AFRICA 2016 – Journal eleven

DAY 63. MONDAY FEBRUARY 8th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

Unfortunately my need for mechanical assistance and Steven’s hectic workload have coincided. He tells me, in the few minutes I have seen him through the day, that he resigned from his job twice today! It’s that bad. But there was nothing I could do to help myself without the copper washer for the sump plug. So I have spent an entire day reading. I cannot arrange further travels – Kenya or no – as I have no internet, no email and no contact with the outside world. I walked to a shopping mall half a mile away and had the very frustrating experience of trying to communicate with the outside world over a cup of appalling ‘coffee’ at a Wimpy bar (unaccountably popular in South Africa) and a ‘free’ internet connection that will doubtless spawn endless junk mail, that was as slow as sending telegrams and awaiting a reply, and only 30 minutes long at that! So a VERY tedious, frustrating day.

Now I have the copper washer and at least tomorrow I can walk half a mile to a petrol station and purchase oil, and hope to put my bike back together so that at least I can ride it to get help from outside sources such as the BMW dealer in the city – assuming the leak is no worse than when we started. I cannot expect Steven, run ragged by work, to help, although I’m sure he would if he could. I have to be independent. Maybe it’ll do me good..?

No more to say of a day abandoned in suburbia in a pretty boring South African city. “You’re on holiday in BLOEMFONTEIN?” asked a woman incredulously in the supermarket checkout. “WHY..?”

“I take your point,” I laughed with somewhat spiritless irony.

DAY 64. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 9th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

At least a forced stay in Bloemfontein may be a bit more relaxed than in Himeville, although there’s little more to do here. Steven still crazily busy at his work, I put the bike back together myself, walked the half mile to the supermarket to buy oil and got it going once again. As soon as it was running, with no oil leaking from the tank but quite a bit from the sump plug, I rode to look for a mechanic of whom Steven had told me, who works with the engines that my BMW uses – but is NOT a BMW mechanic, with their attendant prices and single minded, linear, BMW thought processes. Parts are now on order (water pump and gaskets and head gasket as well) and as soon as they arrive – NOT from Germany, as it’d be with BMW, but from Johannesburg, six hours up the road, he’ll ring me and get me back on the road as soon as he can. But it’s likely to be the end of the week, I guess, before I can continue my safari…

Well, there’s nothing I can do about it except wait again. I have now determined to sell the red bike at the end of this journey. Having bought another bike in Kenya (red, too, fortunately, Rico emails!) it is likely that for the next winter or two my focus will change to Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and all sorts of intriguing trips around THAT part of Africa. Keeping the red bike would be only for a return to Lesotho and maybe Zimbabwe, my two favourites. But I can holiday there by public transport as I always used to do in my earlier travels, or I can (heaven forbid!) rent a car! It’s not worth having a motorbike standing in Steven’s garage for the next two or three years just for the off-chance of a return for a few weeks. I feel, after four extended trips, that I have seen most of South Africa and it’s time to move on. At least I shall sell the bike with a new battery, chain, sprockets, water pump, head gasket, new sump plug and so on! I won’t get a lot for it, but it owes me very little, having added – so far – 47,000 kilometres to it.

*

With all this, I have decided not to fly to Kenya next week. With Rico about to leave the country, I’d have gone for only two or three weeks anyway. I can’t find flights for less than about £400, plus another £150 to get to his town. Since that is a good deal of the cost of flying from Bristol to Nairobi I think it’s better to plan it all properly for next winter. Also, I have to attend to getting the bike fixed – Steven is FAR too preoccupied just now; I would be reliant on public transport to get to and from Johannesburg and I have only internet access for all the arrangements by visiting crap chain restaurants and drinking their coffee! I’m a bit disappointed not to see Rico soon, but I hope he will provide the base for several journeys over the coming winters!

So, bike fixed, it’s back to Lesotho and then perhaps a ride to Zimbabwe one more time.

