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Lesotho Thoughts, 1987 and 1988 by Allan Searle
Lesotho Thoughts, 1987 and 1988 by Allan Searle
Rain pounces upon bare upland loam; it swiftly washes suspended clay particles to lower land. Years and rainstorms hence the highvelds distil as droughty sterile subsoil sands and valleys harbor an excess of clays. The consequence of abundant clay is poor aeration and drainage that puts a damper on crop growth. Water stood above the clay in ‘Me Mamahajane’s lowland tomato patch far too many weeks. Rapid run-off from upland encouraged a ten meter deep canyon to swallow a portion of ‘Ntate Hlalele’s bean sanctuary.
The uplands can embrace rainwater, fondle it, and gather it into shrouded depths; vegetation engenders just this. In those phantom grassland ecologies of prior dawn run-off was quaffed by the dense grass mulch or the decaying organic litter. It didn't p1unge briskly downhill! The soil had structure and aggregation from bacteria, soil fauna, roots, etc. Soil was accumulating. Root forests and spaces lingering where roots decayed, channeled and escorted water into the deep soil. Root systems of different species toyed with groundwater of various horizons. Some grass roots were active fifteen meters below the surface. All slowed water’s migration to a creep. Underground pools dawdle upon bedrock. Underground creeks ran downslope on inclined bedrocks. Where this parent stone approached the soil periphery downhill, the creek would erupt as a spring.
Upland soils with thick vegetation fetter and liberate water, so there is not too much in some (flood) years nor too little in other (drought) years. If this is not common knowledge, we are apt to hear a lot of cloud cursing; flood and drought are two sides of the same coin.
Recently, I was inquiring about local land-use history from an elder. As others have uttered, all donga growth was rapid and extensive in the past fifty years. However, this time I gazed at the plateau rising from the fields and asked about vegetation prior to donga formation. Abundant poplar trees were entirely cut for firewood. Tall undesirable grasses were burnt off the slopes and bushes removed for fuel. Although there is still vegetation used as pasture, the gullies testify that there is clearly not enough. Fields continually cropped in maize and sorghum monocultures act as a major ingredient of erosion. The root structures of these two plants scantly foster water penetration in typical agricultural schemes. Sorghum, because it is planted at a greater density and because it survives dry conditions better, is somewhat less of an erosional force. It is true that overgrazing, which stunts root development and over-all propagation of grasses, is an immense factor of Lesotho’s accelerated liquid aspect of the hydraulic cycle. Still, a lot of development people tend to overlook cropping patterns, often with plough pans, winter fallow, and the like as a key element in the erosional process.
So, there is a great need to increase vegetative cover beginning with higher elevations. Yet at the same time both the people population and its intimately linked animal population (dowry, status, and celebration) continue to rise, demanding more from less. To impose radical ideas on the landscape may brush off the familiarity Basotho have with certain work and dietary staples. Soon the herdboys will be pulling all-nighters to allow their cows to graze extra just before plowing (at precisely the time of year when over-grazing is most damaging to a pasture). So there is a binding, not only to what needs to be done and how to do it, but also to when it needs to be done. Ultimately, projects need not accept these boundaries but must try to supply basic food and fit with existing labor patterns.
Unfortunately, development projects rarely address the needs of the Basotho directly. Without intercepting run-off water, gabbions only act to change the path of a donga. Clay dust in your eyes from fallowed land in August is another symptom of the same problem. The parallel to the gabbion solution would be to give everyone sunglasses with windshield wipers. Also, without upland water interception a villager may be visiting her spring when—bingo—suddenly it goes dry. It's time to call Mr. R. with his witching wand to locate a nice scenic spot to drill a borehole. But even that will go dry, often within 2-5 years, because the aquifer is not undergoing recharge.
