I Slept Carelessly – A Shepherd’s Tale



It had been a very long tiring day bouncing about in a Land rover in the Lesotho Mountains, up and down steep bridle path tracks where there were no roads. We had held meetings with Basotho farmers in remote areas to introduce dipping and dosing methods to control external and internal parasites in sheep and Angora goats.

At about nine o’clock that night we reached base at a Livestock Improvement Centre but we were so tired we merely put down our camp mattresses and rolled up in our blankets to sleep. This was about three years after Lesotho had gained its Independence in 1966

Next morning, feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep we were preparing breakfast on camp stoves when Matlanyane, the Livestock Officer appeared. On being asked how he had slept, his reply was “Oh, I slept very carelessly” Patsy, intrigued by this unusual turn of phrase asked him what he meant by ‘carelessly’? He replied that he had been so tired last night that he had slept right through the night without hearing anything or any sounds. As a boy he had been a ‘molisane’ (herdboy or shepherd) caring for his father’s livestock at the cattle post in a remote mountain area. The molisane has to be alert at all times to the threat of stock thieves. especially during the night. He needed to sleep with one ear cocked, as it were.He had several dogs and these were trained to sleep under bushes surrounding his cattle post hut in order to raise the alarm should intruders approach. The molisane had to be alert at all times to hear any alarm calls the dogs might make.  To sleep ‘carelessly’ meant you slept so well that you heard nothing : that just wasn’t good enough!

Traditionally, in days of yore, the people of Lesotho lived in villages in the Lowlands, that is areas below the sandstone cliffs, and possibly in the foothills. The  mountain areas beyond the first range of the Maluti mountains was reserved for grazing and was known as ‘cattle post country’ where no permanent habitation was allowed. The land was held in trust for the nation by the Paramount Chief and through him the ward chiefs. A stockowner would get permission from the Chief to establish a ‘cattle post’ at a suitable spot With the passage of time and with increasing land pressure in the Lowlands, villages have been established in what was “cattle post’ country. Never-the less even today there are vast areas of exclusively grazing areas –metebong or cattle posts. Having got permission from the Chief, the stockowner would find a suitable location where he would set up a very rudimentary dwelling and kraals from which the molisane would take his stock (sheep, goats, cattle, and horses) out to graze each morning and kraal them again at night. It is a communal system of grazing, as one cannot ‘own’ the ground. Molisane would trek up to these remote cattle posts in the spring before the new season crops were growing. He would have with him a bag of mealie meal a couple of blankets; a pair of gum boots ; cooking pots, his sticks and dogs and that is about all. He would remain at the cattle post throughout the summer, and trek back to the village areas in the autumn or early winter when reaping had been completed. The boys have a strong affinity with their dogs, which are well trained and very loyal. I have heard it said that some thieves can burn certain plants which calm the dogs down and may even put them to sleep, which meant that the boy had to be alert at the first signs of alarm put up by the dogs. (I cannot personally vouch for the truth of this belief)

It was a tough existence for the molisane and he had to be self reliant and pretty hardy to stand up to the harsh climatic conditions in the Lesotho mountains. Matlanyane has some interesting stories about the life of a molisane. His first real recollections of life were when one day soon after he was weaned he woke up at the cattle post under the care of his uncle. Normally, he would remain a molisane until there was younger brother old enough to take his place so that he could attend school in the Lowlands where the family home was situated. Unfortunately for him, there were no younger brothers: only sisters, who were able to go to school from quite an early age. He remained a molisane until he was nearly adult (I do not know who eventually took over from him) Most balisane are illiterate and most probably unable even to count. However, they know their animals so well that when they drive them into the kraal they will know at once if any are missing: they will also be able to identify them at once: no mechanical sheep counters for him. Then there is his lesiba This is a musical instrument the boys make from a piece of bamboo (yes’ there are places in Lesotho highlands where a species of true bamboo grows) a length of plaited horse hair string attached atone end while the other end is attached to a shaped section of feather. Sucking and blowing on this feather produce an eerie sound. Cattle learn to follow this sound.   A few animals will have cowbells attached for identification in bad or misty weather.Well, since Matlanyane had no younger brothers, he began school late and it was his sisters who eventually arranged for his schooling. Matlanyane finally gained a diploma in Agriculture and completed a year of practical veterinary training employed by the Lesotho Government to assist stockowners with animal health problems.

To get back to the life of a molisane. He lived mainly on maize meal, which his father would bring to him every now and then when he went to the cattle post to check his animals. Matlanyane was able to get some milk from his cows; occasionally he would have some meat if an animal died (naturally he had to be extremely careful not to let too many sheep ‘die’). Sometimes they could entice a neighbour’s sheep to wander and not find its way home. Apart from watching over his flocks balisane would entertain themselves by hunting field mice or other little mammals; they would indulge in stick fights with other  boys, probably more in fun than with venom. They also acquired a good understanding of the world around them, the vagaries of the weather and so on. Then during the fruit season, they would capture some horses and ride helter skelter to the lowlands at night to steal peaches or perhaps a few maize cobs, and then rush back to the cattle post before morning, having left someone to see to the stock that night. Bear in mind they had neither saddles nor bridles and rode at pace down mountain passes with just a blanket on the horse’s backs using plaited horsehair or grass ropes attached to the animal’s mouth. as a bridle. Quite a feat in that terrain! Then they hunted cane rats; indulged in stick fights where they had to stand up for themselves. Snow can fall at any time of the year in the mountains, so they knitted themselves socks and a head covering from mohair that may have rubbed off on bushes near the cattle post to combat the cold. It has happened that boys have frozen to death when unseasonable severe cold set in before the usual time to return to the lowlands before winter. I suppose they had some sort of Basotho remedies for sickness and accidents

I was once trekking high up in the Mokhotlong area when a came across three horsemen well mounted and behind them was molison in a ragged blanket hobbling along, obviously suffering from a badly sprained ankle. I was told they were taking the boy to a clinic at least a days trek away. I asked how it was that they were riding while the injured boy had to hobb le along as best he could. “Oh!” came the reply” He hasn’t got a horse!” Yes, it is tough being a molisane, but a wonderful healthy life if all goes well.

I  trust you do not sleep too carelessly, but rather have a good night’s rest!


Story by Peter Millin

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