Tag: Lesotho

‘Verbal lynching’ of journo reveals the dangers of reporting in Lesotho

The barbs are flying at me faster, flung by a hostile crowd.

Here I am, the lone Western correspondent in this tiny African kingdom that still feels volatile since the August 30 attempted military coup that sent the nation’s prime minister scurrying next door into South Africa.

I am suddenly on trial, as a kangaroo court deals me a harsh lesson – and reveals what a minefield Lesotho is for journalists covering this crisis.

Specifically, I’m forced to defend my reporting on the latest, Hollywood-worthy claims: “Lesotho hunts foreign ‘mercenaries’, fears assassination plot”.

A top government official alleged that Nigerian and Ghanaian soldiers-for-hire had slipped into the country, armed to the teeth, to hatch a plot to assassinate Lesotho’s leaders – to throw the tiny nation into even deeper crisis and harpoon the February 2015 elections, already moved up two years earlier by South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is mediating to restore some semblance of “lasting peace” here.

For the “mercenaries” claim, I’d asked two people if there was any clue on the identity of these alleged assassins.

Thesele Maseribane, the third leader of the ruling tripartite coalition (who’s also the minister of gender and youth, sports and recreation) floated two nationalities: Nigerians and Ghanaians. Then I spoke to the police’s assistant commissioner of police, Sello Mosili, who confirmed this. So that’s what I reported – their allegations:

Some online media – in Lesotho, too – focused on the nationalities. Even worse, one weekly here turned my story’s allegation into their story’s fact: “Police hunt Nigerian, Ghanaian mercenaries.”

That sensationalist twist unfortunately sparked anxiety among the hundreds of Nigerians and Ghanaians living in Lesotho. They say it’s led to unkind comments from Basotho and feeling threatened on the streets.

When I’d heard about the “unintended consequences” of my reporting, I met a police official and leaders of the two expatriate communities. To help make things right, I suggested a press event: I’ll explain what happened. Maybe the police could discuss the lessons learned – about revealing too much, too soon?

I’m also a journalism trainer here, so I saw the potential for a productive discussion about the dangers of incitement (another real concern) – and choosing words carefully during these tense times.

But I would regret this. Unwittingly, I organised my own public lynching. My good intentions were trampled on.

At this moment, some 30 leaders and members of the two communities have filled the room to debunk the claim.

Even a Nigerian diplomat from Pretoria is here to defend his country.

My defence – that I published allegations, attributed to highly credible sources, and identified the police source by name – isn’t enough.

Indeed, it’s the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) spokesperson seated beside me who pours oil on the fire. He stands to read from an authorised, one-page statement. The police are still pursuing reports of foreign mercenaries, he says, with no nationalities named. Then his final paragraph, with its inflammatory kicker: “The LMPS distances itself from the information appearing in the AFP newspaper [sic] dated 13-19 November 2014 that the mercenaries are from Nigeria and Ghana.”

Comfort the afflicted
Not deny the substance, mind you, but distance itself. A vague, carefully chosen term, it seems.

Even worse, the police appear to have confused the article I wrote for Agence France-Presse – a round-the-clock international news agency, not a “newspaper” – with the article that appeared in the November 13-19 edition of that Lesotho weekly, which reprinted my allegations as fact.

“That doesn’t exonerate your actions,” says one Nigerian community leader-turned-prosecutor, facing the crowd, his voice filling with emotion.

From the audience, a community member eyeballs me: “If someone is attacked for this, their blood will be on your hands.”

A third chides me: “You should just apologise – but you seem unwilling to.”

That’s right. I stand by my reporting. In front of this crowd, though, I do pause to reiterate my sincere regret for the “unintended consequences” of my reporting.

I have a conscience, after all, and abide by the journalistic creed: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. I’d never want a story of mine to harm innocents. Especially not a minority, given my affinity for them.

Was this a show trial? An inquisition? Verbal vigilantism? I’m still struggling for words to describe what happened to me last week. Was it just a traumatic professional incident?

