The British expansion into southern Africa in the 1800s caused Dutch farmers (Boers) in the Cape Province of South Africa to push northward, while Zulu peoples in Natal were pushed westward. Caught between the two were many refugees. The refugees as well as local peoples collectively came to be known as Basotho in 1822 under chief Moshoeshoe I (Moshesh), one of the greatest African leaders of the 19th century and the father of the Basotho nation. Under Moshesh, the Basotho fought four wars with the Boers from 1858 to 1868 in order to preserve their independence. However, having been debilitated by the long years of war and the loss of most of their arable land, the Basotho petitioned Great Britain for protection from the Boers. While the British agreed to place the land under their protection, a protectorate they called Basotholand, they intended to have their South African Cape Colony rule the Basotho. For more than a decade, the Basotho vigorously resisted this proposal diplomatically and with threat of arms. Finally, in the 1880s, the British agreed to rule the protectorate directly from London. Thus Basotholand never became part of the Republic of South Africa, and it instead became the independent Kingdom of Lesotho on October 4, 1966. More Basotho live in South Africa than Lesotho due to the history of drawing national boundaries, although Lesotho is one of the few countries in Africa to be composed of a single tribe.
From its historical involvement with England, Lesotho became a parliamentary democracy. English Common Law is the basis for Lesotho law. The Basotho National Party (BNP) won the 1966 elections. Up until 1997, there were only two political parties of which to speak, and the division between the two was largely along cultural and religious lines. The BNP stood for maintaining the traditional system of chieftainship and was largely Roman Catholic; the Basotho Congress Party (BCP) wanted to liberalize the local system of rule and was mostly Protestant. The BCP had its strength in the north of the country while the BNP strength was in the south. New elections were scheduled for 1970. As the vote was coming in, the BNP decided to void the election, declared an emergency, and effectively created a dictatorship for Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan. Many people cared more about peace than democracy, and the dictatorship gave that to them. After a few military coups in the early 1990s, the BCP won elections, but in the summer of 1997, the party split over a personality clash in the leadership. The new party, Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) became the majority. Elections were held in May 1998 resulting in an LCD victory, but reported irregularities in the election process have given rise to tensions ever since. That September, South African and Botswanan troops entered Lesotho to restore order, withdrawing after several months. Peace and calm slowly returned, and the situation largely stabilized.
The LCD maintained power well into the next decade. In 2007, the LCD won 61 out of the country’s 80 constituencies and made possible a third term for Prime Minister Bethuel Pakalitha Mosisili. Opposition, most notably from Tom Thabane from the All Basotho Convention (ABC), cited voting irregularities, and a number of LCD members moved to the ABC, leaving the LCD with a very slim majority rule. In April of 2009, an attempted assassination attempt was made on Mosisili’s home in Maseru, but he was unhurt. Check news from AllAfrica News for the latest information.
The Basotho people are extremely friendly and curious about foreigners, although many will ask for candy and/or money (a throwback to the missionaries and other visitors who gave profuse handouts—please do not give into all requests!). Singing and dancing are part of every social function. Customs vary from one part of the country to another, although not greatly from an American point of view. Certain articles of clothing are the most notable variation: almost everyone has a kobo (brightly colored wool blanket) to wear during travel or special occasions, and the traditional woman’s dress is called seshoeshoe after the nation’s founding father, Moshoeshoe.
Town meetings are called pitsos and occur in the open air whenever anyone important comes to a village or when an issue needs discussion. People get up and speak their point of view all day long under the direction of the morena, or chief. Pitsos happen often. Feasts are also a regular occurrence, especially with visitors and guests in the village, and due to the high HIV-prevalence rate (~30%) and low life expectancy (~36 years), funerals are unfortunately also a regular occurrence. About 60% of the male population spends six to nine months away working in various South African mines (gold, coal, platinum, diamonds), which leaves only the very young and very old in the village, plus women and children. Besides impacting family life, this situation causes a labor shortage in farming. Linguistically, the Sesotho language is similar to the Tswana language spoken in Botswana. In fact, the Sesotho spoken in Lesotho is called “Southern Sotho” while Tswana is also known as “Northern Sotho.”
French missionaries first came to Lesotho in the 1820s. On the books, there is freedom of religion in Lesotho, but Lesotho is 70% Roman Catholic, and the general population is not well educated about other religions. Protestants, about 20% of the population, are a mix of Lesotho Evangelical Church, Seventh Day Adventists, Anglican, and a few others. Many of the schools are parochial. As stated in the Politics section above, there is a higher percentage of Protestants in northern Lesotho; central and southern Lesotho has a higher percentage of Catholics. The remaining 10% of the population are of other religious beliefs, including Islam and indigenous beliefs.
Some “New Age” Americans have said that Lesotho is a place of high spiritual energy. While that’s not strictly a religious categorization, it’s not hard to sense that there are forces at work in this land on which the Hobbit books were modeled.
Camping and hiking are fantastic in Lesotho! There are plenty of places to go in both the mountains and the lowlands. Mt. Aux Sources, the highest point in southern Africa, is a 4-day round-trip hike, but it is incredible. You walk along mountains rolling at 10,000 ft, and then all of a sudden, there’s a cliff 5000 ft straight down. There are waterfalls at Semongkong, Qholane, and elsewhere, and the swimming is safe. For winter fun, there is Afri-Ski, one of only two skiing resorts in southern Africa, located in the Maloti Mountains between Mokhotlong and Butha-Buthe.
Nightlife can be found in Maseru, but there isn’t much outside of the capital. Maseru has a couple of movie theaters and some reasonably pleasant hotel bars. In the villages, it is generally considered safer, especially for women, to remain home after nightfall.
