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Notes on Basotho Culture for hikers & overland travellers in Lesotho

Philip & Christeen Grant

Notes on Basotho Culture for hikers & overland travellers in Lesotho

Christeen and I have been taking South Africans and overseas visitors on day and multi-day trips to Lesotho as professional mountain guides since 2006, sometimes two or three times a week.

These notes are an attempt to help hikers, when hiking over and along the top of the Drakensberg Escarpment, and overland travellers, understand some of the basic differences between their own and Basotho culture, and understand some of the ‘way things work’ in The Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.

We trust these notes will go some way to fostering more positive and tolerant attitudes, and avoid potential confrontation from misunderstandings and suspicion, caused by a difficulty in language communication and possible innocent ignorance.

Experienced hikers and frequent visitors to Lesotho will possibly find that many of the points have become ‘second nature’ to them. Please accept that these notes have been written with the inexperienced or first time hiker and visitor in mind, but we hope that regular visitors to Lesotho will still find them useful.

  • The country is called Le-Sotho (the place of the Ba-Sotho). The people are called Ba-Sotho (plural). One Basotho is a Mo-Sotho (singular). The language they speak is called Se-Sotho (or Southern Sotho).
  • Lesotho is not a province of South Africa! The independent country of Lesotho (formally Basutoland) has a very different history, and works very differently to most of South Africa. Because the country is so isolated by its mountainous terrain, its traditional Bantu and African culture is still strong, more especially in the ‘highlands’ which comprise about 70% of the country. This attribute is a tourist ‘draw card’ and many overseas visitors pay a lot of money to experience and interact with this age old culture and lifestyle, long gone in developed countries.
  • No agricultural land, including the high altitude grazing areas, is owned privately in Lesotho. Although the perception of visitors to the country is that nobody owns the land, because there are no fences to be seen, the reality is that everyone owns the land, and when travelling off-road, or hiking, you are still crossing someone’s land.
  • For Basotho people, the eastern border of Lesotho is the escarpment edge, or ‘Dilomo sa Natala’ or the ‘The Cliffs of Natal’. Although the South African KwaZulu-Natal / Eastern Lesotho border is technically drawn along the watershed or continental divide of Southern Africa, this is a detail lost on the average Mosotho. So when you climb to the top of the Drakensberg, our advice is to regard yourself as having entered Lesotho territory. For a poorly educated Basotho shepherd (or herder), the border is where his sheep or goats start falling over the edge of the ‘Cliffs of Natal’ (or Drakensberg) into South Africa!
  • When you cross into Lesotho you are no longer in the Drakensberg. The top of the Drakensberg in Lesotho are called the Maluti (sometimes spelt Maloti) Mountains. The Eastern part of the Malutis is often shown on South African maps as the ‘Drakensberg Range’, but they are not the Drakensberg! Ask any Mosotho. They even look different!
  • You will see and come into contact with people on top of the Drakensberg and the Maluti Mountains. Do not expect it to be deserted! Particularly in the summer months, there will be numerous shepherds (herders) tending their family’s or 2 extended family’s domestic animals in the form of sheep (wool) goats (mohair) cattle (tractors) horses (cars) and donkeys (trucks).
  • Shepherds (or herders) are almost without exception young boys. Their ages will range from as young as 9 or 10 years old to about 17 or 18 years old. Being a shepherd is an integral part of Basotho culture. But there are also adult shepherds as well, because options to gather wealth are very limited in Lesotho.
  • Shepherds (or herders) live in small temporary dwellings called Metibo. These are basic rondavels with enclosures for their animals nearby. Two or three shepherds share one Motibo. The youngest one will have to do all the hardest work, just like what happens in an all-boys boarding school!
  • When you are hiking in the high Malutis (or on the top of the Drakensberg) in Lesotho, you are in their space. They are not in yours!
  • A friendly greeting, broad smile and a wave work well! This usually relieves any tension and suspicion from their side as to your intentions.
  • The shepherds will probably have dogs with them. They have dogs primarily for their own protection and to protect their young animals from predators such as the Black Backed Jackal.
  • When in Lesotho you will have company! People will sit close to you when you stop for a rest or to have something to eat. Even though it may be considered impolite in their culture, they will tend to approach you out of curiosity, or in an attempt to see what they can get from you. If you can greet them in Sesotho and convince them that you know something about their ways, it will help to establish some respectful ‘distance’. Remember that their sense of personal space is different from yours, and they will tend to sit or stand closer to you than what you are comfortable with in your western culture.
  • Basotho shepherds are hungry! They have to survive on very little food by our standards, and learning to live with hunger is part of their upbringing as shepherds. In years gone by young men would have been drafted into warrior regiments after completing their initiation school at around 16 or 17 years old. Being a shepherd (or herder) is part of the toughening up process or ‘rite of passage’ to manhood. But they are not ‘starving’.
  • It is rude to give something to a Mosotho with your left hand. It is also considered rude and demeaning to throw rather than give something to them. The respectful way to give something is with your right hand, supporting your right elbow with your left hand. Receive something by clapping and cupping both hands.
