An ugly lovely town

An ugly, lovely town ….. crawling, spreading…. this mountain town is my world. Ok this is an adapted Dylan Thomas piece but for me it summarises Thaba Tseka as Thomas’ was so descriptive of Swansea.

For all the blogs I’ve written, I don’t think I’ve described the place where I’m situated. Thaba Tseka didn’t exist in its current form even thirty years ago. It is a collection of villages like Paray or Ha Phaila which were dotted around the mountains almost like spokes on a wheel. Then with the building of the Katse Dam there needed to be a central hub, somewhere that would be a relaying post between Maseru and the project. Thaba Tseka emerged from this and I guess it became a “Dodge City” type frontier town. It grew, it spread, it became a hub for the district. Government buildings, district offices, education, police, all these started to congregate here. By now Thaba Tseka hosts a prison, an airfield of sorts, three secondary schools and a host of primaries. New money has come in with foreign investors building some structures and global businesses like Vodaphone setting up substantial offices. The buildings are an eclectic mix of concrete block structures with some brick developments. The schools show how differing times have bought a few new buildings erected in differing styles. There are a few buildings which are on a second level and the centre of the town has a four storey ( the equivalent of a sky scraper) block, housing Vodaphone, Standard Llesotho Bank and a few other insurance companies.

It is not pretty, there are few traditional rondavels, the blocks are rarely rendered and very few have any colour. The initial feel is a dreary grey, but it hides the chemistry of what Thaba Tseka is, which to me is a happy, lively community. The main street meanders and rises and falls over hills. Off it, come three or four tarmacked roads all of them going nowhere. That’s one of the key observations. Thaba Tseka is the end of the Maseru link. Every route leading from the town is a dirt track where it is advisable to have 4 wheel drive and a big gap between your exhaust and the ground. Shock absorbers have a short life span. Between the roads which go nowhere, are a number of paths which people and animals wander on. Many of these have a string of small shops, housed inside corrugated iron structures. The ones on the main roads are quite often painted red and sponsored by Vodaphone. In the day the whole community is bustling, shops seem to sell anything whether it's the larger ones or the shacks. There are wholesalers selling building materials, supermarkets which sell food, clothing items and household goods. There are butcheries as they are called, bakers and fresh vegetables are sold on the side of the road. 

Interspersed on some of the roads are guest houses or lodges.  A few have good restaurants, there are fast food outlets with food cooked on the side of the road. There are a number of taverns or 'tarvens' as they write them. My favourites are the Big Ass Tarven, Sky Limit Tarven and the Two Door tarven. The overall feeling you get is that you are in Africa, the sounds, smells, images of horses and donkeys ridden through the streets, cows and sheep grazing centrally, colourful materials being sold and most of all the signs. “Man Size Motor Spares”,” Bread Talk Bakery”, “ Buffalo’s Guest House”, “ Mother and Daughters Catering”, “ Tuck Shop Theosa”


My visitors have gone and at last back to school. That was the theory but this trip is not panning out as normal. With Monday as a National holiday, “Moshoeshoe Day”, a four day week was further interrupted by torrential rain. The festivities were cancelled as the field was like Glastonbury in the eighties, while the rain in the week meant that children who walk up to 5 miles to school were not venturing out. No matter it was nice to get reacquainted with classes, to try out new ideas with a more practical element such as probability, co-ordinates and nets. Smaller classes of 30 meant it was easier to dip my toe in the water. Facing 80 children and holding one pair of scissors or ten dice, doesn’t engender optimism that practical lessons work. No wonder they are not tried!! What I found, as usual is that children love practical work. They’re focussed and engrossed.

It was also a chance to do some more work at the college, this time specialist maths high school student teachers. Perhaps most importantly to create a plan for the new visitors, Vicki and her husband Niall. With schools closed, Vicki’s original mandate of working at her previous school Paray was not an option. Niall meanwhile was on a construction shift to create a outdoor open work area for children at Katlehong which had a roof to protect them from the sun.