More importantly, a great revelation slaps me in the face: this whole ordeal illuminates just how dangerous this environment is. Not for me – because I can leave. Even flee.

Instead, imagine my Basotho journalism colleagues, who are woven into the fabric of this monoethnic, monolingual society, perched in a remote mountain enclave completely surrounded by South Africa.

The Basotho need a robust, confident media. Yet if one local journalist were to dare to “get to the bottom of things,” but then angers the wrong person, who would protect them? (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)
The Basotho need a robust, confident media. Yet if one local journalist were to dare to “get to the bottom of things,” but then angers the wrong person, who would protect them? (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

I can handle this public assault adequately. Yet how could a local colleague weather such intimidation? How to cope in this climate? Where the homes of public figures are attacked at night – by grenade or bullet – yet no one is arrested? Where an adversarial radio station is trashed, yet no one is held to account? Where police arrest a prominent editor and reporter for a day – for accurately reporting a criminal case?

A few weeks back, a leading local reporter called me to describe how she was publicly accused of taking bribes from one political faction to report negatively about another. She broke down, crying: “I’m scared, I can’t go anywhere.”

Now, for the first time, I feel this intimidation.

Why does all this matter? Because Lesotho is the latest crisis mediated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Stabilising this little tinderbox is in South Africa’s interest – and SADC’s too.

Sandbag the messengers
However, Basotho society is highly polarised, with duelling accusations of what one side is doing to the other.

Yet there’s no neutral arbiter to separate fact from fiction. What’s true, what isn’t. Who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.

In short, the Basotho – and Southern Africa itself – need a robust, confident media, to help connect the dots. Yet if one local journalist – or any member of civil society – were to dare to “get to the bottom of things,” but then angers the wrong person, who would protect them?

Don’t get me wrong: even after this public assassination of my character, I’m still enjoying the adventure of living on the continent the past three years, especially among the Basotho.

Yet the fact remains: at that moment, all three communities needed a scapegoat. To “refute and debunk” the damage purportedly done to the reputations of Nigeria and Ghana, and duress caused for their diaspora communities. From any diplomatic fallout, perhaps the police also felt compelled to deny responsibility.

So I was fingered as the culprit. The true outsider. The foreign correspondent. So expendable. If not shoot the messenger, then sandbag him.

“These were just allegations,” my most vocal defender, Tsebo Mats’asa, director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s Lesotho chapter, tells the crowd. “We should thank Ntate [Mr] Jordan for being brave to come explain what happened.”

Brave? No, I was foolish.

The most absurd part of this event is that I actually co-organised and invited many of the people – to witness my own public lynching.

As the meeting ends, and they clear the room, several young journalists approach me.

“You see? This is what they do here,” says one. “They’ll tell you something, and you publish it. But if others don’t like it, they’ll deny they told you that. They’ll blame you.”

I’ve learned many lessons from this experience, but there is one worth underscoring: it’d be irrational for my colleagues ever to put their necks on the line. Their trepidation also drives me forward, to continue probing the reality.

Foolish to speak out
Then, as I lick my wounds the next day, I get a call that lifts my spirits. From a Nigerian who has lived here for years – and observed my inquisition, in silence.

“I wanted to tell you that I was very proud of you, that you didn’t chicken out,” he says. “I see you’re a man who believes in what he has done, who knows he was right, and no amount of pressure will make him surrender.”

I listen, speechless. Then express my gratitude for some of the most meaningful and fortifying words of my career.

The Nigerian continues. “Unfortunately, this is quite common in Africa. In this environment we live in, some people, but not everyone, lack integrity and principles. The Basotho journalists would tell you they weren’t surprised like you were, to see what happened to you yesterday. It’s almost a continuous way of life here.”

Then I ask him, respectfully: Why didn’t you speak up? And are you now willing to be quoted in this piece, by name?”

No, he prefers anonymity.

“Because you see the way they came after you,” he says. “That same angry display would be turned against me.”

Indeed, I finally understand. The sad reality is, it would require rare courage – or foolishness – for anyone to speak out. Just when Lesotho needs them the most.

