Monday, 24 January 2011


I'm writing this post from wintry Cambridge. Things got so hectic in my last in Maseru that I've only just gotten around to writing about it now.

The last week of my project was fun but very busy. The main work-related highlight was the chance to go into one of the communities where the land regularization is taking place. For many months, the teams of people working for the regularization contractor have been going into the urban communities and getting people to agree where their property boundaries are; this is the main thing you need to do before giving people leases to their land.

It's not an easy job. Earlier in the week, we hosted a dinner for the team of people who "adjudicate" the urban land plots. The adjudicators' job is to go into the suburbs (lower-income, informal settlements under the authority of a traditional chief) and get neighbors to agree on their boundaries so that our partners can issue leases to the properties. The adjudicators are very young - mostly younger than 25 - and run into a lot of problems in their jobs. Some residents don't like the idea of disrespectful youth coming into their neighborhoods and telling them where their boundaries are, so the adjudicators occasionally end up being insulted or chased off people's properties with a stick.

My trip to the field was lower key. I had the chance to watch a mediator try to reconcile two parties who had been fighting over a plot of land since 1991. The parties had let the land go fallow since then, because they were unable to agree on rightful ownership. It was an interesting experience to watch (with translation) the mediator try to get the parties to reach a compromise. In the end, though, they didn't - compromise is a difficult after clinging to your position for twenty years. What made things trickier is that each party was supported by the authority of different area chief, and the two chiefs in questions were involved in a dispute of their own. Disputes between parties are complicated enough on their own, but they become much worse when local politics are involved.

The highlight (fun-wise) was a final wrap-up dinner with most of our team in South Africa. Maseru is only 10 miles away from Ladybrand, a minor town of the Orange Free State (the heartland of Afrikaaner culture). Ladybrand isn't high on anyone's list for fun, but it does have one fancy restaurant - Cranberry Cottage - that serves nice food in a charming garden setting. Crab croquettes, braai'ed pork chops and an amazing apple sponge with custard for dessert (not to mention some good chenin blanc from the Western Cape). Easily one of the best meals I ate during this trip.

On Friday morning, we had a nice wrap-up meeting with all four of our project partners. I was impressed with what we were able to get done; three weeks is not a long time to do anything, especially in the world of development projects. With a terrific team and help from the different people in Maseru, though, we were able to pull it off. The people at MCA-Lesotho and MCC (our two main partners in Maseru) had some very kind words for us and invited to do more work with them in the future. I hope that we (or at least another group of HLS students) can take them up on it.

January had a lot of highlights for me - learning about urban land disputes, experiencing the leadership challenges of coordinating a project, exploring the Lesotho countryside on horseback, discovering euchre, making new friends. Even though it was only three weeks, it certainly felt longer.

The journey home was long, including a 17-hour direct flight from Joburg to Atlanta. It sounds bad, but with seven episodes of SVU, an eight-hour sleep, and a nearly-unwatchable sci-fi movie (2012 - atrociously bad), the time passed pretty quickly. I got back around noon on Saturday and decided to pay a surprise visit to Steph and my friends in New York. I got on a bus a few hours later and went to Manhattan for the night - a fun re-introduction to the US after a few weeks of being gone.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Cows and Horses

Just got back from another weekend in the interior of Lesotho. If I thought last weekend was spectacular, this one was even better.

Our group set out for Maliba (mah-DEE-bah), a luxury lodge in the North of Lesotho described as the country’s “most exclusive hotel” by Lonely Planet (admittedly, one of the least exclusive guidebooks around). The lodge is located in the middle of nowhere, overlooking a picturesque valley so isolated that it gets no visitors other than the hotel guests.

The fancy folks at Maliba allow commoners like us to stay on their grounds, as long as we rent the less fancy river houses down by the water. Even those houses were pretty incredible, two-story thatched cottages with both a porch and a balcony overlooking flood-widened rivers, green mountains and herds of wild elands. We did self-catering instead of restaurant food, so I stuffed my face with good food (and semi-authentic marshmallows) for the weekend.

