Night school makes you a man

IN CONVERSATION WITH: Herd boy Julius Mojoro, 32, from Semonkong, Quiting, Lesotho.

During the summer months, I wake up at 3am so I can let my livestock out on to the mountains to graze. Wrapped up in a warm tribal blanket and wearing a woolly hat against the cold, I watch over and care for my flock. My first herd was made up of 92 sheep, 26 goats, four horses, eight cows and four rams. You need a lot of energy to keep an eye on that many animals, to notice if they are ill, and to stop strangers trying to steal them. But there is no breakfast until 8am when I eat a big bowl of sour porridge called papa made from maize. Sometimes there is a little bread, too.

In winter, I start a little later, as the flocks are kept closer to the villages. But in the summer months of October to March, I go far up into the hills to find the best grass. Sometimes I’ve been away from home for months, my only company, the other herd boys who live this remote and wild life. Lesotho is called the Kingdom of the Sky, as the terrain is rugged and mountainous. It is the only country in the world where all of the land lies above 1,000m. This means, unlike the rest of Africa, we have plenty of water – but it also means the tracks are often impassable, and the weather can be extreme. It’s not unusual, in one day, to see bright sunshine followed by storms – with hailstones the size of pebbles raining down.

Julius at Semonkong

Herd boys learn to fear the weather; thunder is common. Two years ago, a rondel (house) was burnt down by lightning. Some boys have died of the cold during winter snows. But none of us have a choice. If you live in the mountains, there are few opportunities for work, and nearly a third of all school-age boys and young men, from the age of five until their late teens, work full time as herd boys.

My father died when he was 22. I was only nine. Three years later my mother told me sadly that I must become a herd boy. She knew it was a difficult life, but we had no other hope of supporting the family. I didn’t want to go, but we had no food. Herd boys don’t get paid wages in money but in animals, usually four sheep and two goats per year. These animals are your family’s future so you care for them with the rest of the herd; that way, one day, you will be the famer, not the shepherd.

Herd boys are the lowest of the low in Lesotho – we are criticised and stigmatized, as we have no education, and our employers treat us almost like slaves. It is a lonely life, and there is danger from the robbers who want to steal the animals and take them over the border to South Africa. I had only been working for two months when my uncle came to me one night and warned me that my boss was a thief and the vigilantes who guard our village were going to sort him out. If I stayed with him, I would be in danger too. I hadn’t been paid but I had to run away for my own safety; I was terrified.

During the day, there may be work to do on the land, ploughing the fields using oxen, or harvesting by hand. But mostly we spend the daylight hours wandering the veldt. It is lonely and boring. I think about food quite a bit.If you have a dog, you can use it to catch hares, which occasionally dart across your path. When that happens, I’ll skin the hare, fry it and eat it straight away. Sometimes, I’ll use a line to catch a fish. Lesotho rivers are full of fat trout but they’re hard to catch. You’re hungry all the time. I’ve even eaten the dog’s food before now. At about 7pm, I collect up my animals and take them to their pen. We eat more papa; we’re always starving. When you need to sleep, if you are too far from your village, you look for a cattle-post: these are small shelters sometimes made of corrugated iron, or dug into the earth. Basothi people are tall so we have to crawl into the shelters to sleep, and lie on sheepskins to stay warm. There are usually rats crawling around. Not very pleasant.

When I was 15, I sold two sheep so that I could pay school fees (senior school education in Lesotho is mostly private), and buy boxes of biscuits to sell to my fellow students. My mother was very pleased with me but when I was 18, I had to leave school and find a way to pay for my younger sister to start. I spent six months cutting grass in South Africa, before coming home to the mountains, and trying to set up a small shop and a farm of my own, too, while herding again. In the classrooom; Julius with a studentBut my real passion had become education. I started teaching 60 herd boys at night school in Semonkong village. The building is old and needs a new roof, but it’s a start. We’re supported by the British charity Sentebale set up by Prince Harry. I was happy to meet him when he visited Lesotho.

School starts at about 7.30pm, when the work is done, and some boys walk for up to two hours to reach us. We make them a hot meal of papa and work for two hours. The youngest boys (and occasionally girls) are so tired they sleep at their desks instead but I don’t mind.

At first, it was depressing teaching them as many of the boys didn’t follow my instructions. They were so stubborn. So I put myself into their shoes. I reminded myself that we wore the same blanket, we had followed the same path. I tried to show them love, that there was someone who cared for them. I told them: Night school teaches you how to behave like a man and not like a wild person. As they learnt to trust me, I taught them to read and write Sesotho (the language of the Basothi), English and maths. We sing songs together and dance too and have fun. I’m kind to them, I even spoil them. I won’t treat them as I was treated.

And then after school, I’ve my own studying to do too; I’ve enrolled on an 18-month diploma course now at the University of Lesotho Kwazulu Natal in community-based work with children and young people.  Student life is great, and Sentebale pays for me to attend. I go to sleep at 10pm and never dream. I’m still a shepherd but now I am herding day and night, guarding my flock and protecting the children too.


About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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