Conversations and Katse

Having spent almost all of my time in Maseru the past 7 weeks, I was ready to experience the drive to the mountainous regions and really get the meaning of the name Mountain Kingdom. Our friend, the clinic driver, was also excited about such a trip, and he drove us to Katse Dam, perhaps the largest engineering project in all of Lesotho. It was about a three and a half hour drive to the mountains, and we were also accompanied by another friend who is also a staff member at the clinic.

Driving just an hour outside of Maseru, the terrain began to change and the snow-covered mountains became part of the backdrop as we drove through tiny villages of Basotho hut homes. It was amazing to see the dry terrain transforming into bright white peaks and frosted roadsides. As we approached the dam, the mountain ranges seemed to roll out into a body of water, and I had never seen such a contrast of snow and mountains surrounding large bodies of water.

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The dam was quite an engineering project, and we learned it was jointly funded by the UK, South Africa, Italy, France and Germany. Basotho were largely involved in its construction and in the maintenance, but there was a contract signed with South Africa that guarantees all of the water for South African purchase and use. There are huge tunnels running to parts of South Africa that commonly experience droughts, and water is Lesotho’s most significant export. While it is true that the dam provides many economic benefits to Lesotho, it is difficult to experience such a work of engineering brilliance that is primarily benefiting South African farmers and people. When Lesotho is about to declare a state of emergency because the country is experiencing the worst drought in 30, not a liter of this vast reservoir of water goes to local farming areas desperate for irrigation, and there is no sign that any terms of the treaty will end any time soon.

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Despite some frustrations with the economics of the situation, we met some very nice people along the way, and our tour guide offered his front yard for the barbeque or brai that we planned to have while in Katse. We met some of his friends who work in the area and are in charge of running the compensation programs for local villagers who were displaced because of the project. It was interesting to hear some of his efforts to encourage local people in the rural areas to accept money instead of grain and begin investing in their own businesses and ventures to make the profit sustainable. It seems easy, though, give a person some money to start with and they could go off and start a small shop or tourist attraction, but he said most of the people have never gone to school and struggle with financial concepts and are reluctant to even deposit the money into a bank. Playing the part of a tourist for a moment, I encouraged him to find an interested villager and start a ferry boat service in the waterways of the dam… something I would have liked to do while in Katse.

The barbeque was a great time and the meat was delicious. Perhaps it was the crisp weather, the good company, the pleasant atmosphere, the cook, or a combination of these things that made the meat some of the best I have tasted.

On the ride back, the sun was setting on the mountains and they looked almost velvety and smooth. Driving home and listening to a change in the nonchalant tone of the conversation going on in Sesotho, I felt comfortable enough to ask the Basotho who were with us what their boisterous conversation was all about. It led to an interesting discussion on the quality of life in Lesotho vs. South Africa, crime rates, the extent to which luxuries are a sign of success in one’s life, the work environment in Lesotho, attitudes on food assistance programs, HIV testing, and sexual prevention of HIV around Lesotho. It was good to hear the challenges and frustrations working people here face, and to listen to the realities of societal pressures and the fundamental desire of people to achieve the very best in their lives. As outsiders, I am sure our opinions were not well-informed and quite amateur, but it was enlightening to hear local perspectives.

Velvety mountains:

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Changing environments from rural Katse to urban Maseru even made us think about the simple lives of the villagers who choose to handle grain instead of money. We all decided that knowing nothing other than that type of life would be much less stressful and hectic, maybe even more enjoyable at times. But knowing more and growing up in the surroundings we were raised in make it impossible to imagine a life without schedules, applications, time constraints, obligations, and pressures. It is up to each of us to find happiness in our lives and achieve a healthy balance that allows us to maximize our lives and prioritize what matters most.

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