*

I’ve seen little of Steven these past 48 hours. He is constantly working, with mad deadlines to meet. He resigned a couple of times, he tells me, but – like so many – he has his home and children to support. He complains of the positive prejudice that is rampant here. He is ‘the wrong colour’ to be able to change jobs, despite huge experience in what he does. It puts me in mind of an Afrikaner I conversed with in a bar fourteen years ago, who, when discussing this policy of positive discrimination, was wise enough to comment ironically, “who do you think they learned THAT from..?” But it’s difficult to justify, when black people with paper qualifications but no practical experience get the jobs that highly experienced people can’t qualify for on the basis of skin colour. It’s the stupidity of government ‘targets’, as ridiculous on a practical level as all our modern health service and all the other ‘targets’ – statistics on paper that look good to paper-pushers and provide politicians with media sound-bites but make little practical sense, an attempt to rebalance books, but often counter-productive to a common sense approach to getting jobs done.

*

A lot of reading these days… I am trying to accustom myself to reading on my iPad, reading my way through Jane Austen again – as free downloads. Such wonderful language and wit and a page-turning quality that is so difficult to explain in these circumscribed eighteenth century domestic dramas! And it’s just about the first fiction I have read in seven or eight years.

DAY 65. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 10th, 2016. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

I’d as soon be stuck in the ‘Historic Quarter’ of Indianapolis as Bloemfontein. And it seems I AM stuck once again. It is likely to be next Tuesday before my motorbike will be up and running once again. The prospect of sitting for another seven days reading on the stoep in Bloemfontein-suburbia is unendurable. I am already bored out of my skull, so I rode to town today to find out where I get ‘black taxis’ to Lesotho. At least I can spend the weekend there. I will deliver the bike to Johan, the mechanic, and leave it with him while I repair to Roma once again. I can return on Tuesday, assuming the bike is fixed.

I checked out all sorts of possibilities – buses, even planes, to Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth; car rental; anything I could think of as escape. But buses all go overnight to everywhere and planes are expensive for a weekend escape. Lesotho, though, is a few hours away by minibus.

*

Out for supper tonight for Isabel’s birthday. Of the six mobile devices – sorry, that should read: people, but I am censorious tonight – round the table, for the various offspring were there with their ceaseless ‘social media’ (such a ****** oxymoron, as it precludes any real sociability, exchanging it for a sham virtual sociability…). Anyway, we were six people and I noted, in this land with the worst diet in the world (why, even the Scots have better dietary habits than the Afrikaners!), that I was the only one who ate a morsel of vegetables. And it WAS a morsel, for all I got was a tiny sprig of parsley! Isabel’s daughter ate a steak but not one leaf of the attendant salad: just the meat: ONLY the meat. The rest had pizzas – protein, washed down by high fructose corn syrup – the general cause of the American obesity epidemic (otherwise known as the products of the evil Coca Cola corporation), or pasta. I managed to find a pasta without meat – but the seafood pasta had no vegetables either, except that tiny scrap of parsley… It hurt to watch that plate of untouched salad – with two more precious nibbles of parsley – go back to the kitchen trash bin, it really did. I nearly asked for it, but sometimes even I balk at the rudeness of such implied criticism of my hosts’ diet. If I’d been in a less critical, objurgatory mood I might have carried it off with a joke, but the joke’s gone out of me for a day or two at the vexations I feel.

DAY 66. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 11th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

Tonight finds me a much happier man. The reason is in the line above. I am back in Lesotho which, every time I visit, gets better. I am SO cheerful to be back. Within minutes Lesotho works its magic. Moments after entering the country I felt my spirits lighten and the smile spread over my face.

Why is this? It just has to be the collective personality of the Basotho people. There’s something VERY special about them.

This time I came by public transport. I rode the red bike to Johan, the mechanic’s, place quite close to Steven’s bungalow in Bloem-suburbia and he was kind enough to give me a lift to town, for no white South African would consider abandoning another white man to the ‘black taxi’ system that moves the vast majority of the people around that increasingly bizarre country. I then walked into the unimaginable hell of most white South Africans’ imagination: the downtown bus station. Only black people go there and I was warned several times from the tourist office onward to ‘take care’. This paranoia, for that’s all it is, pervades white society here. Black people en masse are a terror and danger to be avoided or seen only from behind centrally locked 4X4 window glass – as infrequently as possible. Why? Ignorance. The unknown frightens most people…

I plunged in, a confident walk and a smile on my face. What is there to be afraid of? It’s ten in the morning on a bright sunny day in streets full of people just going about their business. I take the same care that I would take in Leeds on a busy morning: no more is necessary. I asked my way pleasantly and was shown my direction politely and helpfully. Like many others, I was just there to find the right minibus to the place I wanted to go.

