By Tsitsi Matope
BUTHA-BUTHE — It is a rugged environment, but one which the elderly Austin Sehloboko has enjoyed his entire life.
Sehloboko has grown accustomed to the mountain’s biting cold, crisp but fresh air and the wind that shakes everything in its path, including the 150 sheep which have made the 68-year-old the envy of his neighbourhood of Moteng.
As a little boy herding his parents’ livestock, Sehloboko had thought his life would also largely revolve around animals and ensuring they had enough pasture.
That was before he started seeing fancy four-wheel drive vehicles frequent the area and strange-looking men fascinated with the scenery they sometimes viewed through binoculars.
Sehloboko’s life was to change a few years ago when one of the cars stopped by and three white men waved at him with big smiles on their faces.
“They were fascinated by my large flock, and as I waved back at them and said ‘hello’, they sensed my friendliness,” Sehloboko said in an interview last week.
That day marked the beginning of yet another role in the mountains — a responsibility whose benefits Sehloboko would enjoy for years and look forward to every winter season when the flow of tourists increased in his community.
The three visitors Sehloboko first encountered were from Germany and had visited the area to enjoy its beautiful scenery.
They wanted someone who knew the area well to guide them to vantage points from where they would get a better view of the cold mountains.
But that was not all they wanted, as Sehloboko soon found out.
“They also wanted food and somewhere to sleep. I was not sure if they would be happy to share milk with my family and retire at my place but after I suggested this, they were more than happy to have a taste of the food we eat in Lesotho and also experience village life.”
Sehloboko was asked to name his price for his services, and at the end charged M100 for a meal, M100 for leasing his horses and M100 for each night the visitors spent at his home.
Over the years, Sehloboko has realised there is more to the cold highlands, the shimmering Malibamatso River near the New Oxbow Lodge and the snow that caps the mountains and carpets the earth during winter, creating such an enchanting spectacle.
The Mahlasela Ski Resort in Butha-Buthe is also the hub of skiing in Lesotho and boasts one of the most beautiful sceneries in the country.
“I grew up in this area and had not thought how tourists would be fascinated by the beauty of this place,” Sehloboko spoke in a matter-of-fact manner.
“The fact that they appreciate our natural resources made me eager to show off some of the amazing areas in our neighbourhood.”
But Sehloboko has since realised his source of livelihood is under threat from some herdboys who frequently harass the visitors.
Time and again, there are reports of tourists being stoned or roads getting barricaded, thereby making it difficult for the visitors to pass. Sometimes it is daylight robberies which result in loss of valuable possessions.
There are also times when road signs are vandalised, resulting in some tourists getting lost in the mountains.
This malicious behaviour not only leaves the visitors feeling vulnerable but also threatens Sehloboko’s vision of establishing a well-organised herdboys’ network that would provide better tourism services.
“It worries me that some herdboys are behaving like this, but there is little I can do alone to stop these bad practices,” he said.
Sehloboko is not the only one concerned about the harassment of visitors in most tourist hotspots dotted around the country.
The Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture and the Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC) also became anxious when bad publicity about the harassment started filtering through various international tourism websites.
During last year’s World Tourism Day celebrations held in Mohale, the two bodies launched a national tourism roadshow targeted at sensitising herdboys on how to better handle tourists.
The nationwide initiative also seeks to partner with the herdboys and make them tourism ambassadors in their areas of operation.
Last week, the Ministry of Tourism, LTDC, local traditional leaders and the police took the awareness campaign to Butha-Buthe where they addressed 45 herdboys.
In an interview, the LTDC chief executive officer, Mpaiphele Maqutu, said the awareness campaign exposed the great need to educate the herdboys on the importance of preserving the country’s natural resources and protecting the tourists.
“It was clear from our interaction that many herdboys lack understanding of the importance of the tourism sector and how they can benefit from it,” Maqutu said.
Following the educational sessions which highlighted the bigger picture of the tourism sector and the far-reaching effects of ill-treating tourists, Maqutu said he had no doubt the situation would soon change for the better.
“There are direct tourism spinoffs on the herdboys’ livelihoods; they oversee the production of meat and milk, which the tourists can buy for consumption.
“The wool and mohair from the livestock they herd also go towards the making of handicrafts, which the tourists can also buy from them. This linkage makes it imperative for the herdboys to become our partners.”
According to Maqutu, the awareness campaign would be taken to all the country’s districts and in some areas, depending on the prevalence of herdboys’ operations and proximity of cattle posts. More than one campaign would be conducted.
The herdboys were given blankets branded with the tourism promotional logo, “Lesotho Haeso”, as a way of strengthening the partnership and their acceptance of the tourism ambassadorial role.
The Principal Tourism Officer, Lieketseng Selinyane, told the herdboys that local communities had a role to play in growing the tourism sector.
“Tourism is not just about the government and the private sector. Without the support of the local communities, we cannot achieve much,” Selinyane said, adding the herdboys should regard tourists as vehicles for development in their areas.
“By helping tourists in various ways, you can create life-changing partnerships,” Selinyane emphasised.
However, despite concerns over the behaviour of some herdboys towards tourists, it has since emerged herdboys are not the only culprits.
Some police officers have also been accused of ill-treating tourists and demanding bribes at road-blocks in the area.
However, the Officer Commanding Butha-Buthe District, Senior Superintendent Motebang Mphahama, said the police were not sacred cows and anyone caught breaking regulations would face the full wrath of the law.
“All stakeholders should help and protect tourists, and this includes the police. If they decide to break the law, they too will be disciplined,” Mphahama said.
The ongoing awareness campaign, he added, was of utmost importance as Butha-Buthe was one of the districts expected to host the Southern Africa regional police conference, code-named Amani 2, in October this year.
“Police from the Southern African Development Community are also tourists who will help us further market our country if they receive good treatment,” he said.
“We want all local communities, including the herdboys, to be there for these visitors and many others who will visit this area.”
Thabang Hlotse, 29, is one of the herdboys working in the mountains for the past two years.
He supplies tourists with foodstuffs such as milk, meat, traditional vegetables and Lesotho’s staple food, papa.
Hlotse said the knowledge he received during the campaign helped him understand there are other services he can provide tourists.
“I was just providing daily meals for M100 per person, but the campaign has opened my eyes to other services such as tour-guiding and facilitating the provision of horses,” he said.
Thato Motakati and Tlotliso Malang are both 14 years of age and herd their families’ livestock during weekends and on school holidays.
They both concurred that early learning about tourism and its benefits gave them understanding since they only started herding livestock last year.
“I have understood that if we don’t treat tourists well, they will not come back and this place would lose the money, which we can also tap into if we provide certain services such as entertaining them through traditional music and dance,” Thato said.
Tlotliso said he would no longer run away from tourists whenever he sees them.
“I have learnt that they mean us no harm and we can show them the most beautiful places around here, for a fee, of course.”