Lesotho (pronounced “li-soo-too”) is a small country of 2 million people completely landlocked within South Africa. The Drakensberg mountain range provides a natural eastern border. Because we were already so close to the border, we knew we had to visit, even if only a day trip.
So that's exactly what we did. Amphitheatre Backpackers, where we stayed, organizes trips into the small Basutu country. It was a two-hour drive over some bumpy unpaved roads, which sometimes curled and curved around steep peaks like a snake climbing stairs. Eventually, we made it to the top of the Monantsapas pass, to the South African border office.
Now, I'll admit that we were excited to go into Lesotho not only to experience their culture but also to get the entry and exit stamps in our passports. (Collecting stamps has become something of an addiction.) Imagine our surprise when we stopped at a few small white buildings with boarded windows and learned that they were unoccupied; the border crossing we were using was nonoperational.
Technically, we were illegal immigrants in Lesotho for the day.
Our time in Lesotho consisted of visiting a primary school that Ampitheatre Backpackers supports through volunteer efforts and donations, hiking to see an ancient San cave drawing, visiting a cave where the nomadic tribespeople previously stored harvested crops and today store animals during cold weather, meeting a sangoma, trying a typical Basutu meal (pap and greens) and finally stopping by a local residence for home-brewed beer.
The entire day was extremely interesting. We saw and learned many things that were totally new to us. However, the two highlights were meeting the sangoma and that last stop for traditional beer.
In case you've never heard of a sangoma (we hadn't), it's a practitioner of traditional African medicine. The sangoma we met has been treating people through communication with ancestors since 1992. Not only did we get to meet her, we sat in her home for close to an hour asking questions, all of which she patiently answered with the help of our guide and translator, Siya. She discussed the process of becoming a sangoma and how she treats people by inhaling herbal smoke and going into a trance in order to speak with the ancestors, who advise her which remedies to provide. Sangomas are a fundamental part of the Basutu culture and lifestyle, but it was all foreign to us.
Because Basutu people travel far distances on horseback grazing animals or bringing goods back home, some homes fly flags to let people know that they have goods for sale. There's a color system for easy identification: A white flag means maize beer, yellow means pineapple beer, red means meat and green means produce.
While South Africa has felt like the U.S. at times, Lesotho felt a world away. We're very lucky we were able to experience it!