Passing Letseng Diamond Mine on previous visits there has always been the anticipated promise of children splashing happily as dikkop around the kraal or patient girls smiling a stubborn Basotho ritual of polite enquiry as they pass. My current journey beckons me through a sensory landscape with deep clicking metaphors as I drift uneasily on the breeze to Malubalube (pronounced: Ma doo ba doo bė. Intimidated by the dragon's teeth of the Drakensberg Mountains clouds black as witches swirl like a rumble of smoke tumbling over a ripple of hills 3000m in the sky above the Senqu River! It begins with moonbeams howling like sinister Baboons, the curse of hooting Owls: “Qooiiii!” What is it that destroys villages?
The late wings of weaverbirds drift to darkness as transitory stories of drought and flood and pestilence are whispered in a rondoval of smoke and memory. At dawn a young widow grinding her soft lament on a grey stone of morning smoke draws breath from the embers of last night’s memories; the sullen beauty of herdboys awakens from the bitter-sweet alchemy of sorghum, which dulls the spirit, murders their youth. Contours along the route I have taken reveal riddles stored in the electric genre of old caves and I sense that the cruel beast of a changing world has descended upon Mokhotlong: This dragon’s breath is a clawing mist draining life from the donga, greedily devouring family food security, swirling fertile land into a writhing river twisting and turning. Admiring the round colour of the moon mirroring the demise of the staple maize harvest it becomes a thief changing human bones into hard cash, exchanging culture for profit and carving a young man’s tears out of cow-horn, stabbing at tribal dignity with sharp gasps of thin air hard as poverty.
‘Lumela, Ntate!’ - There’s no response from a blind man sheltering under an umbrella of aloe along the muddy road, his eyes are an hourglass of dry dust and yellow bones protrude from beneath his kobo like ancient laws clinging to tradition. In other villages I meet the weary grin of old women threshing the empty well of dry wombs and worrying over tired labourers ploughing the agony of hills with the iambic lines of their ancient narrative. Another woman is resting on a nearby rock after walking a long furrow from Senekal, she appears to be reading the trailing wing of a long tailed widow bird and along the trail from Matlakeng a golden bishop bird takes flight and alights as a wizard on the flat plain between village and stream. At sunset ibis and stork paint whorls of ripe wheat and rustling corn, long beaks transforming into witches etched with woad blots and burble from late summer swallows. Hatsh! Birds of all kinds greet me with white faces, wearing ashes of sorrow at my camp. From within a witches’ nesting hollow: “Our world will change – after years of dust falling through the hourglass – The black heart of the water snake will bring fear and firestorm and storm-flood!”
Such is my trail-map of dancing shadows on the metallic geography of a cliff wall: Challenging the fierce dragon of the Polihali Dam with fragile humour and humility the witches and wizards of Malubalube dance in vain the survival of their isolated villages. Their cauldron steams unhealthily, unclean, and from the dung glow of my meagre fire I watch them as they satirically ululate the smoke saturating the night sky with mystery and magic. When the serpent has gorged itself and ruined the land with greed, gouged the landscape with sharp claws and marched on to conquer other valleys with big machines, the Basotho will no longer live a simple life sharing wild orchids with the wind and its wise proverbs. At the heart of my terrible journey lies a child mysteriously swirling into a grey masked herd-boy after school; lyrically sweeping the high veldt with his voice he forages for a few grains imprisoned by a history long forgotten by the harvest. What imagery can feel the empty store that is the vacant stare of starving children? At the end of the road lies a broken promise feeding on false hope and the everyday dreams and aspirations of a proud people.
Together with Moetseke’s shy gift of precious seeds, more valuable than diamonds, I take their anger-anger home with me in my heart. Promising someday to return…
(*Lesotho Promise – $multi-million rough diamond mined in Lesotho 2006)