Michael J Jordan is a freelance journalist based in Lesotho. Visit jordanink.wordpress.com for his coverage of the three-month Lesotho crisis.

Lesotho’s Kome Caves Festival: For the love of beer and music

Every summer, a new energy engulfs Maseru and its surrounding towns. There’s an influx of people who come around for the holiday season, and entertainment is in high demand. Camping chairs and cooler boxes – staple accessories for many Basotho during these months –  are unpacked and get their chance to bask in the Lesotho sun.

The unofficial kickstarter to all summer activities is the Kome Caves Festival, which was held over the weekend. The three-day event blends the outdoors, tourism, cuisine, and beer tasting with musical entertainment. Organised by Tangerine Inc, a boutique marketing and programme management company, it aims to promote the village and attract tourists to the region. Now in its second year, the festival has already improved by leaps and bounds from last year’s inaugural event.

Nestled in Lesotho’s lowlands, Ha Kome and its caves of the same name are etched into a plateau of the Berea Mountains – one of Lesotho’s ten districts. The caves were built in the early 1800s by Chief Teleka and his followers for protection from the cannibals in the surrounding area.  As if painted into the rock, descendants of the Chief still dwell in these caves which offer cool shelter from the November sun; however, one does worry about their warmth during Kome’s cooler nights and Lesotho’s brutal winters.

The majority of people arrived on Saturday and there was a plethora of activities – from horse rides to volleyball and paintball. For those who could stomach the curving dirt road which puts San Francisco’s Lombard Street to shame, there was quad biking too.

Besides the actual caves, the main attractions were the music and the beer. The afternoon’s soundtrack was mellow sets by local DJs which did not detract from the oral sensory overload.

With over 30 types of craft and macro beers mainly from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and including Lesotho’s pride – Maluti Beer, beer lovers were spoiled for choice. The wine tasting stall was a hit this year, and the locally brewed ginger beer, which is the more fermented version of the already popular drink, was a delicious treat even for non-beer lovers. Paired with the various food stalls, attendees were able to enjoy the different beverage offerings well into the night without having to retire early – although for a select few it would have been better if they had.

This year’s musical offering was stupendous from start to finish.

MsKelle, the German-born Mosotho songstress began our musical journey. Just before her set there were few people seated in front of the stage; however, as she sang her first song many began to gather and were mesmerized by the purity of her voice. The sun setting behind the mountains gave her set the added magical touch.

MsKelle. (Pic: Mookho Makheta)
MsKelle. (Pic: Mookho Makheta)

Local Kholu Jazz Band, better known as the band for Lesotho Jazz legend Budaza, who gave a beautiful performance on Sunday, followed with a more up-tempo performance.

Wearing a mokorotlo, the traditional Basotho hat, with a metallic shield covering his face, and with dance moves straight out of the Karate Kid, DJ InviZable gave one of the night’s more memorable performances.

DJInviZable (Pic: Mookho Makheta)
DJ InviZable (Pic: Mookho Makheta)

Mozambican group Gran’Mah was another pleasant surprise – not many knew of them before their performance, but they left with a solid fan base by the end of their set. The “reggae fusion” band was fun to watch, and had many people dancing to their dub-inspired tunes. And, even though he was set to perform later that night, Pedro from 340ml blessed the stage for a collaboration.

340ml gave the crowd something a little different from their regular performances. This time Rui and Thiago replaced their guitars for some turntables, and Pedro belted out some of their popular tracks, leaving the crowd wanting more.

However, the musical highlight, and the reason most people came to the event, was to see the USA-based international touring act Tortured Soul. By the time of their set, the warm day had turned into a bitterly cold night. They played as if the cold air was part of their magical spell. The audience was transfixed  by their performance; they swayed and sang along in awe, many in disbelief that their beloved Tortured Soul was right here in their country.

