Tending the flocks, sacrificing childhood

Africa: Young "herd boys" work long, lonely hours, doing without school and family life.

January 22, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MAKOABATING, Lesotho - High in Lesotho's Maluti Mountains, Bokang Letsoela wakes at dawn in a stone hut, pulls a woolen blanket around his shoulders and steps into the thin, frosty morning air to begin another day as a sheepherder.

Bokang cannot read or write, add or subtract. He has never set foot in a school. But like any shepherd managing a flock, he has learned how to count. These are some of the numbers his life has taught him:

Five: The number of sheep he guards on a windy mountainside, where snow can fall even on summer days, where snakes populate the tall grass and where armed bandits are always a threat.

Twelve: The number of hours he spends away from his village before he is allowed to go home.

Zero: The number of companions he has out in the mountain pastures.

And perhaps the most powerful number of all, his age: Ten.

In this African kingdom, shepherds like Bokang are known as "herd boys." Some are as young as 6, but they do a job few adults in the world could bear, sacrificing school and family life to protect livestock in one of the roughest climates on the African continent.

They come from the poorest families in one of the poorest countries in the world. Too impoverished to pay for school, parents put their sons to work - or hire them out to wealthy livestock owners, guarding animals in remote mountain pastures all alone for days, weeks and sometimes months. In return for his work, a boy might receive a cow or perhaps a few sheep per year as payment.

It is one of the most hazardous forms of child labor, say United Nations officials.

"What you have is very young boys who are growing up alone. They have been denied the right to family life and to the socialization that come from living in a community," says Kimberly Gamble-Payne, representative of the United Nations Children's Fund in Lesotho.

Hardened by weather and isolation, the boys often grow into restless, troubled young men who are a menace to village life, responsible for rapes, thefts and sometimes killings, locals say. With no education and few job skills, their best hope is to become livestock owners.

But the government of Lesotho (pronounced le-SOO-too) and the United Nations are trying to pull these boys out of the hills and into the classrooms and perhaps reintroduce them to normal life.

It has not been easy. In 2000, the government - which charges fees for public education - introduced free primary education through third grade to encourage more parents to put their sons in school. Some parents took advantage of the offer, but many resisted, fearing it would disrupt a rural economy that has grown dependent on herd boy labor.

About one third of all boys ages 9 to 15 - about 60,000 children - work as shepherds, dotting the foothills and highlands of this Maryland-sized country that sits like an island in the center of South Africa.

Few here see anything wrong with raising boys this way, including many of the boys, who claim there is no greater honor than to be entrusted with livestock, the main form of wealth in this country.

You can tell if a herd boy is coming down the road not by his thick woolen blanket and high rubber boots, but by his walk, villagers say. Herd boys swagger with pride.

Even at the tender age of 10, Bokang, a shy boy with dark, sad eyes, stomps across the muddy mountain pastures in his blue rubber boots, hurling stones and calling out at his sheep as if he were leading them into battle. "I like animals," he offers. "Someday I'll own my own herd of livestock."

Still, Bokang acknowledges that he grows sad at the sight of other village boys hiking along the twisting mountain road to school each morning. He knows he is missing something, he says.

"I know the names of animals, but I cannot read or write the words," he says.

What stands between Bokang and school is his uncle, Telang Letsoela, who took Bokang in after Bokang's parents died. In this village of conical sandstone huts set on a mountainside, his uncle is a wealthy man. He is one of the few villagers with a modern cinderblock home topped with metal, not a thatch roof. Several dozen sheep and cattle crowd his animal pens.

Once a herd boy himself, Letsoela sees no reason why his nephew's life should be any different. A dedicated herder can earn enough livestock during his youth to pay "bride price," the money a young man needs to marry.

"It was fine for me," grumbles Letsoela, a tall bearded man wrapped in a long wool blanket. "It might be that I missed something, but Bokang will look after animals like me. If he goes to school, he won't know how to take care of them."

Such logic prevails in Lesotho, a rugged country of deep ravines and vast hilly grasslands penned in on all sides by mountains. Tourist brochures call this land the "Kingdom in the Sky."

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