Continuous maize cropping should shift to something like wheat/fodder rotations, preferably intercropped with dispersed trees. Education should include a study of the current destruction caused by domestic animals. Grass and legumes sown for restored pasture and waterways should be of mixed species. A monoculture pasture may die off at any given time leaving the area open to sheet erosion. Leguminous trees such as Acacia or Locust could provide non-overgrazable fodder as well as nitrogen fixation. Many are those advocating pines and eucalypts; at maturity these invite erosion by stunting unaccustomed undergrowth and grass by soil acidification and allelopathy respectively. Not only this, but because fruits, nuts, fodder, and medicines are not overwhelmingly forthcoming from these trees, they are often harvested for firewood leaving exposed soil.
In June I saw a silhouette of a man whose hands were raised and open and a peculiar crescent shape floated above his head. To his right, yet beyond, poised some predatory cats of an ecosystem with diverse grazing herbivores and, furthermore, diverse and copious plant life. Only I was to turn around to attest to an area almost lifeless. In this place near the center of Quthing, it would be harder than usual to imagine the ecology in which the man I just saw dwelt. Such is the imagery process that bushman paintings always coax from me; I was on a camping trip.
From Quthing, Patrick and I were to pursue a defined goal (head south) and to bring provisions according to an attitude of deliberate irresponsibility. Our footprints left in snow led over a number of mountains. One morning Pat was concocting the ultimate fire to brew the coffee. We were conversing with an old man who spent all, save 3 weeks of each year, in his sloping high-altitude valley. He had no clue of his age, but he spoke at length upon, among other things, his environment. He interrupted only occasionally to launch full Sesotho sentences at sheep near a distant watercourse. Check it out—the sheep had command of the language! Anyhow, he spoke of the baboons, two varieties of jackal, and aggressive snakes for which he produced anti-venom for us. He mentioned a plant that sheep would eat and die. An awesome conservation species I was thinking.
From there we climbed Mt. Tsepe (gold?!) through the area of dense flora in an effort to mend the Irish man’s snake-deprived childhood. On top of this we met the most beautiful, intense escarpment, but we realized going further south would be courting death. Suddenly west was sounding excellent and we descended with the escarpment down and down. Part of the path was reminiscent of Knifes-edge on Maine’s Mt. Katadyn.
Down and around a few more mountains, into a valley, and indeed a village characterized by very large diameter rondavels, thick thatching, and impressive stonework. One Mesotho lived in what looked to me like a traditional Zulu hut, but that was an exception. It was late afternoon, yet everybody was asking how we woke up. There were wooded lots and tall, thick headed grasses strip cropped in wide bands in fields yet elsewhere growing freely. We were following a path by a clear river speaking Sesotho or attempting Sexhosa as the case might be. This valley bore 4 major languages (Sesotho, Sexhosa, Sephuti and another). The women were shy and often donning ankle bracelets, large head dress, and painted faces. We camped in a fairly natural area beneath a moon with an enormous hallo and the drifting Milky Way.
At 3 a.m. we were freezing. Pat starts foraging through his "rucksack" (backpack) looking for his "porridge" (jungle oats) to heat on the stove (empty tuna can plus mentholated spirits). It warmed us enough to doze off again. Rising with the sun, I take a walk. I was wandering in a sea of life unburdened by population pressures of humans and their beasts. Grasses dominated the north facing (sun) slopes, while across the river: tree, bush, and herbaceous flora endured. Here there seemed to be tangible evidence that the past has many answers to development. I was wondering just how far the past was away from us.
Joseph, a tall man, brought us to a cave downstream. There were dancing figures amongst large herbivores [or a large herbivore]. There were many archers crouched for a hunt. The painting wall was vivid and alive. A sunlit waterfall glittered in flux next to the cave. Sunlight was dancing through the leaves and upon the river. "Baroa," I asked, "when were they last here?" "The last was a little man," Joseph said slightly waving his hand to an opposing hill," he died in 1970."
Miners from Lesotho work 6 days per week, 8-10 hours per day, and some work 11 months per year in South Africa. Some work 12 months per year for 3 years then take a year off; they make about US $40/month or US $440/year. After 30 years, they can get a pension, but few make it to that point; men seem to die in their forties.