Visiting Our Sponsored Child in Lesotho

Visiting Nthabeleng was a major impetus for our family’s trip to the African continent, and we crossed the border from South Africa into Lesotho with anticipation. After months of coordinating with World Vision, gaining security clearance and permission from her family, we were about to meet Nthabeleng, a 13-year old girl we’ve been sponsoring through World Vision since she was 6.

Waiting for us on the other side of the border was Julius. He waved to us, and even without his white pickup truck painted with the World Vision logo, we would have recognized him. Friendly and warm, Julius was our contact, translator and tour guide for the next 2 days as we traveled to a rural village in the small, poor and beautiful country of Lesotho.

Julius took us to the local World Vision offices where men and women, fluent in English and highly educated, gave us a summary of the local community issues (including AIDS, child abuse and farming).

We toured the area, finally arriving at Nthabeleng’s school. No desks, only benches, furnished the private middle school where at least 50 children watched and waited while we picked Nthabeleng out from the crowd. In the back row, I recognized her. She was tall and one of the older children in the school, dressed in a Navy blue sweatshirt and dark red pants. Nthabeleng shook each of our hands but hugged my daughter, the girl who wrote her the most and was the same age.

At the blackboard, my husband held up a world map and showed the children and their teachers where we lived, where they lived and the distance we had traveled. We gave the teachers National Geographic maps to share with their students then left the school with Nthabeleng, waving to children playing on tires buried in the sand.

Off the paved road, Julius drove us up the hill to Nthabeleng’s village of red dirt, round thatched roof huts and square brick buildings. As we opened the car doors, we were welcomed by an unusual sound. Shrill trills, high pitched tongue rolling singing, celebrated our arrival. The people of her village escorted us to a table set with their finest, where we sat and ate with entertainment in front of us and the mountains a dramatic backdrop behind us. Women dressed in blue and white danced, shoulders rolling and shrugging, while others sang to the beat of a drum.

We met Nthabeleng’s family, her mother and sister and brother (her father was off working in the mines); we ate a variety of local dishes and exchanged gifts while at least 70 villagers of all ages looked on.

They waved as we left, smiling and singing and shrilling, and we waved back, happy and sad, knowing we’d never see them again, but richer for the experience and wondering what our next day in Lesotho would bring.

Washing Clothes by the River in Lesotho

I followed the women in front of me, a tub full of dirty clothes on my head, my hands there to steady the tub. As I walked, one shirt fell onto the path in front of me and then another one. Embarrassed, I stopped to pick them up. No one else was dropping clothes; not even my daughter who walked with a tub on her head just in front of me.

Working with World Vision and community volunteers, we were carrying the filthy clothes of four young orphans living on their own in a hut in a small village near Butha Buthe. We were Americans in the small country of Lesotho with different customs, different talents and different skills. I learned quickly that carrying heavy objects on my head is definitely not one of mine.

I followed the women down the path to the river and watched as they emptied the clothes on the rocks, filled their tubs with water and added powdered soap before scouring the children’s clothes. We scrubbed and scrubbed, squatting and kneeling on the rocks, the sun warm but the air cool, our hands immersed in the cold river water.

As we washed, the women around us talked and laughed in a language we didn’t understand. My daughter watched closely and mimicked them, learning quickly how they scrubbed without splashing. I cleaned the only way I knew how, hands holding the cloth together, rubbing in an even rhythm.

When a woman filled my tub with fresh water, I remembered the one Sethotho word I had learned. “Galiboha,” I said. “Thank you.”

With eyes big and intent, she responded, “GaliboHA,” accenting the last syllable. I tried again, “GalliboHA!” I said, loud and clear. She laughed and laughed, and the other women laughed with her. She pointed to my daughter. “Better than you!” she said and laughed again, showing me how they scrubbed the red dirt from their clothes, two short scrubs ending with one long stroke. I smiled and tried to copy their ways, moving my hands together as if I was making music with sandpaper blocks.

The women continued to talk in the language of Lesotho, but now we all laughed easily. The brown shirts turned pink and blue and yellow, the once clear water in the tubs now the color of dirt. Clean clothes lay on the rocks drying in the sun.

Back home, I scrutinized the photographs. No wonder clothes kept falling from my tub onto the path in front and behind me. My tub was piled higher than anyone else’s as we walked down to the river.

