The chief of the tiny village, situated high on the slopes of the mountains that surround Malealea, shuffled out of his mud hut in the early morning, and stretched. His Basotho blanket, striking in its patterns and blues and oranges, shrouded his tall frame. He smelled huskily of fire and earth.
Exuding authority, he stood surveying his domain, hands hidden beneath his blanket. He looked onto the kraal housing a small herd of cows, while hens, roosters and a dozen bleating goats roamed nearby. Six thatched, mud homes dotted the landscape nearest to him and the few village inhabitants emerged one by one from their night time sanctuaries. He glanced up at the snow hooded peaks and sighed with contentment. With this, he freed his hands, took out his cellphone and proceeded to send an SMS.
To be a Basotho villager, it seems that you have to meet certain criteria. You don't necessarily need a cell phone, but you do require an impressive and authentic Basotho blanket, to be worn at all times regardless of weather conditions.
And you need a pocketknife.
This is the short list. A tribesman once described the value of these two items in Lesotho by saying: "You should always carry a blanket and a pocket knife with you. Then you can sleep and you can eat."
Escape the rat race
Simple, practical and so very true given the nature of village life within the contours of the Thaba Putsoa mountain range.
To the outsider, like that of the eager pony trekker tourist I found myself to be, the lifestyle in a real village positioned comfortably in Western Lesotho, seems uncluttered, unstressed and uncomplicated. It is the exact opposite to the rat-race. In fact racing rats would be completely out of their comfort zone there. Instead, the pace of life in rural Lesotho moves at the tempo of a pony plod.
Other possessions to tick off on your 'To Be A Villager' list include bare feet, a leather whip and a genuine white-toothed smile. The Basotho people are incredibly welcoming and friendly, without being overbearing. They will let you pass through their homelands, expecting only a pleasant greeting of 'Dumela' in response to their show of hospitality.
The whip is nothing to get nervous about though, and only really required if you fall into the category of herdsman within the community. These herds speckled the landscape along our pony-trekking route. As our group of eight ponies and seven riders klip-klopped along unstable terrain, we were rarely alone. Some herd or another could be detected in close enough range. All you had to do was listen carefully for the tell tale sound of a ringing cow bell.
Seven riders and eight horses, I hear you ask? Well, the eighth and extra horse was Sophia and her unfortunate lot was to act as our packhorse throughout our journey, lugging our possessions from point to point so that we could be comfortable, warm and fed throughout. We are eternally indebted to that clumsy, but strong example of female endurance that came in the form of a little brown pony.
The three days of guided trekking through the mountain passes were soothing. Our two nights, spent in different villages along the journey exposed us to authentic rural existence. We slept in mud huts and were able to take in a vastly different way of life to our own, by simply being placed in the middle of it.
All you need is a T-shirt?
If you happen to be a young Basotho child living in this beautiful but basic setting, you are expected to live up to the expectations of your category. Every toddler, irrespective of sex, would be dressed identically; a T-shirt.
That's it. No underwear or covering of any nature allowed on the bottom half area. This is unnecessary and inhibiting to the child's freedom of movement, I suppose. They seem totally unbounded, free and breezy, playing blissfully in their state of semi-undress. Why the mother's even bother with the t-shirt at all will remain one of the mysteries of the simple life.
As our pony party departed from the smoky village which had housed us on our final night in those mountains, we had to giggle at the bizarreness of 21st century living. Here we were, a few Johannesburg girls who had searched for an escape from the city and its claustrophobia and had found it. We had left our cell phones, make-up and issues at home and had discovered a tranquillity of being, in a haven six hours' drive away.
"Sporting a mouth full of gums"
That morning, an old lady of the village, sporting her lovely blanket and a mouth full of gums, approached one of us and handed over a scrap of paper. On it was scribbled a few numbers and Sesotho words. We asked our guide what was scribbled.
"It's her postal address," he said. "She wants you to write to her and send her a copy of the photo you took with her last night."
We smiled politely at her, and nodded in agreement, but as we rode away one of us asked the obvious question: "How the hell is it going to get delivered up here? A postman couldn't possibly make it up this mountain anyway."
We all laughed at this, but were also in awe at the fusion between the rural way of life so well-preserved, and the threads of modernity which are carefully woven beneath the surface. Yet it took none of the authenticity away. It was hardly there at all. I was, however, tempted to ask that grandmother if she wouldn't perhaps prefer us to MMS the image to the chief's cell phone instead!