An estimated 60,000 “herder boys” are trapped in an insidious form of indentured servitude virtually unnoticed by the outside world. Boys as young as 6 are forced to roam alone with their masters’ cattle for months through the bleak highlands of this African kingdom. Their impoverished families hire away their boyhoods to wealthy cattle owners for food, a cash pittance or debt forgiveness.
On Background: I heard about these boys while talking to an official of the
World Bank in Washington, D.C. I was going to Africa anyway to cover a
different story and thought I could drive to Lesotho, find some of the boys
and reveal their plight. After landing in Capetown, South Africa, I rented a
car, bought some supplies, and drove halfway across the country to the
Kingdom of Lesotho. Rioting had just destroyed the capital, Mesaru. I drove
inland through the mountains to a village and found a guide and some
horses. For several days, we rode through the wilderness until I found some
of the boys. I interviewed and photographed them. This is the story:
The Dallas Morning News
THABA SEKA, Lesotho – In a vast, treeless wilderness of green mountains and broad, empty valleys, an unwashed waif of a boy squats alone in a ravine, watching over a half-dozen cows.
Twelve-year-old Mofihli Lenkoe wears rubber boots and a tattered blanket over his narrow shoulders. He is weak and sick – tuberculosis, he says with a cough. He misses his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in months.
But the master who owns the cows – and now him – says Mofihli must stay in the mountains and not try to escape, or he’ll be beaten to a pulp. He dreads returning at night to the master’s home, where the daughter “who doesn’t like me” probably will beat him anyway.
“They will eat meat tonight, but I won’t get any,” he said. “They don’t feed me what they eat. When it’s cold, they send me to the fields. When I’m sick, they send me, too.”
Mofihli is among an estimated 60,000 “herder boys” who, human rights and United Nations officials say, are trapped in an insidious form of indentured servitude that has gone virtually unnoticed by the outside world.
A generation of boys as young as 6 are forced to roam alone with their masters’ cattle for weeks and months through the bleak highlands of this African kingdom.
Their impoverished families hire away their boyhoods to wealthy cattle owners for food, a cash pittance or debt forgiveness.
The boys subsist on goat’s milk and corn kernels, sleep in remote rock shelters, brave cattle thieves and become hostile. They will emerge as adults with no basic education or employable skills.
“We put this in the category of child labor,” said Malineo Motsephe, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in the Lesotho capital, Maseru. “His right to shelter is violated. His health care is nonexistent. He is denied love and security. “They’re alone out there, and they feel it.”
Targeting the cycle
Some Lesotho government officials blame the herder system for skyrocketing unemployment and a burgeoning population of restive young men, some of whom rioted last fall. Officials have asked international aid agencies – long present in Lesotho because one of the world’s largest dams is being built near this village – to break the cycle by moving herder boys from mountaintops into classrooms.
UNICEF has mounted a study to seek effective ways to improve life for the herder boys and their future families. This month, the World Bank began a $500,000 survey of the herder boys – who and where they are – as a prelude to intervention that might include subsidizing and building schools in the Lesotho outback.
“We believe that by giving them the skills to earn a living, they will not have to be indentured to someone else,” said Dzingai Mutumbuka, a World Bank education specialist in Washington. He said he was appalled at camp conditions he encountered last year during back-country helicopter trips.
“You have to change their cultural beliefs,” he said. “It is going to be a long process, but it has to be done.”
Lesotho is an island of dramatic mountains surrounded by South Africa, the continent’s most economically developed country. Its Basotho people sought refuge here in the mid-19th century from incessant regional warfare and declared independence.
Victims of change
The Basotho boast proud traditions as pastoralists and horsemen. Young boys learned animal husbandry by watching over neighbors’ herds. Payment came a cow or sheep at a time, allowing a persistent boy to build his own herd by adulthood. But the old way changed decades ago as young men gave up herding for wages in South Africa’s gold mines, said Vincent
Sechaba Seutloali, deputy director of Lesotho’s Distance Teaching Center. When the mines started closing in the 1980s, thousands of families were left without work or herds. Many gave their boys to those who had continued herding.
Children such as 13-year-old Muso Moshoeshoe labor alone for another family to no clear end. Baking corn kernels on a tin pan high on a ridge, Muso said his father gave him to a local cattle owner for about $10 a month.
He wore the standard herder boy uniform of patched rubber boots, ripped blanket and floppy wool cap.
Muso said his master never beats him. He said he enjoys the wandering life and the camaraderie of other herder boys. He was not afraid, either, quipping, “The bandits only eat cattle, not people.”
About 10 miles down the valley, in a small village of rock and straw conical huts, Muso’s father said he wished his son could go to school. But Mautioela Moshoeshoe, 42, said the family needed Muso’s meager earnings for food. He worried about his son, whom he sees about once a month.
“Sometimes the thieves come, and, if he fights with them, they might kill him . . .” Mr. Moshoeshoe said. “Some other children are going to school, but not Muso.”
Muso’s master, Motseisi Matamane, 29, inherited a large cattle herd from his father, who did not work in the mines. Three herder boys manage his flock, he said, and he’s doing them a favor.
“If I don’t pay them money, they can’t live,” he said. “The system isn’t great, but it’s the only way they can have life in Lesotho.”
Some human rights groups have galvanized international pressure against nations where indentured servitude is practiced, from India to Indonesia. A campaign is under way to buy slaves in Sudan to set them free.
Lesotho’s herder boys should get similar attention, some say.
“This is like a feudalism. It is a slavery,” said Charles Jacobs, a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston. It formed a year ago, mainly to end the slave trade in Sudan. “The human rights movement has virtually ignored this massive fundamental human right, which is liberty.”