Photos on this post by Tommy Taft.

Trip taken August 2011.

Is It Safe to Walk into Town?

Is it safe to walk into town? I asked the owner of the Sabie bed and breakfast in which we were staying. And because her answer was yes, we did, my son, my daughter and I. Beyond the electric gate, we walked past other homes with high fences and barking dogs toward town.

On the main street, cars and trucks whizzed by, quickly and unpredictably. It was after 5 p.m., and people lined up outside the liquor store and the supermarket. We tried to smile as people past us on the narrow sidewalk, their eyes focused forward, unacknowledging, unseeing. We didn’t know their language.

Day 4: A glimpse of Sabie townBy anupamdeb☆Favorite  Comment

It was dusk, and many stores were closed. Women were packing up their wares, fruit and vegetables, jewelry and carvings laid out along the road. We walked past the roundabout and found the supermarket where white women with children shopped. With bags of groceries, we headed back, stopping at the gas station’s Whimpy’s for a burger before finding the street that led us back to our gated accommodation.

After being able to greet and thank the local people in Cape Town and on the Eastern Cape where isiXhosa was the primary language, I regretted not knowing any words in the local languages of Mpumalanga where Sabie is located. According to, about 30% of the people in the South African province Mpumalanga speak Swaziland’s siSwati, 26% speak isiZulu and 12% speak isiNdebele. In the Eastern Cape, words broke the barrier; smiles and laughter broke the silence. In Mpumalanga, without words we lost our connection and remained apart. (See related post “Connecting.”)

South African Rock Art

South Africa is known for its rock art. All around the Drakensberg Mountains there are examples of rock art painted by the San people. The San people, or bushmen, were hunter-gatherers who lived in South Africa during the Stone Age and settled in the Drakensberg Mountains over 8000 years ago. According to a BBC article, the San used black, white and orange pigments to paint over 40,000 animal and human scenes in the Drakensbergs over 3000 years ago.

In Cape Town, we visited the Iziko South African Museum and saw our first rock art: rock paintings included in the museum’s temporary “Made in Translation” exhibit. As I read and learned about the artists, the types of images painted and materials used, I looked forward to seeing some rock art in its natural environment.

As we traveled from the Wild Coast to the Drakensbergs, I saw many notations of rock art on the map. When we passed by without stopping, I wasn’t worried. After all, we would be staying in the Drakensbergs for two nights and should have plenty of opportunities ahead. But traveling with a group has its downsides. Compromise is always a necessity, and rock art just wasn’t on anyone else’s list of things to see.

Our last morning in Royal Natal National Park, I talked my family into walking a mile to see an example of rock art near our lodging at Sungubala. We left our friends at the cabin and walked down the mountain path, crossing a stream, climbing around some rocks as we counted our steps and followed the instructions on our trail description. And there it was. Not quite the art I was anticipating, or even looking forward to seeing, but art nonetheless.

To see some San rock art, check out for a list of locations and property owners or go to KwaZulu-Natal’s new Kamberg Rock Art Centre which has more than 40,000 San Bushman images in the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. For more information on the San people, check out the article on For photographs of their art, check out the gallery on

Photo of Sungubala rock art by Tommy Taft.

Hiking to Tugela Falls

When will we get another chance like this? To see the second highest waterfall in the world? A waterfall second only to Angel Falls in Venezuela. Godfried wanted to guide us on a hike to see Tugela Falls, and we said yes.

According to our guide books, Tugela Falls in Royal Natal National Park has a total drop in five free leaping falls of 3,110 feet. After heavy rainfall, the books say you can see the falls from roads leading into the park, and the Gorge Hike, which we were about to begin, brings hikers to the base of the falls.

In our friends’ vehicle, we followed the car containing Godfried and a Dutch family down a dirt road and onto the highway toward Royal Natal and the waterfall. The sky was blue and clear and the sun warmed our legs, bare with our bravery against the chilly morning. Amber grasses waved as we drove toward the snow skimmed peaks; it was winter in the northern Drakensbergs of South Africa.

On the way, we stopped at a rural store so Godfried could buy minutes on his cell phone, and my friend and I entered the small shack, looking for a soft drink to appease her queasy stomach. The store was small, a single room whose goods were confined in a cage. Floor to ceiling bars separated the worker from the customer. Only the coke machine and bags of dog food were available without a key. We paid for the drink and were on our way.