And as for those minibuses that terrify the whites so much? Well, I have travelled in a lot of Africa now and have to say that the black taxi system of South Africa is the safest I have seen. The long wheel base minibuses are regulated, have decent tyres, doors that close without wire and pliers, window glass in all the places it should be, no holes in the floors to watch the road race by and they have maximum capacity numbers that are adhered to. There’s no tower of goods lashed to a bent roof or hanging out the back, for if there’s luggage it goes in a trailer behind. ‘Licensed to carry 21 seated passengers’, said an etched perspex sign behind the driver. And 21 we were. In Ghana – and a lot of the rest of Africa – we’d have been more like 40, with babies, goats, merchants’ trade goods, bowls, boxes, sacks, chickens and all the paraphernalia of African life packed around us and under our feet. We each had a seat. In necessity we could all have reached the emergency exit without climbing over one another and the driver was good, the road smooth and the other drivers well regulated too. There is NOTHING to be afraid of – in the vehicles or in the well organised bus depot. What’s more, the 80 mile ride cost only £4.35. Other passengers greeted me politely and then mostly dozed off as we waited the mysterious but obligatory African hour (it could have been three or four!) before the driver actually takes off and starts the journey, only to pull into the first petrol station en route to fill up the vehicle. Then we bowled along over the flat Free State scenery, with sunflower fields beginning to rotate bright flower heads to the sun, towards the distant mountains of the little kingdom. Quite acceptable Sesotho music blared from the loudspeakers over my head. At least it wasn’t American ‘Motown’, shite or ugly Afrikaans country ballads.

*

Less than two hours brought us to the Maseru Bridge border, where we unfolded ourselves and went through immigration efficiently, and walked across the international bridge over an insignificant river into Lesotho. I decided to keep on walking, knowing Maseru city centre to be only about a mile off. Within moments I was engaged in conversation with three young women walking my way, wanting to know where ‘daddy’ was going. I began to smile again. I was back in Africa – and in one of the continent’s best corners.

Sure enough, a brief but hot walk brought me to the small city and into Kingsway, its main thoroughfare. It’s a modern street of unappealing office blocks and shops, interspersed with government offices and an occasional old colonial-style building or ragged park. The taxis hoot incessantly and irritatingly and people, catching my eye, smiled back with a quiet greeting.

As I walked a pretty young woman fell into step beside me and addressed me. I didn’t hear her, so she touched my arm and repeated herself. “Can I walk with you? Do you mind?” Smartly dressed, wearing one of the odd felt cloche hats that are fashionable here, carrying files under her arm, we walked along together. She was Nthatuoa, with a sort of pause between the t and the u and the vowels all sounded separately. Studying to be a chartered accountant, now in her first year, she comes from Leribe, a town to the north, where her sister and single mother live. Faultless English, well educated and typically polite, she wouldn’t call me by my name for that would be disrespectful to an older person. “No, I must address you as ‘daddy’!” she told me winsomely. Her studies are subsidised by the state and she will only be expected to pay back 50% of her student loan, which seems remarkably liberal and sensible.

I needed a drink and invited her into a nearby cafe for a fruit juice, which she timidly accepted. “Oh, you like to read!” she exclaimed seeing books as I opened my bag, having asked for her photo (!). “Oh, I like to read too! I will give you my book. It is very good, even though I haven’t quite finished it yet. She pulled out a lurid blue volume entitled something like ‘Following God and the battle against Satan’ with many exclamation marks and many endorsements on the cover. I took the book with a serious face and read the rear cover blurb and managed to persuade her that perhaps she should finish reading it herself as I had plenty to read just now, although I was very touched that she wanted to give her book to me. Phew! I was touched too.