Almost anything you want is available in Maseru, including some good restaurants. The district capitals have a number of shops and food stands but few strictly Western products. For example, you can get Cheerios and Oreo cookies in Maseru. Things like t-shirts, peanut butter, candy, and lesser items can be found in the district capitals. In the village stores, you might find only sugar, flour, candles, bread, laundry detergent, pop, etc. House wares are widely available, and everything is metric.
The local diet is heavy in carbohydrates, and one meal might sometimes include bread, rice, and potatoes. Moroho (cabbage or anything leafy green) is heavily boiled and salted, and nama (meat) is often mutton in gravy. Papa is boiled corn meal, like very stiff grits. Imported fresh fruits (oranges, apples, pears) are sold in the town market places of the district capitals and Maseru. A lot of households have peach trees, but they aren’t really marketed. Eggs and chicken are also big. Decent wine and beer is available in the district capitals and Maseru, and most villages have shebeens, or little shacks where you can buy warm quarts of beer.
For additional information about what you may want to bring—or not bring—see Eric Thomson’s letter of December 14, 2000.
Transport & Communications
Mini-van taxis and buses run everywhere for small change. That includes around town in Maseru, as well to distant villages. They do not run on schedules: when they’re full, they go. Add chickens and sheep. Each town has a central marketplace from which the buses come and go. Hitchhiking is common and accepted, and unlike in the U.S., there isn’t much to worry about: anyone well off enough to have a car isn’t likely to bother you.
The land phone system is poor: government offices and businesses might have phones, but few homes will. Cell phones are readily available, voice and text time is pre-paid in increments purchased from numerous shops, and it is possible to send and receive texts from the U.S. Mobile internet through cell phones and laptops is also available in some areas, and most district capitals as well as Maseru have internet cafés. Mail from the U.S. takes about one to two weeks (packages take a bit longer) and can be picked up from the district post office.
Lesotho has no mosquitoes and thus no malaria. A dry, cool climate makes it a reasonably healthy place. The main health problem is water. Sanitation is poor and people wind up drinking water downstream that is wastewater from upstream. Most villages have wells or springs where people congregate to fill buckets, but people still get sick from time to time. Gullies are sometimes used for latrines, and that waste, as well as animal waste, washes into the nearest stream.
HIV/AIDS is a serious problem in Lesotho, and Lesotho has the third-highest HIV-prevalence rate in the world. Tuberculosis and venereal disease are also major health problems. All the district capitals have hospitals, although they are generally basic. Dentists are likely to be found only in Maseru.
Lesotho claims to be the country with the highest elevation in the world, and that’s based on the country having the highest low point. Nepal has Mt. Everest, but it also has valleys lower than Lesotho. The lowest point in the country is 4900 ft, about 40 miles south-southwest of Maseru. Mt. Aux Sources, in the extreme northeast, is the high point at 12000 ft.
There are two sharply divided, distinct geographic parts of the country, divided along a north-south line. The western third of the country is high plains, rolling landscape, with sandstone buttes and mesas. Elevations run around 5000-6000 ft. Soils are yellow, yellow-brown, and sandy. Summer convection thunderstorms roll in almost every afternoon, and double and even triple rainbows are common. About 90% of the population lives in this region. Almost all the land is cultivated in plots of two to three acres. Field corn and sorghum are the main crops, and extremely little is sold: most is subsistence farming. Plowing is about 30% by tractor, the rest by cattle. Stubble is either eaten by cattle (which roam everywhere) or collected for fuel. Some fertilizer is used, but cow dung is also collected and dried for fuel or mixed with clay and water to make a type of stucco for the houses. Just about the only trees to speak of are gray poplar, which grow in gullies. They’re constantly chopped for fuel, so when they grow back from the roots, they tend to be densely spaced, but of small diameter (~3 inches). There are also a few willows by streams.
The eastern two-thirds of the country is alpine at 8000-11000 ft and is home to only a few villages. Soils are dark brown basaltic, highly organic. Vegetation is a kind of grass that grows in tight, widely spaced clumps. Young boys take the family herds of cattle and goats up there for a few months in the summer (and have quite a party). Not as much cultivation, very few trees. The area formed about 100 million years ago from volcanic activity, and volcanic cones are evident (including one diamond mine). The herd boys have built stone huts every few miles, which come in handy when hiking: just leave them how you found them. Hail in the summer and snow in the winter are routine.
In between these two regions is a narrow band of foothills. The mountains rise very sharply. Technically, this area is considered lowlands, populated and cultivated. The only thing that distinguishes the area is the soil and elevation: 7000-8000 ft and also basaltic, with red basalt laid down 240 million years ago. There is less organic matter than the cold soils at higher elevation.
There are many places where one can see a panorama of the three distinct soil colors in perfect horizontal strata. For more information, see Linda Heidenreich’s write-up of Lesotho geology.
In the lowlands, summer daytime highs are around 90 degrees Fahrenheit; summer nighttime lows are around 50. Winter daytime highs are about 60; nighttime lows are about 20. There is a little snow, but not much, and it doesn’t last. Humidity is very low. Rainfall averages about 20 inches per year, mostly in the spring and summer as convection thunderstorms. It’s a temperate climate, so things brown up, and leaves fall in the autumn.
In the highlands, summer daytime highs are around 70, and winter daytime highs are around 25. Snow can be several feet deep. The elevation and dryness make the temperatures plummet at night. Since Lesotho is in the southern hemisphere, different constellations appear in the night sky, including the Southern Cross, and the face on the moon appears to be sideways. The Milky Way is brilliant and you can see in it the black shadows of the various nebulae. Also remember when hiking, if without a compass, the sun will be in the north.
National Anthem of Lesotho
Flags of Lesotho