We parked at the trail head, used the facilities, and headed off on a winding dirt trail, stopping only to check out a small snake, to look at a bird, to eat a snack. The dirt trail turned into a stone one, where boulders filled a gorge and white blazes marked the way. We climbed and climbed through the red and yellow and grey gorge, its walls stained by water trickling over its edge. We saw and heard people speaking Dutch and English and Spanish on the trails, a few jumping from the rocks to the deep swimming hole below.

“How much further?” we asked Godfried, when we’d finished our lunch and a good 4 hours of hiking. He pointed up and over. “Just a few minutes,” he said, eventually taking us up the ladder and over the rocks to a spot not far ahead. He stopped and pointed, and when I leaned forward and peered into the bright sun with my binoculars, I thought I could see it, just barely. Across the gorge, on the flat headed peaks of the Amphitheater, where fog spilled and the sun reflected a shiny blackness, there was the waterfall. Frozen. “It is not a proper view,” Godfried said. But we wondered. How many tourists did he take on this hike?

We laughed that night, after a 3-hour hike and a 30-minute ride back to our cabin. Although tired and sore, we didn’t regret the hike with its beautiful views of the gorge and the Amphitheater. The promise of the falls lured us on a hike through colors and rocks. And now we can say we’ve seen Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world.


When Plumbing Doesn’t Exist

There were moments on our South African trip when plumbing didn’t exist. We spent hours with Africans learning about their culture; we visited their huts and walked through the villages, never seeing a toilet, never seeing anyone squat. We were told later that most huts have a bucket behind the door.

The outdoors became our bathroom when we hiked in the mountains and stopped for a drink on a guided game drive. When we spent the night in a treehouse out in the middle of the bush, we learned to be resourceful and to improvise.

Whether it was on a hike in the mountains, in a hotel room where only a shower curtain separated the toilet from the rest of the room or on a guided game drive in lion country, just a few feet and a small bush from the Land Rover, we learned to announce our intentions whenever we had to go to ensure privacy as well as safety.

Making a Pit Stop in Town

As we traveled throughout the cities and towns of South Africa, we ate at many first world restaurants with first world toilets, in Cape Town, Lady Grey, Ladybrand, Clarens, Durban and Sabie. And when we weren’t eating at a restaurant, finding a toilet was similar to finding one in the U.S. while traveling in an unfamiliar area. One has to ask.

After shopping in a small grocery store in the South African town of Ladybrand, I followed the cashier’s directions to the back of the store and entered its entrails. As I walked slowly, not sure where to go, a friendly young Afrikaans woman found me and told me to follow her. She walked quickly with authority, turning corners often, joking and laughing with employees we encountered along the way. Handing me the key, she left me with instructions to lock the door when I was done. The toilet was small but adequate, not unlike what I have encountered in supermarkets in the U.S. As I left, I locked the door and began walking, attempting to retrace my steps through the maze of corridors and boxes. The Afrikaans woman found me and escorted me to the front of the store where I found my family ready to leave.

Later that day we found a KFC with a clean and easily accessible restroom. Though not quite an adventure, stopping there was simple and reminded us of home.

At the Petrol Station

After several hours in the car, seeing only huts and termite mounds along the N2 highway in rural South Africa, my husband said he was going to have to pull over. No one liked the idea, stopping by the side of the road would make us vulnerable to other people and animals, but we had no choice. Then, just as we drove over the next hill, a petrol station appeared like a mirage, complete with toilets.

The boys approached the toilets first. With coin in hand, they followed the toothless smiling woman to the men’s room. A few minutes later it was our turn. My daughter and I smiled at the woman, saying hello in Xhosa, “Molo.” She smiled and laughed, offering us toilet paper and waiting outside the stall as we took turns using the clean, flush toilets.

Our next petrol station experience was cleaner and bigger. At the Shell Station Union City in Mthatha, we entered the large new and bright restroom and discovered several stalls with flush toilets. A woman attendant sat by the sinks, and we left our coins in the tip jar on the counter after washing our hands.

