Friday, February 18, 2011

Lesotho: Africa's Mountain Kingdom

I'm working for a couple of days in Maseru, the capital of the small mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.  No matter which direction one drives from Maseru one will be in South Africa within a short period of time. It is approximately the same size as Maryland and has about 2 million inhabitants. It's a pretty little kingdom with mountains and valley all around.  It is quite warm this time of the year, but gets cold in the winter and even snows.  It is the only country in the world which is entirely above 1400 meters and may be the only country in all of Africa with a ski resort.

The first King was Moshoeshoe I and the current King is Letsie III.
Being King  is largely a ceremonial job with political power invested in the elected government. But the Lesothoians seem to enjoy the status of being called a kingdom. My principal local contact in the embassy is a Moshoeshoe and a member of the royal family.  He told me that he and the family don't carry royal titles like the British but that he is simply called chief as a courtesy. 

Although the country is verdant green and seems very peaceful, 40 percent of the population fall under the UNESCO poverty line with per capita income less than $1.50 per day. Property crime is common and there are other problems, not the least of which is the "Chinese invasion."  It's not a military action, but an economic and cultural one that is affecting many other African countries as well. Apparently with the blessing of the Lesotho Government (under the table payments are alleged), the Chinese have been buying up small businesses and then emigrating to Lesotho to run them. Apparently they can even get Lesotho citizenship after a short time. (And I would be surprised if the Chinese Government didn't encourage many of its citizens to move to Africa, not only to support its foreign policy goals but to relieve population pressures in the homeland).
Here are a few related links:

To expand on this issue as an Africa-wide phenomenon: the US and European press has published many recent articles about growing Chinese influence in, and emigration to Africa and China's success in gaining access to markets and key minerals ( During our years in Africa, we observed growing Chinese and Asian influence in culture and the arts. While they provide some development aid, they may get more "bang for their buck" with the local population by funding and constructing prominent cultural and public buildings and through touring cultural groups from home.  In Lesotho a new Chinese-funded parliament house ( is nearing completion. When we lived in Yaounde, Cameroon we attended a free public performance by impressive Chinese acrobats which was was positively reported on by the press and very popular with the locals at all levels. In competing with the Chinese, the Japanese built a beautiful Opera House in Cairo which we visited many time during our 3 years there ( and which Cairenes are now very proud of.  In those days the US worked hard to compete on the cultural front with the US Information Service sending many American artists and musicians abroad. However USIS was subsequently merged into the State Department as a cost-cutting measure and funding for touring groups seems to have dried up. Perhaps the feeling today is that American culture is so prevalent in the media that there is no need for a people-to-people approach to culture.

I will be leaving Lesotho this afternoon to spend the three-day American holiday weekend in Namibia, prior to working in the capital of Windhoek next week.

Addendum - 18 Feb 10:30 p.m.
There is something about small country government officials wearing uniforms that makes them feel really important.  As I departed the Lesotho Airport this afternoon, the middle-aged woman who carried out the security searches really felt very important: she carefully handled every item in my carry-on and when she came to my prescription medications, she asked to see the doctor's letter giving me permission to have them.  I was completely flabbergasted and told her that in all my years of traveling no one had ever asked for such a letter.  She said it was required by Lesotho law.  When I showed her that my prescriptions were affixed to the outside of the containers with my name on them, she thought long and hard and then decided to let me through, but only because I had an official US Government passport. The customs official on arrival was just as "thorough."  Although he was the only one on duty with a line of at least 80 arriving passengers, he took his good time to carefully inspect every passport detail, including stamps from other countries.  I'm glad I was near the front because the guy at the end stood in line for at least an hour. 

And you might find this editorial from today's Lesotho Times interesting entitled "What Happened to Patriotism?"  It highlights a current debate in Lesotho as to whether the citizens are better off in an independent small country with a very limited economic base or whether their lives would be better if they were absorbed by South Africa.

1 comment:

Hugh said...

Hi, Paul;

You're awesome.

I've enjoyed your travelogue.

I'll see you soon,