It's a National Geographic Life

MASERU, Lesotho – There’s so much to say, I don’t know where to start. So how about with a Sesotho-language greeting: Dumela!

I moved to Lesotho just one week ago, after spending most of the past 18 years in post-Communist Eastern Europe. So it’s too early to explore themes and spout theories about this place. I’ll stay humble, knowing I have a hell of a lot to learn about these people, this country, this region, this continent.

Instead, I’ll stick to what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing, the experiential and the sensory, about the look of the place, the look of the people – and our dramatically different lifestyle amid both.

Lesotho is a deeply troubled place, plagued by poverty and HIV, violence against women and human trafficking, alcoholism and obesity, among many other afflictions. Nothing is more telling than the fact life expectancy for both men and women is a measly 42 to 43 years … my age exactly.

Lesotho is ravaged by the world’s third-highest HIV rate. A country of 2 million is home to an astounding 100,000 AIDS orphans. Five percent of the population? Or much higher? The scale of tragedy is unfathomable.

Funeral homes are certainly ubiquitous around Maseru. Today I asked a wiry-looking guy for directions; up close I realized he was downright skeletal. On the first day I met our housekeeper-babysitter, I asked if she had any children: “I have one son … but I had three children.” I froze, afraid to probe any further.

So, let’s turn for a minute to the positive.

The Basotho boast beautiful women, handsome men, charming children with pearly smiles – all receptive to a wave hello or hearty Dumela! from a fish-out-of-water like me. At the international school, our three kids – accustomed to a heavy European flavor among friends from our posting in Slovakia – now have a rainbow of classmates, from Lesotho, South Africa, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, and elsewhere.

Then there’s the topography. I can’t overstate how stunning it is: from horizon to horizon, a craggy canvas borne of tectonic aggression, framed by the enormous blue “African sky” I’d only heard about. In every direction I drive – even here in the capital – is the potential for another spectacular vista, of red-rock cliffs, or a volcanic rise, or an outcropping sculpted by wind and rain.

Lesotho, according to my Southbound Travel Guide, “is the only country in the world situated entirely above 1,000 meters,” with the “highest low point in the world” – 1,388 meters. I can’t wait to drive into the range a few hours eastward: the Drakensberg, which is Afrikaans for “Mountains of the Dragon.”

Makes me wish I’d paid more attention during my geology class at university. I’ve tried a few times to take photos, but was frustrated by my inability to capture the panorama. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s my gear, or maybe it must be seen first-hand to fully appreciate it.

Then I look street-level, and begin to fathom the unfathomable: some 40 percent of Lesotho lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Unpaved shanty towns abound, with corrugated-metal walls and roofs pinned down by large rocks. Roadsides are a booming grey market for fruits, vegetables, toiletries, clothes and other products – displayed in rickety stalls propped up by metal poles, covered in canvas or tarpaulin. Every dusty street corner is a barbeque waiting to happen, delivering cheap bites for carnivorous passers-by.

There are some proper buildings, of course, like government ministries, the king’s palace, the prime minister’s mansion, a handful of strip malls and office buildings, the compounds of various embassies and international relief agencies, the city’s lone shopping mall and cinema, and the two neighborhoods where local elites and foreign expatriates live behind razor-wire-topped walls with security guards.

Expats like us. We live cloistered in our cocoon, with our “staff,” asking the security guard to slide open the iron gate whenever we want to drive out. It's shaping up as a 21st-century British-colonial existence. Our only disturbances so far are the crack-of-dawn yodeling of the roosters next door, and the tinkling of cowbells from the cattle grazing in the fields behind us.

How poor are most people? On the streets, many look as if their wardrobe was pulled from a charity care-package. In a local eatery, after plowing through the spinach and carrot dishes, I left a heap of the maize-meal staple, known as papa. An old man sitting nearby motioned for my platter, then polished it off – even using my plastic spoon. Later, when my nine-year-old son placed a pair of torn sandals beside the garbage, our housekeeper asked him if she could take it. Quite a wake-up call – for all of us.

I returned from Hong Kong with my suitcase missing the handle and one wheel broken; I was planning to toss it out, but now I’m wondering: should I offer it to the housekeeper or the security guard?

Down at the shopping mall – where I’m currently writing this in one of Maseru’s two cafés – plenty of people are dressed stylishly or elegantly. The Pick-n-Pay supermarket here is also where these urban elites – and fellow expats – do their food-shopping. The Shop-Rite in town, I’m told, is “where the blacks shop.” I’ll have to check that out for myself. We were also advised not to walk the streets at night, even at dusk. And with Christmas approaching, we’re warned to expect a spike in break-ins.

How exaggerated is the threat? I dunno. But as I have throughout my foreign-reporting career, mostly in post-Communist Eastern Europe, I’ll try to resist the stereotypes, generalizations and fear-mongering.

I haven’t even explored the countryside, where 80 percent of the populace lives, mostly as subsistence farmers or herders of cattle, sheep or goats. For the Slovaks and the Hungarians, among whom I lived for five and six years, respectively, one favorite pastime is to gripe about their lot in life. Try walking in the beat-up shoes of the Basotho, who may trek hours, even days, to the nearest health clinic.

At least that’s what I hear from my new acquaintances: one is a young Dutch missionary, a registered nurse who drives into the mountains each week to the clinic he set up two years ago; another is an American-missionary pilot, flying one of five Cessnas into the mountains to ferry emergency cases to regional hospitals or even back to the capital. And after recovery, they’re flown back home.

Both the Dutchman and the American have invited me to join them on forays in the near future. There’s no way I’d miss out on such opportunities. My Lesotho education has only just begun.

Africa, Lesotho, Poverty