“You take every opportunity given you in this world, even if you have too many opportunities. One day, the opportunities stop, you know.” - John Irving
29th March 2019, I’ll probably remember the date till the day I die. That’s when 'Hurricane Anne' hit Lesotho.
Having been dropped off at a garage stop by Niall and Vicki, I was transferred by an old colleague (Setempe) to his house before picking up Anne Loughran at Maseru Airport. Five hours in the company of his kids Felix and David was a lot of fun, I was dutifully entertained by the elder, Felix, until the siren calls of his friends’ soccer game won over. David who is younger has not as yet mastered English so I spent the latter part of the day watching cartoons and marvelling how the same story is repeated endlessly.
At five we picked up Anne. She was waiting with a French lady she’d met on the flight whose son had not arrived. Being Anne we were 'commanded' to stay there until he arrived!! The airport closed up, the sun was setting, I had visions of us huddling together with our bags for a night when finally he came. That’s Anne! Kind, caring but totally in control. After a fortnight with her I feel that I’m back to being a small boy whose Aunt has breezed into town and decided that my life has to be ordered!!!
The first few day’s we stayed at Morija Guest House. Now I’ve been there twice before. It’s a stunning location on the side of a large crag overlooking flatlands. Beautifully maintained and run by the nicest French woman I know. Staying there and eating is a family affair, the guests rock up for dinner, all sit at the same table and eat the same meal. It’s friendly, interesting conversation and interspersed with the guests are a few German teenagers doing a gap year helping run the local youth centre.
The walks are amazing, a real climb to the top which is a mini "table mountain”, maybe coffee table mountain. There’s a beautiful water reservoir to visit and a small number of dinosaur footprints - the well known “Lesothosaurus”, I kid you not!!! Down in the village there’s the first protestant church built in Lesotho, the royal residence is not far away and a small museum. The curator is an American called Stephen Gill who has lived in Lesotho since 1980.
The main purpose of the stay was to deliver some workshops for primary teachers in maths. Now being Lesotho this is not as easy as it sounds. We knew we had two in the Morija district but had no idea of when or where. The first thing to negotiate were the bureaucratic courtesies. Who would drive to the location, who would accompany us and whether the Education Officer would allow us to deliver. I’m not one for hierarchies so on the Monday on our drive to ask permission and show our plan, I felt a bit like Theresa May at Brussels. Obviously unlike her, my plan was good! Would they accept or reject my suggestions - what were my "red lines”? In the end I didn’t have to go through my rehearsed hissy fit and walk out. It seemed that the meeting was to tell us that because results had been bad, he would accompany us and then launch into a tirade on performance.
After the meeting at 7:30, (we’d set off at 6:00, driving in Maseru is a nightmare), Anne then went into her default Lesotho mode. Now I know that John Crace in the Guardian invented the Maybot but Anne referred to as in A.I is mine. My little robot friend immediately insisted we went to visit Lesotho College of Education. Without a hint of an invitation she breezed in and introduced herself. It was a bit like Hyacinth Bucket. People flocked from far and wide and I was carried away with the euphoria as thousands chanted "Anne, Anne". Four hours later we’d met everyone important, had seen many of her old friends, had visited a few at their homes and had two additional courses to run the week after.
Our courses were scheduled at Nazareth and in Mazenod. The first was quite a drive and as Anne’s chauffeur I was learning quickly that Lesotho roads have no rules and many pot holes and speed bumps, but also that anywhere you want to go involves a fair percentage of off tarmac travel. The course at Nazareth was aptly run in a Catholic Church, the teachers sat in the pews, we had a pair of blackboards at the front, I almost felt like writing the hymn numbers on them and asking the congregation to put them in ascending order. Sixty five participants and a lot of fun. I was told by A.I. what she would present, two Basotho friends watched and helped and the Education Officer did his spiel at the end. A quick round of polony sandwiches and squash and we were on our way.
Something that’s interesting about Anne is that she doesn’t like waiting. Course two in Mazenod was also pretty good but after we finished, the spiel took an hour and a half. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen people simmering but I got the distinct feeling that A.I. ’s circuit board was going to explode. At one point I was in a “dad” mode with my charge insisting it was time to go home as she was bored. The main difference with the course was that our two Basotho colleagues, Kwnene and Belina started taking sessions. A.I. also started to take over my operating system and introducing new elements!!! It’s been what I wanted. I need these courses to be sustainable and I’m amazed at how quickly they took on ideas and also styles of delivery. Everything we do, the content, how we present it, involving participants is an attempt to change how teachers and pupils perceive mathematics. Currently they refer to mathematics as “the monster”.