Tortured Soul (Pic: Mookho Makheta)
Tortured Soul (Pic: Mookho Makheta)

And as the cup of coffee to end off a great musical meal, Lesotho’s hip-hop collective D2amajoe closed the show in front of some of their more loyal fans and those who stuck around to brave the cold weather.

The evening eventually turned to dawn, camp chairs were folded, now emptied cooler boxes were carried off to the camp sites, and the courageous few who decided to make the drive up the curved dirt road returned to warmer destinations. One thing was clear: they were already plotting their return to next year’s festival.

Ba re e ne re: Reigniting Lesotho’s literary culture

A storytelling performance at the 2014 Ba re e ne re Literature Festival. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

Lesotho is an interesting place to be in at the moment. At the end of August, we made headlines worldwide, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. The news had nothing to do with the country’s many unique and positive qualities. There was no mention of natural beauty, of Basotho culture, or of the many exciting initiatives that a host of organisations and individuals in the country are working hard on.

Instead, it focused on the country’s current political mess. An apparent attempted military ‘coup’ took place, and the Prime Minister fled to South Africa. Tom Thabane is back in the country now, but political tensions remain high, with no clear resolutions in sight. Everyday life continues, but people are tense, confused, and many fear a repeat of the political violence that the country experienced in 1998.

In the midst of this uncertainty and political instability, the weekend of 5 – 7 September saw the return of Ba re e ne re Literature Festival, the only event of its kind in Lesotho, founded in 2011 by the late Liepollo Rantekoa, a young Mosotho literary enthusiast who passed away in a tragic car accident in 2012.

Inspired by Rantekoa’s vision of a movement that would reignite a culture of reading and writing in Lesotho, and especially an appreciation of Sesotho language and literature, a group of her friends and family have come together and are continuing with the work she began.

This year, a number of writers from outside Lesotho were invited to take part in the festival. These included South African novelist Niq Mhlongo, Nigerian/Barbadian writer Yewande Omotoso, and Namibian poet Keamogetsi Molapong. Cape Town-based Chimurenga Magazine jumped on board as the event’s official partner. International authors were joined by a number of writers from Lesotho, including Mpho Makara, Teboho Rantsoabe and Patrick Bereng.

The festival’s opening ceremony took place at the same time that a political march was held through the centre of Maseru. Night-time events were cancelled in the face of potential security threats. But despite these challenges, people of all ages came out to enjoy the day-time events, which featured a vibrant combination of live music, poetry readings, storytelling performances and discussions with authors.

Nobody ignored the political situation in the country. On the contrary, the challenges that Lesotho currently faces became a crucial talking point, as guests and participants spoke of the role that artists, writers and literature can play in times such as these. The final event of the second day of the festival saw people of all ages sitting in a tight circle around a small computer screen, laughing together at jokes told by renowned South African author Zakes Mda (addressed by the audience as ‘Ntate Zakes’) who, although unable to be present in person, joined the festival via Skype.

Mda spoke with strength and encouragement to the professional and aspirant writers in the room: “You writers will always play a critical role in the country. Artists can be catalysts for change.”

Audience members enthusiastically join in with the chorus of a live music performance at the festival. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)
Audience members enthusiastically join in with the chorus of a live music performance at the festival. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

Later, Mhlongo commented: “The festival happened at the right time to bring people together, to give them the chance to express themselves, to express their frustrations, and to interact with others. Writers can go beyond the boundaries of political and cultural divisions. Writers can liberate, especially in times of turmoil like this.”

Teboho Moekoa, a local artist, performed a poem that spoke blatantly and scathingly about Lesotho’s current politics: “My people seem mentally possessed / by the same system that keeps them suppressed / And every time they protest / It’s the voter that the voted cannot respect…”

“We are black youth trying to find our position in the system, trying to find definitions that have already been defined for us,” said Moekoa. “It’s very important that something like this is happening in Lesotho. We don’t have a platform here, and this festival provides that platform.”