On Saturday, I went horseback riding again. (Aside: I decided some time ago that I will learn a number of manly, useful things that will make me cooler and more James Bond-like. These include: knowing how to shoot a gun, operating a manual transmission, surfing, etc. James Bond knows how to ride a horse, so it’s on the list too. Can’t pass up a chance to learn when it comes by.) My horse last weekend was pretty nice, but this time I got the luxury version – a large, glossy, espresso-colored horse called Josephine who followed my commands perfectly.

It was a good thing, too, since our trek involving some very steep switchbacks along cliffs and some trotting and cantering along said cliffs. A bit hair-raising at times but fantastic views of the famous “Three Waterfalls” at the end of the trek:

Whenever I visit new countries, I always think about their tourism sector and the way that tourism affects the development of the local economy. From my time spent in Africa, Lesotho strikes me as a country with great untapped potential for tourism. The scenery is spectacular, it’s safe, fairly cheap, and the local culture is interesting and accessible (think blankets, a language with clicks, horse-back riding). I think it would be a great candidate for backpacker-style “community-based tourism” (where tourists essentially pay to live with locals and take part in the more interesting aspects of traditional culture). Yet tourism doesn’t seem to be flourishing here as much as I would have thought. There are tourists here, but they aren’t common, and those that come are generally from South Africa or Holland (countries more likely to know about Lesotho in the first place because of historical ties). Someone needs to put this place back on the (touristic) map.

On the way home from Maliba, our driver, Topollo, took us to a district capital, Teyateyaneng, or “TY” for short. The idea was that we could pay his uncle a visit. His uncle runs a local bar that was as lively as it was cheap. Highlights included a wide range of cheap “quarts” (giant beers with 660 mL), well-sauced locals, and a jukebox with traditional Basotho music. I picked a song at random from the machine and it seemed to be a hit; a somewhat tipsy woman gave me a rand coin and told me to play it again.

Before we left, the owner’s brother invited us out back for a game of “cattle.” We went around the back and saw a small group of six or seven cows being herded by three young men with sticks while a carload of young guys were watching in the background. I was nervous that the game was going to involve at least one of the cows getting killed (à la bullfighting) but it ended being something else altogether. The “game,” from what I gathered, involved the cowboys rubbing the cows’ backs so that they sit down quickly in an orderly line. The more cows you can get to lie down quickly, the better. I have to give it points for uniqueness and lack of harm to the bovine participants. Although probably not a major draw for the tourism sector.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Establishing Field Cred

I have to credit my friend David for an incredible link he forwarded me earlier this week. It’s a site called “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like,” modeled on the runaway success “Stuff White People Like.”

I like “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like” more than the original. It’s a funny take on the frequent ridiculousness of expat aid workers – and manages to point out some amusing commonalities among a group of people that consider themselves to be really unique and amazing. Examples of things that aid workers like: “pets,” “explaining local culture to locals,” “establishing field cred,” “dismissing the efforts of celebrity aid workers,” “drivers.” – a must read for expat aid workers and those who love them!


Haven’t written much about work so far... thought I'd fix that.

As I mentioned in my first Lesotho post, I’m here with seven other Harvard students who are here on a project supported by the US government. Four of us (including me) are working to support the Millennium Challenge Account (a Lesotho-led development agency supported by the US-based Millennium Challenge Corporation) on its efforts to regularize land titles in urban areas. Sound confusing? Yeah, it is – a lot of different people in the mix (not to mention the numerous contractors and “collaborating partners” who are also involved with the project).

My team has joined up with three of the finest students from the National University of Lesotho’s Faculty of Law – great future lawyers who have been helping us navigate the legal system here. Last Friday, we went out to visit them at the University, about an hour outside of Maseru. The library there was quite badly under-stocked (especially in the legal department), but it did have some unexpected treasures. I found a copy of an official government gazette (1857) from the Cape of Good Hope, a British colony that existed before South Africa became a nation. Incredible that it was just sitting there next to the outdated encyclopedias. Me with the goods:

One purpose of my project is to categorize all the types of land-related lawsuits that have ended up in the courts over the past few years in and around the national capital. There are two reasons for doing this. First, understanding the most common land-related problems means that we can better advise the government on the most problematic land cases that come up – nobody knows right now what people are fighting over exactly. Until they do, it will be hard to develop systems that prevent those disagreements in the first place. Second, the government here is developing a (mandatory) mediation system for certain types of disagreements. So before people will be allowed to go to court, they will need to try out mediation first and see if that works, at least some of the time. Part of our job is to figure out what types of property arguments should go to the mediation first and which should fast-track to the courts. For instance, maybe divorce-related disputes should go to mediation, but maybe commercial land claims shouldn’t. It’s our job to try and figure out what makes the most sense in terms of the dispute system design.

