Qeme Plateau: The industry of initiation

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RECENTLY, the National University of Lesotho-based hiking club, Walks of Life, organised an expedition to the summit of the Qeme Plateau and my long-held desire to reach its peak made the decision to join them easy. Our group of eight hikers –– mostly NUL staff –– reached the top from the north side of Ha Teko village and took over five grueling hours to travel to the south-end of the plateau.

For those travelling on the Main South 1 either to the south or north of the country, Qeme Plateau looks just like any of the rugged terrain dotting the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. However, its summit is a hive of activity and life, in all its forms, abounds there. Even traditional education is very much part of the plateau’s make-up.

Just as we arrived at the top, we met herd-boys who showed us the correct path to follow to get to the other end, warning us of the routes to avoid in case we walked straight into an initiation school. This was a risk we could not take lightly, especially since there were three ladies in our group.

From what we gathered, and owing to the frequency with which we were warned to avoid encountering an initiation school, we could not help but become inquisitive about the actual number of such schools on top of the mountain.

Apparently, there were no less than three still in active operation; churning out numerous initiates at different times of the year. Four other schools had already held their pass-out ceremonies.
Traditional education in the form of initiation is obviously a huge industry on this mountain. The different schools add to the liveliness of the plateau and it should rank among some of the most active places in Lesotho in terms of the number of initiates graduating from these age-old schools dotted around the vast mountain.

The risk of accidentally running into one of these schools was lessened by the fact that the plateau is home to many animal posts and herd boys, who happily gave us directions.
The amount of sheep, cattle and horses which graze on top of Qeme was unbelievable. At first I wondered where the herd boys got water to for their livestock from. I need not have worried as nature always seems to know how to take care of such needs.

Right on top of the plateau runs a stream whose source seems to be quite strong owing to the vast amount of water that was flowing. We were even tempted to splash into one of the pools and swim a bit but the superstitious among us warned of the much feared water-snakes which could have possibly made us disappear within seconds.
Besides the grazing animals were numerous dogs as well; the dogs without doubt outnumbered the herd-boys.

This reminded me of a political rally of a certain party which was held in Mokhotlong in the run-up to the 2012 national elections where the Lesotho Television’s camera shots of those attending the rally showed far more dogs than humans in attendance.

The party leader must have wished the dogs’ huge attendance could translate into actual votes; they would certainly have put on a good show at the polls.
When we sensed we could be nearing the point of descent, we met two young herd-boys who live full-time at one of the animal posts. They told us they were cousins and even had similar-sounding names: Fabiane and Lobiane.

They were travelling with four dogs which seemed to have unlimited freedom on the plateau as they ran around gleefully, even trying to challenge other dogs to a fight.
The boys not only gave us more directions but actually volunteered to walk us all the way to the pass that would take us down to the sprawling village of Ha ‘Mantšebo.

Right from the start, it became obvious the two boys would add an interesting twist to our walk. Fabiane, the most talkative of the two, told us he had dropped out of school after his Junior Certificate examinations to go to the initiation school.

He used to be a student at Thetsane High School. Lobiane had also dropped out of Lesia High School only after a year doing Form A to enroll at one of the traditional schools.
Both, however, told us of their wish to resume their studies at some point in view of the hardships they could face later in life without a decent education.
One of their main worries was Lesotho’s rampant stock-theft which could easily deprive them of the very animals their lives revolve around. They patiently nursed the sick ones back to life and made certain of their general wellbeing.

They told us they had not been forced by their families to attend an initiation school but were well aware they would need much more than just traditional education to guarantee a brighter future, hence the burning ambition to continue with their studies.

They are aged only 15 and time very much on their side. At the animal post, they often have a lot more to eat when some of the cattle have given birth and produce milk in abundance but during our walk, they were not milking any. Their diet was therefore confined to papa and beans; hardly any vegetables; and meat was a rarity.
We invited them to have a braai with us in one of the caves just before our descent. As soon as the smoke rose and the inviting aroma of meat filled the plateau, some herd-boys approached but stood at a distance and shouted: “We are also hungry here!”
Courtesy is never part of the culture in these parts of the world.

Having received a full meal and some monetary tips from some in our group, Fabiane and Lobiane made a dash for the village below us. If appearances are not deceptive, we had clearly made their day.

  • Mahao is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the National University of Lesotho. 
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