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Breaking Away From Herder Mentality

Africa: The tiny kingdom of Lesotho wants to bring boys off the hills and into the classroom.


TEYATEYANENG, Lesotho — Until Molefe Sejane got his first taste of proper school this year, the 13-year-old's only classroom was the vast open plains far up in the hills from his home. His self-taught "lessons" were repetitive: the care and feeding of five sheep.

But Molefe got lucky. The uncle who had raised him recognized that the boy's future lay in counting sums, not sheep, and allowed him to give up full-time herding for learning. Education has increased his confidence and his ambition.

Thousands of other boys in this tiny mountain kingdom are less fortunate. Grinding poverty in rural areas has forced families to sacrifice their sons' education in favor of protecting their livestock--in most cases here, a family's only source of wealth.

"It's a serious problem," said Kimberly Gamble-Payne, the UNICEF representative in Lesotho. "About 20% of the school-age boys are out of school for one reason or another, and the most common cause is herding."

A cultural norm that has metamorphosed into an economic necessity, the practice of making all boys shepherds has made Lesotho an anomaly in Africa. Here, girls are given the opportunity over boys to attend school, and women are in general more literate than men.

In an effort to protect children's rights to education, and to redress the academic balance between the genders, the Lesotho government has launched a full-court press to get boys educated. Free elementary school education was introduced in 2000 through third grade, and the government, which last month won a landslide victory in general elections, plans to enforce compulsory primary schooling for all children by next year.

"Everybody needs some form of learning. If you are not literate, you are living in the shadow of other people," said Thakane Tsilo, a informal education trainer with the Lesotho Distance Teaching Center, a government-funded organization that teaches literacy to people without access to a formal education. About 80% of the group's students are "herd boys" who don't attend school.

Boys as young as 6 are sent to the mountains to look after livestock, including sheep, goats, cattle and donkeys. While some boys shepherd during the day and return home in the evening, many live away from home for months at a time in makeshift shelters that form so-called cattle posts. Others are hired out by their family and live lonely and precarious lives, looking after other people's animals.

Lesotho ranks among the poorest 50 nations in the world, according to U.N. statistics. An economy based on subsistence agriculture means that livestock defines a person's social status.

Cattle are particularly held in esteem because they are used for payment of marriage dowries. They're also slaughtered to mark occasions such as births, deaths and weddings.

"It's important to have a herd boy to take care of these precious [animals]," said Pius Fako Masupha, chief of Ha Mamathe, a settlement within Teyateyaneng where he estimates there are as many as 2,000 herd boys. "You will find a herd boy in each and every family that has cattle."

Before the 1880s and the discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa--which surrounds tiny Lesotho--herding was primarily a man's job. But with the precious minerals came mines and an opportunity for employment, and thousands of Lesotho men flocked to the pits. With women and children left behind, it soon became the responsibility of the boys of the household to tend the livestock.

"Most who end up being herd boys are from poor families," said Tsilo, the literacy trainer. "And if families are poor, they usually hire out their boys."

Some of them earn as little as $120 a year for herding--usually never seeing a cent of that money themselves--and often live alone in the mountains, braving the harsh, snowy winter elements and hunting for food when their supplies from home run out. Sometimes they share their dismal accommodation and scant supplies. None has access to schooling, health care or other basic social services.

"Some human rights groups have called [herding] a contemporary form of slavery," Gamble-Payne said.

And the dangers are vast. Cattle rustling has become a major problem, literacy program officials said. The boys often become targets of physical abuse by the attackers. Dozens have been killed while on duty in the hills.

"We consider herding one of the most hazardous forms of child labor," Gamble-Payne said. "Unlike the old days, when stock theft was done with bows and arrows and slingshots, now it's done with guns. There's a lot of violence."

The boys tend to herd from around age 6 to 15, when they go off to circumcision school. This traditional male rite of passage, in which the boys are also taught the responsibilities of manhood, lasts for a couple of months.

"After that they feel they have crossed over from being boys to men," Tsilo said.

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