A few days later, as we drove north along the western boundary of Lesotho, we stopped in a small town looking for petrol and a place to relieve our bladders. It was early, about 9 a.m., and at the first station we stopped they didn’t have any petrol. We continued to the next station where we were told the same thing. Finally we found petrol at the town’s Shell Station. While my husband and son sat with the car, my daughter and I went in search of the toilet. We walked around the side of the building where one of the workers led us to an African man who controlled the keys. Skinny and older and speaking no English, he led us through a gate and down a walkway between high white walls. Reaching up to a ledge, he lowered a small cardboard box and held it out to us. The box contained toilet paper and somehow he made me understand that I was supposed to pay him and take whatever paper I needed. I paid him 2 rand, and he unlocked the “women’s room.” The large and spacious white tiled bathroom was filthy. One of the stalls had no door and no toilet seat. Inside the other stall was a door but no latch. The tile floor was broken, and the faucet didn’t work. We left in a hurry.

Doing Our Business in South Africa

South Africa is a country of contrasts, and as we traveled throughout its varied land, we experienced first world luxury and third world poverty and then some in between. We slept in rondavels (round thatched roof huts) and on futons, in apartments and cottages, in tent cabins, in game lodges and even in a tree house. We ate take out at the mall and fast food at the petrol station; we ate at a waterfront restaurant with heat lamps, and we self-catered, that is, we made our own food in communal or private kitchens where we were staying.

So where did we do our business? A necessity and sometimes a luxury, we explored and experienced a variety of toilets during our month long stay in South Africa. I will describe a few of the more interesting and unique toilets we used in the next few posts.

On the Wild Coast, we stayed at a hostel-like resort called Bulungula Lodge. The lodge is in the village of Bulungula, a village which has no electricity, no plumbing, and no mail service. We slept in our own rondavel with dirt floor, a window, a door and three futon beds, and whenever the need arose, we took a short walk outside and down a dirt path.

The door of another hut opened to bright colors and murals of turtles, frogs, flowers and fish, each of six stalls personalized by its own mural in yellows, greens, oranges, blues, purples, pinks and reds. Each stall contained a composting toilet, a bucket of dirt and a shovel and driftwood holding a roll of toilet paper. The instructions on the back of the door told us what to do. These toilets were simpler than the composting toilets I’ve seen in the U.S., but the dirt covered the smell, so odors were not offensive. These were the only composting toilets we encountered in South Africa.

Snacks in South Africa

At home, we limit the sugared and processed food in our house. Soft drinks only appear at parties, potato chips are never bought and cookies are usually home made. But on vacation, we relax a little, especially when traveling in a unique place. Don’t you think eating the local food is part of the cultural experience, even if it’s not necessarily good for you?

I used to think the U.S. had all the choices, but in South Africa, my kids were overwhelmed and excited by the variety of potato chip flavors they’d never heard of or sampled before. The few times we stopped at a petrol station looking for a snack, they searched for the new and different. There were Korma Curry potato chips, Caribbean Onion and Balsamic Vinegar, Thai Sweet Chili, Beef and Biltong flavored potato chips and even Sweet Chili flavored Doritos. We each chose a bag and shared tastes, some preferring the more spicy chips, others the sweet.

Although pineapple Fanta was the kids’ favorite choice to wash down the salty chips, they also enjoyed orange and grape Fanta as well as Grapetisers and Appletisers, just juice and carbonation, no added sugar.

And of course we had to try the biltong. Similar to beef jerky, biltong is strips of meat that have been marinated or seasoned and then cured and dried. It is sold in small packages in grocery stores and convenience stores or you can buy it shredded at the mall or at the butchery where it is sold by weight. You can eat beef or kudu, ostrich or springbok, eland or gemsbok. The thickness and flavor of the biltong varies, depending on the meat, the cut and its preparation.

We tried biltong a few times. In Lady Grey, we bought beef biltong from a butchery, where the butcher filled a small brown paper bag with shredded pieces cut from a big slab of beef hanging from the ceiling. We bought packaged kudu and springbok biltong in Kruger National Park. I winced as I tried it, thinking of the kudu we’d just seen running by the side of the road.

If you can’t make it to South Africa and really want to try out biltong, try making it yourself (there are plenty of recipes online) or check out the website Based in North Carolina, this company imports a few South African items for sale in the U.S. including biltong and Appletisers.

Fanta photo by Tommy Taft.