She showed me the minibus to Roma and then quietly slipped away with a light touch, to get her own transport home. The meeting was very sweet and I was quietly reminded of the charm and compassion of her people, all within minutes of entering the country. We had spent an engaging three quarters of an hour walking through the calm city centre. I had a huge smile on my face as I climbed into the minibus to Roma, a smile that attracted my neighbour on the journey, a smart middle aged business woman, to chat all the way to Roma about her country, a subject that I find easy.

*

Back to the Trading Post guest house, friendly greetings, “Eh, where is your motorbike?” and a different rondavel tonight, ‘my room’ being occupied. Some welcome beers with Chris, the elderly (he’s actually two years younger than me in years, but several older in everything else!) gay, communist academic from the nearby university. He’s a double first from Oxford and is quite brilliant, but his drink and fags problem gets no better as he downs the better part of two bottles of wine and puffs at a packet of cigarettes as he sits in the garden, where he finds congenial international company as a rule. Then supper with a pleasant medley of travellers, all of whom seem to have discovered Lesotho by some sort of accident, rather than by ambition. ‘The World’s Best Kept Travel Secret’ retains its magic. By now, of course, I am a pretty knowledgable source of travel advice for the country, knowing the best roads, the best sights and the best places to stay to get a taste of the magic of the little kingdom.

DAY 67. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 12th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

Gush warning: I am about to wax enthusiastic once again about Lesotho!

*

There can be NOWHERE in the world like Lesotho. Nowhere… Well, I’ve travelled almost half the world and I never found anywhere else like this, so I set myself up as a pretty good judge.

I ask you: is there anywhere else in this wonderful, various, diverse world where an old (well, middle aged!) white geezer (probably more red, in actual fact) could go into a student bar and not only be accepted, but welcomed and even chatted with? I honestly doubt it. These are people comfortable with themselves, with a strong cultural identity and masses of social skills. People all day have engaged me in conversation: schoolchildren, students, old men, young women – everyone. And everyone, without exception has returned my greetings with a wide smile. My own smile was fixed inanely on my face the whole day until my face aches.

But those students – how remarkable! I had been walking in the hot, very hot, sun for hours and needed a drink. And this being Lesotho, I knew that bumbling into a noisy bar opposite the university gates would be as much fun as anywhere. I bought a large bottle of Maluti beer and bagged the only welded seat I could see that had four legs in the hot yard outside. Within moments I was surrounded by young students. “Sorry, I’ve got the seat, and I’m keeping it!” I joked, as they balanced on broken remnants of steel chairs under the thatched palaver hut. They were cheerful, friendly and very respectful. Most of the group were just out of high school and involved in the application process for the national university, a vibrant place of 1000 students that brings life to this small town, dominated by its Catholic presence. Their friends circulated, all greeting me, usually with the fist to fist greeting popular amongst younger Africans. They were very charming.

Some time later I walked on, with waves and fist greetings from lots of the students. Further down the road I stopped again at the ‘Speakeasy bar’, where once again, as I drank a small can this time, I was engaged in conversation by students enjoying the start of their weekend. And everywhere I walked, all day, on dusty lanes and the main road, I was greeted and many people instigated conversations. I had a delightful day!

*

The woman with whom I travelled from Maseru yesterday told me that high above the town, on top of the red-brown cliffs and bald rocks that stand over this valley I would find an extensive plateau and views of the countryside. I managed to find a rough track and scramble up the escarpment in the hot sun. As I neared the top, I heard voices, and as I breasted the last ridge and saw with astonishment the large stretch of green downland, I found a couple of shepherd boys beneath the only scrappy tree on the whole plateau. Their sheep and cows were in the sunny distance as they relaxed in the shred of shade, laughing as I sweated into view.

There is a whole unexpected landscape up there, about a mile long and a quarter wide, ringed by steep drops of bald pink rock falling away to the valleys below. Over it all the sky made its usual vast dome, a very few, very white clouds scattered above distant horizons. The Lesotho mountains strode away, blue and grey, in every direction. The huge rolling meadow was green from the recent rains and pocked by red termite mounds. The sun beat down and a gentle breeze, released by the falling away of the steep cliffs that I had negotiated, provided a little welcome cool air. The light had that blueness of mountains and the air was crystal and clean.

