The sheep lay on its side, its skin matted with fresh blood and head pulled back as if still screaming for help. ‘Jackal’ our shepherd guide Felix explained, then turned and started a shouted conversation with the occupants of a stone hut perched on the top of a nearby rocky hill. Their day had started badly: although black-backed jackals, a relative of the wolf, rarely threatened humans the loss of a sheep would be taken from their already scant 700 Maloti (roughly £38) monthly wage.
The exchange over, we continued on our way. After me and Felix came Russ Lewis, then finally Felix’s shepherd partner Tumelo, who usually went by the Anglicised name of Trouble. Both Russ and I served for many years in the British Army and the terrain was at once both familiar and alien: the hills, with their low vegetation darkened by threatening clouds, could have been the Brecon Beacons except for the circular stone huts whose roughly-thatched roofs emerged from every rocky outcrop. This is the Cattle Post, an hour’s walk from the nearest road and 20 kilometres from the settlement of Semonkong, deep in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. It is home to Felix, Trouble and the other young men, mostly in their teens, who maintain the generations-old traditional occupation of shepherding.
It’s a harsh life. With extremes of temperature that range from below freezing to +30 degrees centigrade, the young men rely on traditional woollen blankets, knitted balaclavas and wellington boots to protect themselves from the elements. The molamu or fighting stick and the ubiquitous mobile phone are the only possessions regularly carried, the later providing communications, light and music. Food is provided by their employer, the farmer, and almost exclusively consists of pap, a sort of cornmeal porridge.
Until relatively recently, many of the herd boys in this area were illiterate and few spoke English. Then, some years ago, the Lesala Shepherd School was established with the aim of giving the boys a basic education, a place to meet each other, and a more substantial meal than they could otherwise expect. When we arrived in early March 2019 the building, on the outskirts of Semonkong, was showing its age with disconnected plumbing, guttering hanging forlornly from the roof and broken glass in many of the windows. Our team of four British Army veterans was there on behalf of Village of Forgiveness, a non-profit organisation, to assess whether ex-military personnel with specific skills could help to give vocational training and mentoring to the herd boys whilst giving them the skills to maintain their building.
Our week at Lesala was spent doing what the British armed forces call ‘Train the Trainer’. First, you demonstrate a skill, then get one person trained in it. They then pass on their expertise to another, and so the knowledge base grows. At once, we were surprised at the speed at which the herd boys picked up new skills. Used to working alone or in small groups in very remote areas and in harsh environmental conditions, their experience had taught them to be proactive and practical. ‘Trouble’, despite never having seen a power drill or a rivet gun before, quickly picked up the skills and was soon the aluminium guttering expert. Without even a ladder, improvisation was the key to success, and he spent much of the week standing on the roof rack of a 4x4, requiring me to help only when the vehicle had to be moved.
Similarly, Matt Fisher, once a soldier in the Rifles and now a carpenter, showed the young men how to build a free-standing shelf unit from pine and chipboard. Quickly, the boys organised themselves into a production line of marking, sawing, screwing and painting that resulted in an impressive number of cabinets and the skills to build their own creations. By the end of the week, the guttering was repaired and successfully refilling a water tank, the shepherds were making a chicken coup from scratch, and all of the taps worked. More importantly, the next time something went wrong or needed to be built, the boys had the tools and skills to do it themselves.
The benefits were also far from being a one-way street. The more time we spent with the shepherds, the more we realised just how little they relied on objects to keep themselves happy. In contrast to our British consumer culture, the boys owned very little but out at the Cattle Post, in the most inhospitable environment, they were in their element. Here we found ourselves very much in the role of naïve outsiders even if, as ex- infantry soldiers, we are more used to living off the land than most of our countrymen. The boys stifled laughs as we tried to ride their ponies across the rough terrain, looked disdainfully at our freeze-dried pasta rations and smiled incredulously at the kit we needed for just one day in the hills. By the end of a week without Instagram, Brexit or the seemingly endless outrage of British newspapers we felt refreshed, humbled and very fortunate to have shared a glimpse into this wonderful country and the culture of the herd boys of Lesala.
So, will we return? I very much hope so. On quiet moments since landing back in the UK, I’ve already found myself drifting back to the green hills, the phenomenal star-spattered night sky, and the songs and laughter of the herd boys. I feel there’s definitely more we can do in terms of practical help, and I know there is more we can learn from their culture.