But finding the land-related cases isn’t easy. We are starting to realize that there are hundreds of such disputes, and the files are scattered across multiple courthouses, and they’re not electronic (i.e., just paper), and they aren’t sorted in any way. All of this makes the process very labor intensive. I’ve spent the past two full days looking through vast numbers of old court cases in order to find those that relate to land disputes. With between 5-10% of total court cases relating to land, it takes a long time. Here is our team amidst the files at the High Court:

The upside of hours spent digging through documents is that some amusing stories come up: the man whose 2 goats were repo’d by a lender and wanted them back; the woman whose ex-husband sneaks into her houses and takes a poo in a bucket in the hallway; a food saleswoman defamed by her fellow street vendors as having lower-quality sausages for sale; and a student accused of cheating at the University who “discovered to his great shock” that there was a piece of paper under his desk that related to answer 7-D of his final exam. All very colorful stuff.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Pony Up

Just got back from my first weekend in the interior of Lesotho. It was definitely one of the best tourist weekends I’ve had in a long time.

Early on Saturday, our team of eight joined up with three Basotho friends and traveled to Malealea, a trekking and camping area South of the capital.

On Saturday afternoon, I spent the better part of the day learning to ride a horse. I’d ridden horses before with limited success (on separate occasions: losing control of a galloping horse; renting a broken down nag that refused to trot; having to ride a camel instead). This time was better, though. The lodge rented me a very fast and responsive horse, Excise (like the tax), who I took on a four-hour trek through the highlands.

The scenery was stunning – blue skies, rolling pastures and deep river valleys. Our path wound its way up and down hills and through fields where sheep and cows were grazing. The only sounds other than ours were the chorus of cowbells from the herds we passed. Halfway through, we stopped at a beautiful waterfall hidden in a valley for photos and cool-down. Perhaps predictably, there were two boys playing “traditional” instruments for the enjoyment (and tipping) of passers-by. Of course, I wasn’t able to resist trying my hand at the old bucket-drum-thingy. I never got any tips... odd.

Some of my traveling companions knew much more than me about horsey matters and taught me how to control my animal. By the end of the trek, I felt like I could keep my horse in line – whether that meant going fast or slow. I’m not like John Wayne yet, but I made some progress. Towards the end of the trek, one of my Basotho companions and I had a race on a long, flat stretch. Going at full gallop is great, and it made me want to take lessons and learn to ride properly.

The best part of the day, though, was the night. To save fuel costs, the lodge shuts its power off after 10 pm, and the compound is plunged into darkness except for the occasional guard with a flashlight. Without a new moon, and without any village lights to pollute the night sky, the stars were clearer than I’ve ever seen them before. I saw the band of the Milky Way arc across the whole sky – impossible to capture with a camera but incredible to see.

On Sunday, I went horse-trekking again, this time to visit Khoi-San rock art. The Khoi-San are a large family of ethnic groups, including modern-day Kalahari bushmen and the original inhabitants of Lesotho. The original Khoi-San inhabitants were eliminated by the ancestors of modern Basotho during the Bantu expansion a long time ago. Nonetheless, some of the rock art they created is still preserved in a series of protected caves near Malealea. The drawings were small but very sophisticated-looking (in fact, I wondered at first if the locals hadn’t made them to attract tourists). Here is me with a little vintage artwork.

So that was it in a nutshell – great first weekend in Lesotho. I needed the rest; this week has been quite hectic with work… but more on that later.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Double Click

One of my favorite things about traveling is learning local languages. Sometimes I make a real effort to learn and take classes abroad (e.g., Wolof, Spanish), and other times I just try to pick things up informally (e.g., Russian and Brazilian – neither of which I can actually speak).