*

I walked the length of the plateau. To the north an arm of the pink granite stretched out in a promontory and I saw that I could find a way down there, onto a saddle over which ran a dusty trail and where sat a large ugly galvanised water tank for the town below. The razor wire round the tank had been cut away so that schoolchildren (and a white ‘daddy’) could fill their water bottles from a small leak. As I approached I saw many children, neatly dressed, of secondary school age, straggling up the path from the western side onto the ridge. “Where are you all going?” I asked them.

“We are going home from school, daddy.”

“Where is your school?” For I could see no buildings on the hillside.

“Why, that’s our school!” they exclaimed, pointing far across the intervening valley to some distant buildings on a far slope. They must have been a dusty mile away. “Wow!” I exclaimed, “you have a LONG walk!”

“Yes, and in winter too!” They were walking from the distant secondary school, across the wide valley, up the dusty hill to the saddle where we stood. And then the lucky ones were a bit more than half way home. “But some of us live there!” and some children pointed to a village, distant beyond the town of Roma below us on the other side. Twice a day, what’s more! European children just have no idea! These young people walk at least two or three miles each way, over a three or four hundred foot dusty pass to school every day. And back again. But school is important to them. It really is. In time many of those children will be attending the university below, and perhaps enjoying shared bottles of beer (for no one had their own) in the scruffy beer bars opposite the university gates.

*

And so passes another day, filled with smiling welcoming people. This country is unique. “Our only problem is we are surrounded by South Africa…” said an economics student. “If we want to go anywhere, we must first go to South Africa. We are smaller than almost all the South African provinces.”

“But South Africans don’t like to work,” complained a colleague. “Basotho people work!”

“Look at their history,” I pointed out. “For perhaps 100 years black people in that country, mostly they were forced to work and they knew there would be no more reward if they worked hard or not. Why should they bother? That’s now part of their cultural memory.”

“Those days are past now,” argued a student practically.

But I’m not so sure. It seems to me apartheid is largely an economic condition now, and the laziness and accusations of being dependant on ‘hand-outs’ will take a long time to mend, and a lot more very visible incentives to hard work will need to be seen – while the politicians line their nests, buy new jets, construct glorious palaces and swimming pools (as fire-fighting precautions!) and don’t deliver clean water and basic amenities to their people – and the rich get richer, and white people still own a disproportionate percentage of the country’s assets. Why work, when so few of the benefits accrue to the workers?

Lesotho never suffered the divisive evils of apartheid and few colonial white men invaded their little – apparently worthless – kingdom to seize the land for themselves to keep in perpetuity. It’s a problem they don’t have to wrestle with, although they have plenty of others.

But several of my new student friends know they will probably end up working in the neighbouring country. There’s more money and more employment than in their own small kingdom, despite the strong national identity and racial harmony. They will be forced to suffer the prejudices of both black and white South Africans. Their reputation for hard work, as with Zimbabweans in South Africa, will make them unpopular amongst the blacks who foster and promote their past grievances but acceptable among the whites who prefer to employ outsiders rather than engage with their own countrymen and know that they cannot offer permanency of employment to these foreigners.

*

Back at the Trading Post (which is how this guest house started life, started by one of the few white Basotho families, and it continues to serve as a local outlet) I seem to be pretty much alone tonight, dinner cooked for me on my own by cheerful Sophie, sporting a fine woven grass hat tonight and wanting another photo. It’s so difficult with these African women: the wigs they wear can make such huge differences to their looks and make recognition such a problem. I only later realised that I already had Sophie in my camera – looking like someone else entirely! Still, we were both happy to have another portrait.

Last night I battled heat and mosquitoes, sweating beneath the duvet cover – having extracted the duvet! A DUVET! And it’s at least 30 degrees during the night. I am hard pressed to even sleep under a sheet! I’ve sprayed the room tonight and hope for better comfort under the thatch of the circular roof.

A lovely day. Another lovely day. I am so happy to be in Lesotho. I am often asked if I would live in Africa. In Lesotho I might…

DAY 68. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 13th, 2016. ROMA, LESOTHO

Well, dear reader, if you’ve read this far, you could probably make a pretty good stab at what I am going to write tonight! Not the detail maybe, but the sentiment. For it’s been another day in Lesotho, the Kingdom in the Sky; the best kept travel secret; the Roof of Africa; the smile capital of the world – my personal Number One.