  • If you hand a food item to anyone in the mountains, remove the wrapper first. Shepherds (or herders) have little or no concept of littering as we understand it. Take the wrapper back with your rubbish. If you are travelling through Lesotho, try to leave as little of your rubbish there as possible. Lesotho does not have the same sophisticated rubbish removal services and facilities for dealing with waste, as in most parts of South Africa. Should you as a visitor, add to their problem?
  • When in Lesotho you will have an audience! Especially in the remote mountain areas, you are an object of intense curiosity. Your appearance, clothes and equipment are strange. You look to them, like a person from outer space would look to us! Many younger shepherds will probably never have seen a tent before. A ‘house’ and sleeping bag that you carry in a rucksack on your back is a completely alien idea to them! A camping stove is equally foreign, as is the way you cook your food.
  • Being a shepherd is mind-blowingly boring for most of the time. You will be helping to relieve their boredom while you are up there with them!
  • Shepherds (or herders) are teenagers. Testosterone levels are running high, just as with all male teenagers. This can lead to excessive bravado, posturing, role playing, and ‘showing off’ in front of visitors to their areas.
  • Shepherds (or herders) wear grey blankets and carry short heavy sticks. The sticks are called Mulamu and are often carefully decorated with brightly coloured wire. A Mulamo is a ‘traditional weapon’ and it is a sign of being a ‘young man’ to carry one. Young boys learn traditional stick fighting as they grow up, as a ‘martial art’. It is a sign of respect from Shepherds to put their Mulamu on the ground when they talk to you. (But if they continue to hold it in their hand it does not necessarily mean they are about to attack you!). Shepherds may also carry a knobkerrie (or stick with a lump on one end), or a whip, especially if they are hunting with their dogs.
  • Shepherds wear Balaclavas. From years of conditioning in picture books, advertising and the media, the image of a strange person approaching you wearing a balaclava when you are already out of your ‘comfort zone’ awakes the image in your mind of a criminal or burglar. In Basotho culture a shepherd should uncover his face when speaking to you, but he has probably been wearing the balaclava for so long that he has forgotten that he has it on! You can request him to remove it before speaking to him.
  • Shepherds herd their animals by throwing stones. With sheep and goats, the stones are directed either side of, or ahead of the herd to direct them, and keep them together. They control their dogs by throwing stones at them. If the dog is barking at you, and the shepherd is behind the dog, it might appear as though they are throwing the stone at you instead of the dog. This could lead to unfortunate misunderstandings!
  • Shepherds (as with most Basotho people living in the mountains) are able to communicate well with each other over long distances. They learn to project their voices, and this combined with the silence and lack of trees to deflect sound, enables them to hold a full conversation with others at up to a kilometre apart. Shepherds will try to communicate with visitors moving through their grazing areas, and will be surprised that we don’t (or can’t) reply! In addition, this can sound as though we are being ‘aggressively’ shouted at! Show that you have heard them by waving back.
  • Let the shepherds approach you first, rather than you approach them. They usually have large dogs with them. The dogs can be unpredictable and provoked if you move too quickly towards them. This could give you the unfortunate impression that their dogs are being ‘set’ on you.
  • Shepherds and even most adult Basotho in the highland villages have little or no understanding of why you are there! Going hiking for ‘fun’ is a completely foreign concept for them. Climbing up the Drakensberg to see the views and vistas they see every day makes no sense to them. Equally strange to most Basotho people is the idea that anyone from a developed country would want to come to their country to ride a horse, stay in their villages, eat their food, and pay for the experience! Riding a bicycle up and down their mountains, when they have perfectly good horses also makes no sense. Paddling a boat or kayak down a river seems very strange to them!
  • Do not give ‘handouts’. Anything you give to people should be part of a friendly two way interaction. If people sit with you and interact in a friendly way, it would be appropriate to share some of what you have. Shepherds love cigarettes, and this can be a good medium of exchange in the right circumstances. If you are hiking, cycling or kayaking they are not heavy, and do not use up your carefully prepared food rations. Basotho shepherds and many men usually smoke anyway so you are not teaching them any new bad habits!
  • Expect to ‘pay’ ‘something’ in exchange for photographs of people, and always ask permission first. In many African cultures, people consider that you are taking something from them when you take a photograph. It has a lot to do with their traditional belief systems. What you exchange with them for that privilege would depend on their age and the actual circumstances. It could be a cigarette, food item, R2.00 or even R5.00, if the subject is an adult. If you are not prepared to be part of such an exchange, rather put your camera away! If your interactions have been very friendly up to then, they may not ask for anything. Generally, Basotho people really enjoy seeing their picture on the camera’s screen. Do not tell people that you will send copies of the pictures to them, unless you mean it! It is considered disrespectful to take photos of government buildings, the house of a Chief or the King’s house.
  • Many Basotho shepherds smoke Cannabis (or Dagga). It is cheaper than tobacco, relieves boredom and the pangs of hunger, helps pass the time, and helps them to feel warmer when it is cold. But it could possibly cause them to behave ‘out of character’ at times.