The mother tongue of Basotho people is Sesotho (Sotho), a Bantu language distantly related to Swahili. All Bantu languages share close similarities – a simple tense structure, lack of grammatical cases, phonetic pronunciation, common vocabulary and unusual treatment of gender. Of the major Western languages, English has one gender, French and Spanish have two genders, and others – Latin, Greek, Russian, German – have three. In Bantu languages like Swahili and Sotho, there are not “male” and “female” classes of words like in Spanish, but rather many (often more than 12) categories that refer to different sorts of things (e.g., people, abstract concepts, natural things, foreign words). Although it’s different from what most Westerners are used to, it’s very logical once you start using it. But it does take time to learn, on top of the small number of “clicking” sounds in Sesotho.

In preparation for coming here, I bought myself an audio CD for Christmas: “Talk Now! Learn Sesotho” by euroTalk. At a whopping $25, I was expecting to at least sort of learn the language. But I didn’t; the euroTalk CD is probably the single most disappointing language guide I’ve ever used. Do not buy from that series unless you absolutely have to! Thanks to euroTalk, my vocabulary now consists of colors, Sesotho names for Western food, numbers, and highly formal greetings… and my grammar is non-existent.

Nonetheless, I had a (fleeting) moment of success last night when I was able to order a glass of red wine in Sotho! The waiter actually understood what I was saying, since “one glass of red wine, please” combines the otherwise useless euroTalk vocabulary of colors (red), food (wine), numbers (one) and formal phrases (please). To be honest, it was a hollow victory – I actually wanted a glass of white wine but forgot the word for white, “tsweu.” Still, it was progress.

Not that speaking Sotho is necessary for the work we’re doing in Maseru. The partners I am working with here are either expats or highly educated Basotho who speak English perfectly. From what I gather, though, things get trickier once you get into the villages. Better have those clicks ready after all.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Lesotho Time

Happy New Year!

Tanzlines is back from its winter hibernation. This time, I’ll be blogging about my adventures in Lesotho, a little country surrounded entirely by South Africa.

I’m here as part of an exciting development project. Along with some other students from Harvard Law School, I’m working on a land-related development project supported by the governments of the US and Lesotho. The student participation in the project is the first-ever international collaboration between the Millennium Challenge Corporation (an agency of the US gov’t that focuses on poverty reduction –, Harvard Law School and the Harvard Law & International Development Society (a student group I'm involved in at Harvard that works on development issues –

The work itself is looking promising. Our team is helping to support a large ‘land regularization’ effort jointly led by the governments of the US and Lesotho. Land regularization is the name of a particular development strategy that seeks to give the occupants of land (often poor farmers or city-dwellers) certificates or titles to the land they live on. In many sub-Saharan countries, weak or inefficient administrations, plus traditional land customs, mean that the people who live on a plot of land don’t have any written proof that it’s theirs. Often, the occupiers purchased it fairly, were given it by a chief, or inherited it from their ancestors. But in a modern economy, lacking a piece of paper to prove ownership means that it can be difficult to get a bank loan, sell the property, or protect yourself from others who claim the land is theirs. The idea of regularization is that you can legitimize family occupancy and increase land security for the poor. It’s also designed to stimulate the economy, both because people with titles can more easily sell their land, and because titles allow people to borrow money from banks.

Regularization programs have had some real success around the globe (especially in Peru, where the architect of regularization and titling programs, Hernando de Soto, lives and works). But reg. efforts also lead to a lot of problems (more on that later) and a large number of academics and development workers object to the way such programs are carried out. Although I’ve done some work in land-related issues before, I still haven’t fully formed my views on titling-and-regularization programs. Hopefully the next few weeks will teach me a lot!

Although I’m only here for a little while, I should have enough time to slip in a few adventures before I go. Lesotho is famous for its rocky highlands, pony trekking, giant waterfalls, mountain camping, and interesting cultural traditions. And it looks like some pony trekking might be in the works for this weekend.

Will write more soon!