*

I joined a mobile disco to Maseru. The minibuses here aren’t quite so well regulated as those of South Africa, but they are pretty good – just a few flapping bits in the roof lining and the odd patch on the seat covers. But the instruments work, the doors close, the police keep an eye on any overcrowding, the machines, in general, work. The driving – from inside – isn’t bad. As another road user it is pretty irritating as the minibuses will pull over without warning if they espy a potential customer or to drop a passenger. The efforts they will make to catch a passenger are impressive. I was seen approaching from at least 300 yards away and the conductor began to shout and gesticulate. No way was I going to run: there’d be another along within a minute or two, so I continued my saunter down the hill, waving them off. The minibus started accelerating in reverse up the dust track to collect me, all the other passengers resigned to this activity. You arrive when you arrive… ‘No hurry in life’: I have seen the slogan emblazoned across many minibuses (trotros) in Ghana. An African philosophy that on the whole I find healthy.

*

This morning I was thinking that I am not very good at ‘killing time’, a concept I abhor. But I have no choice just now, and I can think of nowhere I would rather be forced into it, and nowhere where it is easier to do – in a pleasurable, constructive manner.

Once again, the Basotho came up trumps and chatted to me everywhere and smiles and welcomes abounded. Checking out the small city centre war memorial park, with its unusually dated memorials to the 1914-1919 war as well as a larger memorial to the Second World War, plaques that held, I estimated, about 1300 names, the majority ‘native’ forces, I spotted a signpost to the Royal Palace at the end of a nearby residential street. A block away I found the large gates to the royal enclosure, one gate standing open, held by a chunk of broken cement. It all seemed pretty casual but of course military guards came forward – smiling – to see who I was. Then ensued a half hour conversation through the gate with charming Temba, a junior army officer on guard for his monarch. We had a lively, intelligent, wide ranging conversation, for he was curious to know much about European mores and lifestyle. He was particularly concerned to question how marriage – in the religious sense – is losing relevance and wondered how morality could be maintained without the influence of religion. How odd indeed to be having a discussion of the relative merits of secular and religious moral patterns through the gates of the royal palace of the kingdom of Lesotho. The humour wasn’t lost on me.

Temba was also concerned to talk of the very high incidence of AIDS and HIV in Lesotho – a subject that often comes up as great concern in this land with such appalling statistics.

For Lesotho has the second highest AIDS/ HIV infection rates in the world, after Swaziland and equal to Botswana. When you look at the statistics, it seems that southern Africa leads the statistics, reducing as you move northwards away from this part of this continent. Swaziland 27%, Lesotho, Botswana 23, South Africa 18, Zimbabwe 15, Namibia and Zambia 13, Mozambique and Malawi 11 – then next in world ratings comes Uganda at 7%, Kenya and Guinea at 6, Tanzania, Cameroon, Central African Republic 5, Gabon and Guinea Bissau at a mere 4% – and the rest of the world below 3%.

An estimated 360,000 people in Lesotho live with AIDS/ HIV, out of a population of a bit over two million. There are an estimated 150,000 orphans. Sadly, the infection rate starts young too, with 10.5% of 15-24 year old girls and almost 6% of the same age boys already infected. Gender inequity is blamed for much of the incidence (62.5% of Basotho men think it is their RIGHT to threaten or beat their women for refusal of sex) but there’s also a woeful knowledge gap, despite education levels being high here at 76% literacy (with women considerably more literate than men, but that might be a product of so many boys being expected to be herds-boys in rural areas?).

Temba was worried by the conundrum of the fact that infection rates are higher in the cities, he claimed, where information exposure and awareness is so much greater than in the rural villages where education is much more rudimentary. I suggested that Africa’s dual problems of largely irresponsible men and their inability to limit alcohol intake probably explain much of the differential (later confirmed by the gender inequity figures above), and I personally wonder whether the absence of SHAME in the cities, amongst looser communities, may make a very big difference. I have watched this in Navrongo, Ghana for almost three decades: the erosion of shame as a controlling emotion and brake on antisocial behaviour as family and community ties weakened; as outside media’s relaxed moral codes strengthened and young people increasingly gained their moral guidelines from cheap TV; as the old morality tales were seen to be just folk tales, however well they had guided social behaviour for centuries. Becoming a ‘market’ for shameless multinational materialist corporations has added so many social pressures too.