  • Children ask for sweets (and money) because they have been given handouts of sweets (and money) in the past. You are paying for the thoughtless past actions of previous visitors. Handing out sweets for no reason promotes a culture of begging and expectation. That child will grow up to be a shepherd, and then an adult, who will expect something from you for nothing, later. We have witnessed visitors throwing sweets at children along the road as they drive past in their 4x4’s. There are very few dentists in Lesotho, and their parents would probably not be able to afford their services anyway. Before giving anything to a child you should consult their parents first. (Just as you would like a stranger to do before giving anything to your children!).
  • Respect for elders is an integral part of Basotho culture. Demand this respect from younger Basotho by not showing any signs of being intimidated, and by demonstrating that you have some knowledge of their culture.
  • Learn some basic Sesotho greetings and pleasantries. Just as when you would visit any foreign country where the residents speak little English, some time spent on this beforehand will pay handsome dividends.
  • Ask people their names and the name of their home village. Give them your names. Just like you, they also want to be recognised as people.
  • Ask the shepherds to point out where their Motibo (small shepherd’s house) is situated. Do not approach a Motibo before being invited to come closer because there are often large dogs there. Even if a Motibo appears deserted, shepherds often leave dogs there to protect it and their food supply. The dogs sometimes lie around camouflaged amongst the rocks, waiting to give you a nasty surprise! There are often tall cairns of stones around or close to a Motibo, which can provide prior warning of where they are situated.
  • Take an interest in their lifestyle. Basotho people have a fascinating, unique and harsh existence which is a story on its own. They learn independence and self sufficiency from an early age. Most of our young people no longer have the privilege of learning these lessons! Recommended reading; ‘Shepherd Boy of the Maloti’ by Thabo Makoa. Morija Museum and Archives. ISBN 99911-632-3-9.
  • When in Basotho villages make a fuss of, and admire the children! As with us all, but even more so in Basotho culture, their families are very important to them. It is a very good way of ‘breaking the ice’ and establishing common ground.
  • Basotho children are often only trying to communicate. They learn some basic English at school, and questions such as ‘what is the time?’, and statements such as ‘give me sweets’, ‘give me money’, and even ‘give me your camera’ (!), although harsh to our ears, are mostly an attempt to get a reaction!
  • You display immense wealth to the average Mosotho. Even the kit carried by an overnight hiker represents much more than the average shepherd is likely to own. Overland travellers with a 4x4 vehicle and off-road trailer, loaded with all the things needed for their journey through ‘Darkest Africa’, represents more that the average Mosotho family will own in their whole life! Generally, Basotho people cannot understand why we need it all!
  • Wearing military style clothing tends to needlessly raise levels of suspicion. Would you consider crossing into, or hiking along the border of Namibia, Angola or Tanzania (for example) wearing items of military clothing?
  • The growing and selling of Marijuana / Cannabis (or Dagga) is not generally considered to be a crime by the average person in the Lesotho Highlands. No matter what our views on the subject may be, this activity is part of life in Lesotho. Smugglers taking huge risks to carry this product over the border to supply the strong demand from South Africa, are just average young men trying to make some money where there are few, if any, other options.
  • Of course there are criminals in Lesotho! But in the rural villages petty crime is almost unheard of. The average Basotho hates criminals as much as you do (especially stock thieves!). So there is no reason to believe that the proportion of criminals to non-criminals in Lesotho is any higher than in any other country.
  • If you have any crime problems, and you have an idea where the perpetrator lives, the first recourse would be the nearest Chief or Headman, if possible. If the ‘problem’ comes from a child, then the first recourse would be the child’s parents. Locating the parents of a child can be time consuming and inconvenient, but if you persevere, the child will be punished and you will save a future visitor to Lesotho from a potentially more serious encounter with that ‘child’ as it becomes older and bolder! You may also save that child from a prison sentence sometime in the future! If the crime is committed by an ‘outsider’ to the local villages, the next recourse would be the police.
  • Ask permission before making camp. If there are older shepherds around and you are near a Motibo you should consult them and ask permission (if possible). When you are travelling through the villages you should always locate the Chief or Headman for permission before making camp. He (or in some cases she) will probably expect you to camp where he and his extended family can take responsibility for, and ensure your safety. This might not be the most ideal or ‘beautiful’ spot from your perspective!
  • It takes much longer to get anywhere in Lesotho than you might be tempted to think from distances on the map! Driving times are increased by the many animals being herded along the roads, the state of the roads themselves, and the very many sharp corners that can only be negotiated at a ‘snails pace’. Measure distances in ‘driving time’ rather than kilometres, to avoid rushing through the beautiful scenery, Basotho villages and towns, and possibly risk colliding with children or domestic animals. Take the advice of people who have done the trip before!


Philip Grant: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Cell +27 (0) 82 417 9163 Professional National Mountain Guide (KZN 0904)

Christeen Grant: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Cell +27 (0) 82 417 9162 Professional Mountain Guide and Nature & Culture Guide (KZN 1025) Illustrator, Artist & Photographer

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