Thursday was a long drive to Semonkong, up in the hills passing beautiful scenery. On the way we stopped at Roma University to meet up with more of Anne’s friends. Semonkong our destination is horse riding country and until the road was recently improved horses were the main type of transport. Unlike most of the country you are as likely to see females on horses as males. Anne told me that the original horses came from trading oxen for them with Boers. Also that there statistics that the horses have a 90% Arabian bloodline. Some of the landscape takes your breath away. Sandstone and basalt combine to create stacks, the most famous of which are referred to as "teat mountain”. On arriving we called at the school. Again a tortuous off road drive, we parked up and sorted out where the course would be located. I honestly felt this is not going to end well. There was feeling of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was not a part of the country which had many outsiders in the local community as opposed to travellers in the touristy areas. By the next day we were faced by 38 teachers from a wide rural area. Some of these had travelled for hours to get there. After an initial getting to know you period, they relaxed, laughed, took part and were the nicest group I’ve taken. Both Belina and Kwnene took more significant roles, to be honest I think their involvement and seeing how well we get on broke the ice. Before leaving we stopped at the local health centre. Kwnene had discovered he had a “brother” who worked there. Now in Lesotho, “brother” could range from blood sibling to a form of cousin. They duly met up, recalled a funeral where they had seen each other and then chatted away for half an hour. In the meantime there was a top table with three serious looking Basotho women sitting down in front of ledgers that rose up to the sky. Undeterred by the fierce looks Anne happily fiddled around with the height measurer discovering that she’s the same height she’s been for the last 50 years!!! I tried making eye contact with the jury of gloom sitting at the table, nodded to the weighing machine and got a nod of consent. So on I hopped and discovered that I am now lighter than at any time since my forties.
We stayed at the Semonkong lodge famous for it’s abseil and donkey bar crawl! The journey down is on a gravel path which is steep, first you have to negotiate through the village which is a throwback to the wild west. Horses and donkeys parked up everywhere. There seem to be saloons with tens of them tied up outside. I think they have a regular donkey pub crawl here where you go from bar to bar on donkeys. The lodge is quaint, on a river’s edge with some beautiful views and basalt cliffs. The rooms we were allocated were at the top of the mountain 186 steps up with magnificent vistas. A.I. did not seem pleased as the walk was outside her gradient capability so we were transferred to two at the bottom. How this happened is beyond me as `I distinctly remember the guy at the desk saying there were no alternatives. Maybe A.I. can bend people’s will like a brain version Uri Geller but he suddenly said in a hypnotised state - rooms 1 and 3. Off I went to the car to drag the luggage to the rooms while Anne talked to all and sundry. By the time I was settling to sorting out my bag, there was a knock knock and A.I. asked if I minded changing rooms as mine had a better view!
All jokes aside she’s been amazing company, she charms and talks and she knows people. Actually she talks and talks and talks. I think I’m a little harder of hearing now than at the start of April. The main reason for extending the stay was to do the abseil down the falls. A 210 m horror show which is recorded as the highest tourist abseil in the world. Torrential rain stopped that, so another reason to consider a return next year.
The journey back was a brighter day, we took in Thaba Bosiu, the original Moshoeshoe fortress with a view of the Basotho Hat mountain. A spectacular walk with two options, the easy route taken by my colleagues and the original path walking in the steps of Moshoeshoe as taken by me. As I was climbing up I passed a group of Basotho students one of whom asked me if I’d give her a piggy back! There is a tradition to take a stone up as you’re walking and leave it on a pile as you reach the top. The story goes that in the 1800’s the stone was the most common form of arms and by laying down your stone you were demonstrating that you came in peace. We also stopped at Sentebale centre for orphans founded by Prince Harry and William. Dropping off Kwnene and Belina we made our way to Morija for a final night with Brigitte and her guests.
Kwnene is a primary head teacher and Belina is my friend Setempe’s wife. They have such plans for the future. I’m hopeful that the way they have built up confidence in delivering means that these courses can be maintained. We will have done 7 of the 17 clusters in Maseru district, they are easily capable of finishing the others. They have learnt the methods but more importantly how to engage teachers, to guide them and support them and encourage them. Breaking away from the telling culture. Listening to Kwnene and his vision of first delivering to all the Principals, I’m just happy that somehow we’ve stumbled across someone with a zealous approach who realises that this is about changing mindsets but leading as opposed to forcing.
Maseru is a pretty shambolic city, it’s got a central business district but outside that it’s a collection of roads, dust paths, shacks and concrete block housing. The colours are vibrant, people are friendly. It’s ruled by taxis which have their own language of horns. Beep beep is the most common sound in the city, they also have diplomatic immunity as to where they can stop. You drive behind a taxi at your peril. If there’s a hint of a potential passenger ahead you find them like carrion crow swooping towards them. We stay at the usual Guest House which is good. Staff are lovely, always chatty and smiling. They remember me from previous stays. The one exception is a chef who cannot smile. No matter how hard I’ve tried to engage there’s been a surly process of taking the breakfast order and delivering it to the table. It got to the point where I don’t ask for the second piece of toast because I feel it’s an imposition even though my scrambled egg is smaller than the cooked breakfast and I’d like one piece with the egg and one with marmalade. I kid you not this guy could work for Basil Fawlty. In breezes Anne. Every time she’s asking for some slight extra or a variation on this or that. With that comes the maiden aunt smile and a little Sesotho. Unbelievably she wore him down. I recall a smile there, not sure if it was wind but there was definitely an up-curl in the mouth. How does she do it?
