

Lesotho is also the African country with the highest percentage of christians ( about 80%). ( Well, many Basotho mix the traditional ancestor worship and christianism !) The first missionaries arrived at the beginning of the 19° century : they were invited by Moshoeshoe to provide advices on foreign affairs, to help to acquire guns, to bring education. They also introduced potatoes, wheat, pigs,… to the local population.

One of the poorest countries in the world, many Basotho are forced to work in South Africa because of the lack of employment. Something like 40 % of Lesotho’s male working population work in the gold and diamond mines. They leave their homes for weeks or months; they return permanently when they retire or are disabled ( tuberculosis). The country is largely dependent on his neighbour for food, clothing, and anything to meet the basic needs of the population. The country boasts few natural resources like water ( there is a series of dams that allow the country to be self-sufficient in electricity and even export power to urban and industrial centres in South Africa), diamonds also. Sheeps being abundant, there is a basis for wool and mohair ( small scale) industry.

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