Published in Africa Geographic, October 2004
I was shocked. And immediately shocked at being shocked. What had passed through my mind was: “What, join this queue of Africans? And get on the same bus?” This was 1976 and we had just crossed the border into Lesotho. That part was easy. Crossing the cultural border after two years in South Africa was much harder. I was disgusted at how quickly I had slipped into the “Whites/non-Whites” mentality.
Within a day, however, we had rejoined the human race. Public transport was scarce, the roads rutted and slick with rain, and we re-established our old backpacker habit of sharing our seats and our food with fellow travellers, most memorably on the road between Mantsonyane and Thaba-Tseka. We were riding on the back of a lorry transporting flour and dried milk for the Save the Children Fund; evening was falling and we were huddled against the cold when the vehicle slid to a halt at an alarming angle. We jumped out and saw that the rear wheel had completely disappeared in yellow, sticky clay. No help would be available until the following day, so while the crew unloaded the cargo we cooked up some soup for them on our backpacker stove before pitching our little tent. They walked off to the nearest village to find help.
We were woken the next morning by shouts and the lowing of cattle. The crew had returned with six oxen which, after a chaotic scene resembling a rodeo, pulled the lorry free with a satisfying slurp. The men also had bread and milk, and we sat down together to share this breakfast before reloading the cargo and continuing on our way.
When we reached the end of the road we started walking. One evening, after a particularly tiring day, we struggled into a village and asked to speak to the headman for permission to camp nearby. Chief Frank introduced himself and said “Please be condescended to accompany me to my most respectable home”. We were dumbfounded. Frank explained that he had visited the United States as part of a UN delegation when he was an MP some years ago. It was hard for us to imagine this cosmopolitan man living in a traditional hut some three days walk from the nearest road, but his was a hut with a difference. Modern, western furniture was arranged on the carefully swept dirt floor, and a carpet and curtains for the glazed windows gave it a homely feeling.
As we sipped our maize beer he chatted to us about Lesotho. “Our biggest export is men”, he told us. “Many, many Basotho work in South Africa’s mines.” “How awful for them to go from the freedom of Lesotho to apartheid in South Africa”, I commented. Frank’s eyes flashed with anger. “Don’t tell me how my people should feel! The money is good. It is their choice.”
The uneasy atmosphere was broken by the arrival of a beautiful teenage girl wearing a white petticoat. “Ah” he said, “This is my daughter, The Queen”. “And what’s her name?” “I told you – The Queen. She will dance for you”. More teenagers appeared, some carrying drums and whistles. A dozen girls knelt on the ground in front of us and the drums began to beat. The dance began simply, almost imperceptibly, in their head movements. Gradually the rhythm moved down into their bodies, and became stronger; a beautifully sensuous dance. Then The Queen had her solo. All movement was concentrated on her body, shoulders and long, curved neck. The hips and head stayed motionless. While we watched, mesmerised, the setting sun touched the scene with orange and turned the distant mountains purple.
I felt a surge of happiness. This was Africa and the entire continent lay ahead of us. For the next eleven months we would depend on the kindness of Africans and occasionally we could give something back in return. Not physically, perhaps, but in appreciation and understanding.
© Hilary Bradt