A warm welcome to Makhapung, Lesotho

  • Miles travelled: 6965
  • Highlight: The wonderful welcoming people of Makhapung
  • Lowlight: The bloody rooster

Mapaseka met us at the Sani Mountain Lodge as promised and drove us to her village, Makhapung, 40km into Lesotho.

Lesotho itself is unlike anywhere we’ve ever been. It’s hard to get your head around the idea that there’s a self-contained country right in the middle in South Africa, especially given how different it is. We’d read that Lesotho is the only country in the world to be completely situated above 1000m, earning itself the title of ‘Mountain Kingdom’. Driving to Mapuseka’s village, we passed through countless mountain peaks, miles and miles of steep valley land, very few people, several shepherd huts and a lot of sheep.

(As an aside, it was interesting to see that the road this side of this Lesotho border is, in contrast to the shambles of the Sani Pass, completely tarred and modern. We’d read that the Chinese had funded the Lesotho section of the road and Chinese investment in the region became a theme over the next day. Mapuseka herself had been picked to attend a Chinese government-funded tour guide development programme in Qindao. She told us that Chinese investment was a hot topic of conversation over there – her own personal experience was positive but she acknowledged some others viewed it as more interference than investment.)

Almost all Basotho men growing up in rural areas are shepherds. The land isn’t owned here so in the Spring months the shepherds rotate their flocks and sleep by themselves in little stone cattle posts for months on end with just the guard dogs for company. We stopped to have a peek at the shepherds’ hand shearing their sheep and Mapuseka also pointed out the local shepherd school where the next generation can go to learn to read and write and make local crafts that they can sell.

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As we’d signed up to it last minute, we had no idea what to expect from the homestay. To be honest, we were half expecting it to be one of those cheesy over-engineered ‘cultural experiences’ you often get on package tours. The reality was totally different.

Walking up through the village, we heard some strange high-pitched ululating noises which Mapaseka told us were actually greeting calls from the local women. The children all started shyly peeking out of their rondavels to inspect the new arrivals and even the donkeys made some welcoming hee-haws. Mapuseka told us we were free to roam around the village as we pleased – ‘there’s no private property here, everyone’s welcome’ – and to make ourselves at home.

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Given the altitude, Lesotho is obviously pretty cold for most of the year and the village shepherds gave us a bit of a fright at first when they appeared with their faces covered by woollen balaclavas and wrapped up in the traditional Basotho blankets. We were shortly offered blankets of our own, however, and learnt to appreciate how amazingly warm and comfortable they are. Later on in the evening the shepherds also treated us to an impromptu performance of a handmade woodwind style instrument called Lesiba, a long wooden stick with a delicate feather attached to a string made of horse hair.

We were shown two performances of traditional Basotho celebration dances by the local women. For a dance called Litolbonya, they put on these ingeniously designed plume skirts made from cow hide and beer bottles for some moves that I’d almost be tempted to describe as a Basotho version of twerking. Everyone was singing along and there were some more of the ululating cries we’d heard when we arrived.

We can’t get strong enough WiFi to handle the video upload so you’ll just have to imagine it!

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The dresses here are worn for a dance called Mokhibo which celebrates traditional Basotho culture.

Overall, we were blown away by how welcoming and lovely everyone was. There was no sense of us being awkward tourists (although we obviously were) and nothing felt like it was staged or exaggerated for our benefit. The women genuinely seemed to enjoy having us there and dancing for us and we had so much fun playing with the local children who were delighted to see some new faces (I accidentally taught one of them a sumo dance which I’m pretty sure they now think is a weird English tradition). A far cry from the cheesy experience we were hoping to avoid.

The little poser in the awesome blanket-cape is Mohappi, Mapuseka’s son. The other kid is attempting to do the sumo dance I accidentally taught him…oops.

It was also a real eye opener to experience rural African living for ourselves. The rondavel style villages look tiny from the road and we’d struggled to get our head around the idea that they were ‘villages’ as such. When you’re in them, however, you can immediately feel a sense of community and see how the place functions as a village. There are 230 people living in Makhapung, and what felt like almost as many goats, sheep, horses and donkeys. There’s no running water beyond a shared tap for the whole village, no electricity and the toilet is a long drop in a metal shack.

Meeting Mapuseka in South Africa, we’d never had guessed she came from such a rural background, but there was no sense that she or the others in her village didn’t have enough. We were really struck by the balance the community maintains between functioning as part of a modern world while keeping their traditions and culture alive. They charge their phones using solar panels, wash using buckets of hot water heated over the fire, light their houses with paraffin lamps and get around the country by walking, hitching or, in an emergency, by horse.

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DSC03051Mapuseka sadly lost her sister two weeks before our stay and her other sister is seriously ill at the moment. As per Basotho tradition, her mother is in an enforced mourning period of two weeks, meaning she can’t have any interaction with people outside of the immediate family and can’t leave the vicinity of her house.

We couldn’t believe that the cheerful, witty and dedicated Mapuseka we met was dealing with the tragic loss of her sister, while working twice as hard to keep going as a tour guide without the extra support that her mom normally provides. The mourning period was due to end soon after we left. At this point, the family attend a ceremony during which they must all bathe in the river, slaughter a sheep and shave their heads. Only after this will they be able to continue with their normal lives.

We left feeling completely humbled by the strength of Mapuseka and her family and with an uncomfortable realisation of just how much we unnecessarily consume in our everyday lives, and how we take for granted our right to live the way we do. Let alone the fact that we’ve had the luxury of choosing to leave our jobs and travel half way across the world to be here.

It was such a peaceful place that we both had the best night’s sleep we’ve had in weeks. Until, that is, Mr Rooster started his pompous racket at first light and woke all of his donkey friends…


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