I got the idea of substituting the "bits and pieces" work with establishing a full set of bespoke courses for the local teachers, asking the local Advisory teacher to set it up in the education offices. With the prospect of four courses for specific year groups, I could focus on specific ideas, planning and the use of resources. As usual Lesotho doesn’t work like that. Saturday came with my friend the Adviser calling with some figures. It looked as there would be over 50 at each course. Schools in the far parts of the district were interested and sending staff. Some of these people were travelling 4 hours. 


In the end the courses worked. We ended up training 260 teachers. Feedback was positive and breaking the focus to what they were currently working on, moving it one year for next year, meant that no one was covering things which did not apply. I think that this is the way forward. The strike, without saying that it’s been good, has given the opportunity to dig deeper and find a path for future visits. I now have some 45 staff who are interested, capable and have the personality to become local mentors. In the last few weeks I’m here the training will be specifically with them. I’m hoping that my legacy will be this group, who future Welsh visitors can feed into and refresh.


My two guests are now my two friends. It’s always a little unnerving meeting people for the first time and knowing you’re going to be living in each other’s pockets. I’m not a group holiday type of person and the idea of even a cruise where you bump into casual acquaintances all the time has never appealed. These two though have been great, from the first moment. Vicki has been through the whole LTPP experience, knows people in the area and in essence was returning home. She has been with me supporting at every course, interjecting with specific knowledge as a primary practitioner which is my biggest weakness. She has also built on the phonics input from Mandy and Vicki Norrish. Outside this we have both been dragged into pre-school or munchkinland nurseries as we walked past. How do people like her deal with these little daemons? She was giving them stories, singing songs developing basic phonics, while I was nervously backed to the wall. One little one came to greet us outside with his left shoe on his right foot and vice versa.

Niall is not a teacher - but could easily be. Genuinely interesting, articulate and funny. He has been here before two years ago but only on a short stay. His main activity here apart from pure entertainment has been to build a shelter for some outdoor learning at Katlehong. On arrival a slightly nervous man from the Rhondda was dragged kicking and screaming to meet his new Basotho mates. “Billy no mates” as we called him was quickly conscripted to the technical jobs on the first day. As his co-workers mixed cement which involved ratio and other difficult sums, Niall ended up humping great big stones over huge distances!!!


In reality he’s loved it and it’s nice to report that he plays at recess with the other boys now. The agreed design was hijacked by the caretaker in charge and instead of a sloping roof, Niall was faced with a proper roof design and the associated extra materials. He has insisted on a safe structure including bolts not nails. Overall the new build is amazing, without him I’m not sure what would be there. Health and Safety has been non existent. No scaffold or stepladders. Niall is now grade 2 gymnastics, from his new found skill of balancing precariously on a piece of metal with a hammer in his hand and a nail in his mouth. The Basotho teachers in my Grade 3/4 course were slightly stunned to see this red faced Ntate from Wales shuffle in carefully to the course. Niall had finished and an overstretch had ripped his trousers in a pivotal area between his legs. Many of the male teachers commented on the new fashion styles used by Welsh construction workers. Niall’s self effacing nature means he can get on with anyone. The local builders merchant we use is a guy called Cheng Wang. Niall and Cheng Wang are now big mates, with him having free access to “borrow” any tools he wants. I'm sure they maybe sold as new afterwards but at least he has access to the tools he wants.

We have also done a lot of walking. A long hill walk, a beautiful gorge walk with Niall as the Pied Piper leading some adoring children who think he’s the guy from “Despicable Me”. There was also an intended overnight visit to Katse which was aborted as the Lodge had no vacancies. I now understand the story of the birth of Jesus so much better. No room at the inn meant that we had to make a quick decision …. “that’s the dam Niall, let’s go back”. With the rain coming in, thunderbolt’s and lightening, very very very frightening we were singing “mamma mia, let me go”.


