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Slow-journeying in Lesotho

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IN the remote countryside of Lesotho, time stretches wide between long treks on horse or donkey back and hours of herding cattle along mountain ranges.

Mounted on his donkey, Matekoa Libe rides along the steep, rocky paths. His long legs slapping against his donkey’s flanks as it lopes forwards.

“I’m going to the village to get gas,” said the smiling 18-year-old as he stops to speak to AFP, holding a grey cooking gas cylinder placed next to him on the donkey’s back.

He pulls a woolen hat over his head and hurriedly ties his shoelaces, and he sets off again, waving a coloured pompom at the end of a stick.

Then he descends from the heights of Thaba Bosiu, about 25 kilometres from the capital Maseru.

This is the cradle of the Sothos, the main ethnic group in the constitutional monarchy of 2.2 million people.

The sandstone plateau, which rises slightly over 1,800 metres, served as a refuge for Sotho pastoralists from the onslaught of European settlers and Zulu warriors from neighbouring South Africa in the early 19th century.

Completely surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho is the largest of only three enclaved states in the world, far bigger than San Marino and the Vatican City, both of which are within Italy.

Lesotho is also one of the highest countries in the world, with more than 80 percent of the country sitting 1,800 metres above sea level.

But in the Belgium-sized country, the most convenient and commonly used off-road transport are horses and donkeys.

Road infrastructure is still limited in Lesotho, one of the poorest countries in the world, with just three main roads linking Maseru to the rest of the country.

In the central highlands, nature remains untouched. Scattered in dotted lines, men draped in traditional blankets herd sheep and horned cows.

Sitting atop large rocks, shepherds sporting straw hats chew pieces of grass or smoke cannabis.

Lesotho pioneered the growing of cannabis for medical use on the continent more than two decades ago.

On weekends, men gather around litres of sorghum beer and accordions.

Famo, a kind of local hip-hop born almost a century ago from the poems of labourers working the South African mines, still rings out from the informal bars, known as shebeens and built from roofing sheets.

In the small kingdom, cacti and aloes grow to spectacular sizes.

But temperatures plummet below zero and snow falls during the southern winter. Lesotho hosts one of just two ski resorts in sub-Saharan Africa.

On the plains, women in dresses and wide-brimmed hats wheelbarrows across the fields carrying farm produce.

People here live on a shoestring, growing what they eat: spinach, maize, sorghum and potatoes.

Unemployment is high in the former British protectorate, nicknamed the “kingdom of the sky”, which became independent since 1966.

Under a thatched roof of her rondavel stone house, wife and mother Masikilo Hlehlisi, 35, lives in a single room.

In the centre is a pot on a wood fire. There is no running water or electricity. Life in the villages stops at sunset.

“We are still underdeveloped. I graduated five years ago but I’ve not been employed ever since,” she said. -AFP