The Sunday was spent in the Wales Lesotho / Dolen Cymru office for a memorial gathering for a Welsh friend of the Basotho and Dolen who tragically passed away. I can’t say I’ve ever been to such a mixed emotional gathering. There was the obvious sadness and grief, but through that came the joy of her life and contribution to these people and the associated happiness they felt from being involved in her life. The word family, sister, daughter was a constant theme. Every time it looked as if someone would break down in delivering a thought, they quickly rushed into another chorus of a hymn. Anne was a personal friend, and I was glad that I could be there to witness her contribution and the joy on her face when good memories were shared.
Within the shambolic city are a collection of neo colonial buildings, the most famous of which is now a hotel and eatery called “Lancers". Lancers is the sort of place that Anne likes and most days we would end there for a meal. Luckily for Anne, her chauffeur, Sion was happy to oblige and drive her there. We would use it as a meeting point to catch up with her friends and exchange memories. I’m not convinced about the place myself, it has an ex-pat feel but the coffee was excellent.
Our contribution to first year student teachers training was bonkers. Two hour sessions morning and afternoon to two groups of 200 Basotho. They were amazing. Involved, happy, the future for this country. I sense that there are changes, they are more streetwise and a little less cowing to traditions. They still however have that strong leaning towards the importance of family, culture and their founder. Two youngsters came along to see me who were third years I’d trained last year at Mazenod. They’d heard that Ntate Sion was at the college and wanted a photo and chat.
Lunchtime we were entertained by one of the lecturers who was really interested in the course we’d presented. I wanted her to give us a brief feedback of it’s benefits which she gave us on paper at the end. What she wrote was lovely but the heading with Ntate Shawn and Mme Umm means we have learnt to write our names up on a board in the future. A quick stop at Lancers on the way back to meet up with Kim, an ex LTTP contributor with two tours of duty, who liked the country so much she then stayed and now teaches in a Maseru school full time. I’m too old for that but I can empathise, the country gets to you.
The final part of the Maseru stage of this visit to Lesotho involved a visit to Leribe in the North. An 80 km trip on reasonable roads. This was not in the Dolen plan, but as I was down here waiting for a flight on Friday for my vacation in Namibia, it was a means of taking steps into a new district and accompanying Anne on her visit to see friends. Anne was based there in 2006. I think I’ve been told that 445 times! Since that six month placement she has visited Lesotho every year bar one. She is a Basothophile, has so many friends from both the exchange, her work with Dolen and work done in her employment with Trinity College. As we were driving I was getting a history of the whole region. That’s something special that I didn’t get last year. We stopped in T.Y. to see some weavings and crafts, Anne also wanted a tea break, as we were served what I hoped would be Lancers quality filter coffee, my heart sank as I saw the yellow hues of chicory coffee. After that we also had a brief stop at a co-operative weaving shack, clad with tin cans inside and out. The ladies draw the pictures up and weave by hand. Spinning is done on a contraption made from a bicycle wheel. I was duly informed by Ann that this was where Dolwen bought gift for prince Harry’s wedding and that it was set up by "merched y wawr" years ago. The country side is different, a lighter stone flatter land but still these masses standing proud and flat topped almost an alien landscape.
A quick visit to her friend’s house and we were in our guest house ready to plan the course I’d promised to deliver in her region. The only problem as usual was communication. Somehow a primary course had metamorphosed to high school course. Re-plan, look at papers decide the standard and wing it. Again 52 participants, it went well we had a lovely thank yoooo and I was off back to Maseru for some peace and quiet leaving Anne to her friends. We flagged down a sprinter taxi bus for me and I hopped on and had an enjoyable 2 hour drive with locals listening to African music played loudly. The weirdest was a song whose words were in Sesotho but the tune was definitely “Arglwydd dyna ni”. The bus stopped in the market and I had a 3k walk in torrential rain back to my usual Maseru guest house.
I’m off to Namibia tomorrow for some much needed rest before a final 26 days a fortnight of which is with Anne at Thaba Tseka. We have 12 courses booked and a few visits to schools and Thaba Tseka college. I’ll miss this area but for me it’s not Thaba Tseka. Anne and I talked about how you fall in love with the country but that where you start is where your heart lies. We have different places in Lesotho which we look at as home. Being with her has been amazing. I’ve teased her mercilessly from making me feel like a “help the aged” carer, to her non stop chatter. Significantly however I’ve learnt from her. She knows Basotho customs, I’m learning how to communicate and befriend. The Basotho are such amazing people, they are however reserved. In Thaba Tseka it doesn’t apply to children, who know me and in my second spell even the adults. Here however I’ve got to learn to do what Anne does, engage.