Intelligent and outspoken writing, however, can only be truly powerful if it is widely read. In a country with one of Africa’s highest literacy rates (over 90% amongst women, according to Unesco), the serious lack of a reading culture in Lesotho was a prominent topic of discussion. Festival director Lineo Segoete addressed the issue directly: “People in Lesotho have developed an attitude that reading is only important for school, without realising that successful people are avid readers. We want people to learn the importance of reading for pleasure, of reading to self-educate. We are challenging everyone to get back to reading.”

Questions surrounding identity, language and culture permeated the weekend. Mosotho author Mpho Makara spoke of her decision to only write in Sesotho, but nonetheless encouraged young writers to abandon false notions of ‘pure’ Sesotho: “Language cannot afford to stand still. English borrows words from other languages. In the same way, we can steal from English and make Sesotho grow. Write in the Sesotho you know, in the Sesotho you speak every day.”

Mhlongo offered a different take on the language debate. Mhlongo chooses to write his novels in English, and argued that writers should be allowed to write in whatever language they feel comfortable in: “Storytelling doesn’t have a language. It’s like music. The message is the most important thing. Whatever the language, the important thing is to preserve culture. I believe that you can write about your culture in English.”

The focus of day three of the festival shifted to more practical issues, with the authors discussing writing techniques, and sharing tips and advice with the audience.

“The hunger here is evident,” remarked Mhlongo when I chatted with him later. “There’s an obvious interest in writing. School kids filled the hall. A filled hall is a rare thing in literary events!”

Addressing the audience directly, he urged the young writers in the room: “You in Lesotho need to write about your challenges. I hope that after this we are going to see novels and short stories coming from Lesotho.”

Ba re e ne re boomed with engagement, enthusiasm and positivity. The energy was palpable. Soon, we hope, the eyes of the world will turn to Lesotho for the right reasons.

Leila Hall is a freelance writer living and working in Lesotho. 

Remember Lesotho?

The Forgotten Kingdom is the first feature film in history to have been made in Lesotho. This is noteworthy and interesting, but it is also, in some sense, a pity. It means there is a danger that it will become the “Lesotho movie”; its reputation reduced to little more than the location where it was filmed. Yet this is a film that can easily stand on its artistic merits, which are quite considerable.

The Forgotten Kingdom tells the story of Atang (Zenzo Ngqobe), a Basotho man who has spent most of his life in South Africa. At the start of the movie he has fully acclimatised to city life in Johannesburg, but he’s shiftless and unemployed. He’s also kind of a jerk. (At one point, in a clear example of movie code for villainy, he gives a cigarette to a school-age child.)

The Forgotten Kingdom (Trailer) from Black Kettle Films on Vimeo.

Read Laurence Caromba’s full review here.

Lesotho’s promising hip-hop scene

I come from Lesotho, a country not only plagued by the tired narrative of western media – war, famine, HIV and Aids – but also one that possesses its own unique set of problems. We are often portrayed as little else but a nation of blanket-wearing horse riders and job-stealing immigrants. Lesotho-isms can fill up a novella – example: we’re horse meat-eating imbeciles whose country should be incorporated into South Africa because we “just sponge on South Africa and [have] no true right to statehood”. Yes, ignore historical events which led to the status quo; disregard our scholars; overlook our founder King Moshoeshoe I, who may have been the greatest diplomat on the continent. Just bundle this nation of 1.8 million-odd nobodies – nobodies who, by the way, hosted successful elections and oversaw a peaceful transition into a destructive mess that needs cleansing.

Collectively we are known as Basotho (the singular is Mosotho), an amalgamation of people from different clans founded by King Moshoeshoe I during the fierce Mfecane wars of the early nineteenth century. We have fought our battles, managed to win some, and suffered major defeats in the process.

Lesotho is as much a part of the continent as any other nation. Our potholes are no less different from those in Uganda; our highlands, though not as densely forested, are as green as any in the Congo; our government is as corrupt; our public sector services – health, education – as inefficient as those  in any other member states. Sometimes, the authorities like to pull a Ghana on us with rolling power blackouts, but thank goodness these are not frequent! We have food, we have life, and we have rap music.