Whatever the causes, the disease is holding back development and every aspect of Lesotho life. Life expectancy at birth is now less than 49 years and all economic wealth is stifled by the terrible statistics of this disease. Retroviral drugs are available to some but largely at the behest of donors and obviously more available to those with knowledge and access to towns. There are very many deaths each year caused by HIV/ AIDS related illnesses. 150,000 orphans now being cared for – or in many cases, having to be carers themselves for – grandparents, or having to care for younger siblings, has untold social and economic costs.

*

Eventually the strong sun got the better of me as I stood at the palace gates and I had to excuse myself from the charming Temba and find some shade. At last, and I have searched Maseru on various visits for a bar or hotel with a garden, I found the Rendezvous Restaurant hidden behind some large modern buildings. A smart restaurant with a tiled yard and umbrellas, it was just what I searched for, intending a cup of coffee and maybe a light snack – for with the exchange rate I can afford even the most luxurious venues. (A beer and a rather tasty chicken salad cost me less than£3, including a reasonably generous tip!).

“Oh, I think I’ll have a beer! I don’t usually take alcohol at lunchtime, but it IS Saturday after all!” I pondered to Pulane, the cheerful waitress. “Well, actually, I took a beer yesterday as well…”

“Ah, well THAT was Friday!” she joked, picking up my emphasis and tone. It’s so good to be able to joke on equal terms here. In South Africa, Pulane, as waitress to a white man, would have been automatically subservient and wouldn’t have dared to cheek me so accurately and humorously as she walked away with a toss of her head and a laugh.

I toyed – very briefly – with an item on the menu called, ‘Norway Special’. It turned out to be: ‘fish fingers, served with tartare sauce, lightly fried chips and a garden salad’! Norway Special… Haha.

*

There’s so much human kindness amongst the Basotho. I notice that in the minibuses many people chatter to each other. They act respectfully and generously to their neighbours and there is little apparent aggression or selfishness of behaviour. They are patient and polite, paragons in this competitive world. I see no arguments and hear few raised voices. Maybe I have turned up the filters on my rosy specs to a blinding degree, but I think I am making accurate observations. Why else would I feel so content and comfortable here? Why would I be smiling so much? And why would I have so many, so very many, conversations with complete strangers?

*

I found areas of the central market that I have missed on other occasions and here again was engaged for an hour or more in many different, courteous, equal exchanges. Gunjah – a nickname referencing ganja or marijuana – is a reggae musician; his brother, Molefingane, (Elias) a plumber and woodworker with a creative bent. Their friend, who was happily drunk and easily tolerated by the brothers, periodically dozed off, lolling on a battered easy chair in the corner, his bottle of appallingly cheap wine now empty. It was late Saturday afternoon and they were relaxing in their untidy booth in a corner of the market, ready to welcome a passing white daddy for entertainment. Other traders stopped what they were doing to show me – modestly – their handiwork and wares, all ready just to chatter as I passed. Sadly, no one makes wooden spoons any more. “Why, I don’t even have any at home now!” exclaimed a fat matron with surprise, selling hand made clay pots and grass brushes when I explained my only collection wishes.

*

So back by ‘taxi’, as the minibuses are called, to Roma, fifteen miles distant and a slow, uncomfortable journey as we toured the city centre drumming up enough passengers to make the ride worthwhile – and me unfortunately on the sunny side of the vehicle. It’s quite fun not to have my own wheels for a few days and to take life at the pace of Lesotho; not to be concerned about parking, wearing my hot and heavy clothing, to be always passing by. For a time I have to be intimate with Basotho people and their lifestyles, suffer the same discomforts and laugh at the same events with my neighbours and enjoy their curiosity and conversation.

No, I didn’t kill time in the end: the Basotho breathed life into it all day long.

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