Our highlight together was the chance to work with children. Last year the team had established a Wash Day competition on 22nd March. With the schools off, arranging a repeat was difficult. Some organising and calling up local teacher friends meant that we ran it. The itinerary was changed and the location moved to Lesotho College of Education. As usual Basotho memory is not a computer science so as usual it had gone to the far recesses of memory - no one expected us. A quick sorting and we had 20+ children, staff and a bunch of student teachers watching a fun filled morning. We provided a quiz where a designated group member could run up to a fact sheet on the wall, reference and then feed back information. A memory game which for those of my age would recall as similar to the generation game conveyer belt. Ok no cuddly toy but the images on the wall all reflected important items in the cycle of healthy lives through cleanliness. There was a fun facts about water quiz but the two popular events were both practical and fun. Last year because of torrential rain we had failed to run the water relay, where they had to transport as much water as possible in a relay lasting 3 minutes. The additional challenge was that not all containers were the same size so teams had to make decisions on whether to go on the next stage or not. However the best part was Niall leading a session on how gutters work and what the point of water harvesting was. The pupils then made their own gutters from plastic bottles tape velcro on the sides of tilted desks. The winning team was the gutter that effectively transferred the most water to the plastic water butt at the bottom of their drainpipe. STEM in action!!! This is the only time I saw a war of the roses between Vicki and Niall. Niall forgot that it was the team’s effort and in his enthusiasm for winning was allocating roles with him as the ”thin controller”. 


Vicki ran a phonics workshop with 100 first year student teachers. I was filming with tears running down my cheeks as 100 airplanes were going nnnnnnnn, or when hop hop hop was being sung with Basotho twenty year olds bouncing around like demented rabbits.


Having visitors improves my diet. We’ve had fantastic meals with all three of us taking turns. Having a drink in the evening has been nice with a decent conversation and no telly. I’m so glad that we agree on the nonsense that is Brexit. It’s odd to be out here and seeing the chaos that is parliament. Best of all has been a shared love of good music. Vicki’s knowledge is encyclopaedic and Niall has a long history of working in the music business. 


You know after spending as much time as I have in Thaba Tseka when you are becoming part of the community. It’s lovely to get into that zone where you are mixing and chatting to people from all walks of life. Obviously the key players are the children and teachers I work with. There’s also the lecturers and student teachers at the college. What is changing is that parents know me, so do the police - not because of any crimes I’ve committed but because many of them are married to teachers or have children being taught by me. The Basotho have an amazing sense of humour and unlike many people have a pretty good understanding of banter. This week we were invited out to a friend of mine’s house. Mme Lillian is a friend from last year who came to Llanelli and taught in Dafen and Swiss Valley schools. She came back inspired and determined to utilise outdoor learning in her classes. It was her birthday and she and her family invited us to share in the celebration meal. What a great meal! It’s funny one of my all time favourite foods is courgette flowers deep fried which i get in Italy. On a similar theme Lillian had prepared spicy fried spinach stalks. If I’d known about these before I’d be a stone heavier. Alongside this were meats, a special dish made from spinach leaves, rice, salad, papp and a host of other tasty dishes.What a great family, what great friends. I teach her son and the girl that they look after. To get this straight, Lillian and Gabriel have taken in a young orphan out of the goodness of their hearts. Just humbling, astonishing breathtaking kindness. That’s these people.As the evening progressed we taught them to play draughts and dominoes, I feel I’m accepted.


We are all leaving Thaba Tseka at the end of the week. The weekend for me is in Morija where I meet up with Ann Loughlan who is my next visiting companion. Vicki and Niall however finish their “vacation” with an abseil off Semongkong. I’ll miss them. I follow Maseru/Morija with courses in Semongkong and Leribe. After that Claudia is out for Easter holiday in Namibia. In May I will return to this ugly, lovely town with it’s beautiful people for my last three weeks. 



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