Like elsewhere on the continent (Mali, for instance), our form of rap is informed by age-old traditions. Our rappers are from a lineage of liroki (praise singers) who used their oratory skills to record history for the sake of posterity. Lithoko tsa Marena a Basotho (Praise songs of the kings) by African folklorist Z.D. Mangoaela contains praise songs composed by chiefs during wartime; vivid portrayals of the setting, the events, and the aftermath are outlined in their moving depictions of battle.

Our hip-hop culture is devoid of burgeoning graffiti, deejay, or break dancer scenes à la South Africa or Egypt. Though we are aware of these elements, their incorporation seems to have been secondary to the rap aspect. Perhaps the paint was too expensive, and those who could afford turntables found collecting and spinning house music vinyl more lucrative. After all, hip-hop in Lesotho remains a fringe culture with no guaranteed returns; a labour of love where labourers toil with no end in sight.

L-Tore rocking the crowd at Litaleng, Maseru's prime hip-hop performance venue. (Meri Hyöky)
L-Tore rocking the crowd at Litaleng, Maseru’s prime hip-hop performance venue. (Meri Hyöky)

Rap was introduced in the late eighties/early nineties through people whose families had travelled overseas and had access to all the releases which were  making waves during that period – the Public Enemy’s, Rakim’s, and NWA’s. Throughout the nineties, local rappers tried to get songs recorded and released, but the odds adversely affected their individual and collective efforts. Firstly, no one in power saw hip-hop as a cultural tour de force, and everyone else  who was not a practitioner but had exposure to it in some way immediately dismissed it as an ‘American thing’. More importantly though, Lesotho has never had  a recording industry to boast of – all of the traditional Sesotho musicians had to – and to some extent still do – cross the border into South Africa in order  to ply their trade and become recognised.

All these factors, coupled with the environment at that time – one public broadcaster in the form of Radio Lesotho, lack of interest in the music by the general populace, as well as low disposable income of citizens – made it near impossible to have any hip-hop/rap movement to speak of.

And so it was that hip-hop heads got relegated to the peripheries of society, and rappers only had the odd show to attend – at least this was the case when I got involved towards the tail end of the nineties. While I had been listening to rap music for some years, coupled with the staple diet of kwaito à la M’du, Trompies and BoP, I had never considered rapping until then. The scene as I remember it at that time consisted mainly of rap ciphers (‘jam sessions’) around town; Wu Tang Clan and Canibus were big in the rap world, so naturally emcees gravitated towards their style of rap.

In 2013, the challenges have advanced beyond lack of airplay or live performance venues, though there is still a shortage of the latter. Rather, Lesotho hip-hop struggles with relevance: to purge the bones of Americanisms in favour of a more local aesthetic, one that derives from the ubiquitous accordion music scene, for instance. Along with this, the challenge is to also address and redress social ills (rape, police brutality, government fraud); to engage people in a conversation that stretches beyond the trappings of mainstream rap’s materialistic sensibilities. I am confident that we will get there. We started with cassette tape demos before graduating to lo-fi DIY recording and small-scale CD replication. Now we have our own bedroom set-ups and small-scale studios. It will be interesting to see what comes next.

Artists worth checking out

Papa Zee 

The legendary Papa Zee was one of the first rappers (along with his crew, the Ethnics) to make an impact on the Lesotho hip-hop scene by organising small-scale shows and talent competitions.

Terama le Lemekoane 

A duo of forward-thinking lyricists whose long-time involvement in the rap scene has given them a firm grounding on which to unleash their futuristic, kwaito-rap-afro-jazz-inspired brand of musicality.

Charles Alvin 

A relative newcomer, he understands the fundamentals of lyrically intensive hip-hop, yet utilises his natural flair for well-crafted raps to deliver borderline catchy songs, satisfying the uninitiated and the connoisseurs in the process.

Ts’eliso Monaheng is a Lesotho-born writer whose obsession with rearranging words is threatening to overtake his abilities as a computer scientist. He blogs at ntsoana.wordpress.com