Sunday, May 11, 2008

Musi's Farm and Malealea Resort..... an inspiring success story

Sometimes, in the least expected places and circumstances, you come across people who touch you deeply and leave you feeling awed and humbled. Many people react this way in the presence of Nelson Mandela. I would love to have had a chance to meet him. However, when we were staying in Malealea, in central Lesotho, we went on a guided walk through the adjacent village, and to a local farm. And we had a similar experience. So I want to introduce you to the Musis, and show you what they have achieved on their little farm (about 4 and a half acres.) I feel really privileged to write this post, and share these picures with you.

To set the background, I need to tell you that the erosion of the soil is such a severe problem in Lesotho that even as a tourist, it is one of the prominent things that strikes you as you drive around. Deeply eroded gullies (or dongas, as we call them here) are everywhere, often looking like bleeding scars on the landscape, as the rich red topsoil is exposed in convoluted and fantastically shaped, strangely beautuiful ravines. Looking back over the photos I took of the great landscapes we saw around every corner, I see that almost all contain at least 1 severe gully. Look above the conical hut in this picture and you will see a deep one. I commented to Max several times along the way that it seemed as if the rich topsoil of the country was bleeding into the sea. It was disturbing to see, because in any country that relies on subsistence farming to feed its people, good soil is vital.

I have been waxing eloquent about the place, it is all so picturesque and feels like one has travelled back in time, but the reality is that life is very tough for these people. Even in a good year, it is a hand to mouth existence, and it just takes unusually heavy rains, or conversely a drought, to cause severe hardship.

Much of the erosion has been brought about by overgrazing. In many African tribes, a man's wealth is measured in the number of cattle he owns, and so this problem is common throughout Africa. One sees it often in areas where domestic animals graze so much of the grass that the roots can no longer bind the soil when it rains.

In Lesotho, which is nicknamed "the mountain kingdom", the problem is much worse, because the land has extreme slopes over so much of it, and rain therefore washes heavily down the sides, ripping the soil off as it goes.

Because I had been saddened by the extent of the damage, as we travelled through the rural areas, I was particularly interested when I saw a leaflet at Malealea about a local farmer who was working at reclaiming his farm. So we asked to go on a guided tour.

To get there, we went through a village (stopping on the way to see how sorghum beer and local wine are made. The grapes are bought, and stored for 2 days in a plastic bucket, with water and yeast. I asked why they didn't grow their own grapes, but was told it was difficult, due to the climate.)

We crossed some barren looking ground, with herds of cattle being moved around. They wore cowbells, and created incredibly melodic music as the different deep toned bells rang with their movements. In fact it is a sound that will always bring a warm glow in me as I associate it with this magical trip to Lesotho.

We went through some bad gullies, and again I was struck by the sad erosion. This is the land next to the Musi's Farm, and is how theirs looked 20 years ago.

But suddenly, we rounded a bend, and ahead of us was what looked like an oasis in the desert. The first thing I noticed was a grape vine on a pergola, I guess it particularly caught my eye because I had just asked about growing them here. Then behind it I saw the wonderfully built stone house. It was really chalk and cheese compared to the roughly built huts we had just walked past. The parallel rows of wonderfully cut and bevelled stones looked as if they had been built by a master craftsman. Here was someone who really took a pride in their work.

Our guide Solomon then introduced us to Albert, the home owner. Albert likes to test people. He just stood and stared at us. We looked around, as if to ask Solomon if we were expected there. He continued to say nothing, but took a few kernels from a cob of corn that had been roasted over an open fire, and then passed it to me. I thanked him and took a couple (YUM) and passed it back. It went on to Max, then Solomon. All this time, I was not sure if he knew why we were there, or if he could speak English. Only when I turned to ask Solomon to please thank him, and ask if we could see the farm, did he speak up, in perfect and fluent English, and welcome us!

He asked why we were there, and I told him how I had been really pained by the soil erosion I had seen throughout the areas we had travelled to, and that I had been excited to see the leaflet that spoke of his farm and the fact that he was busy reclaiming it. When he realised we were seriously interested, he told Solomon that he would guide us himself. Just then an elderly lady arrived and shook our hands. She introduced herself as Esther Musi. What a delightful woman, she was so warm and dignified and inviting.
I commented on the superb construction of her house, and she told us, with obvious delight, that it was built by her husband. He had hired some stone masons to build their house, and they made a start. Then they asked for an advance on their money, as they had to go and attend a funeral, and he never saw them again. He was so angry that he decided, if guys like them could build, so could he, and he set about building his own house. You can clearly see in the stonework where they left off and he began, because his work is so much better!

I would have loved to spend more time with Esther Musi, but at that point 2 other tourists arrived, and Albert told her he would take us around and she could talk to them. So off we went. At that point I didn't know what the relationship between them was. There didn't look like an enormous age difference, but then I have always been bad at judging people's ages. You could have knocked me over with a feather when he told me that she was his mother, and that he was 45 and she was 81! My gosh, I told Albert she put me to shame, I am always rabbitting on about how old and ricketty I am, and here was this amazing woman, still running her farm, prancing around like a mountain goat over rough terrain, and as sharp as a tack to talk to.

Esther is an educated and articulate woman. This may not sound like a surprising statement, but it is very unusual for a woman of her generation, living in her circumstances. I instantly liked and admired her, she is a strong minded woman. Apparently she was a teacher and her husband a motor mechanic. Albert too, although I did not ask about his education, is clearly a highly intellegent, articulate and well informed man.

The first place we went to was his Father's grave, which was very apt, as it was his father, Fanuel Musi, who had the vision and determination to start the project 20 years ago.

Standing next to the grave, Albert pointed down the hill, and across the valley to the land on the other side, and began to tell his story. One night 20 years ago, his father, who was already in his 60's at the time, wanted to go across the valley to check on his cattle on the other side. But heavy rain had washed a deep gully across his land and he was unable to cross. He went to Esther and said, with her permission, he was about to embark on a project to "put and end to this nonsense."

Albert was in his 20s at the time and recalls how hard they all worked. This is a family farm, and the whole family rolled up their sleeves and got involved.

The vision was to build dams of loose stone across the gullies, so that, as the rain ran down carrying topsoil, the water would drop the soil as it flowed through the stone walls, and do the work of filling the gullies. It was extremely hard work. There was no mechanical equipment available, no money to hire help, so the family had to manually quarry the rock themselves, cart it around the farm, and still continue working to earn a living at the same time.

Instead of most of the farm being a network of random gullies, one clear watercourse has been created, and planted with willows, poplars and other waterloving trees to bind and stabilize the banks.

Rocks held together with chicken wire hold the steeper parts together and prevent wash-aways.

And Fanuel Musi's wisdom did not end in the practicalities of reclaiming his land. He also knew that when a family labours hard together, it also needs time to rest. So once the really hard work of quarrying and carting the stone had been done, they worked together to creat a rest place on top of the rocky outcrop that had supplied the stone for the project. It is a wonderful spot, shaded by trees, with benches made of stone from the site, and appropriately enough, (I'll tell you why just now...) a great view across the valley to Malealea lodge.

In a land mostly devoid of trees, Malealea Lodge and Musi's farm stand out like oases in a desert.
As the years have gone by, more and more land has become available for planting and a careful choice of plants has meant that Albert is now able to provide everthing his family needs, and only buys sugar, and cooking oil now.

Fruit trees have been planted, including apples, apricots, chestnuts and peaches. (Albert, when you read the hard copy of this, that I am sending to Malealea, you will have to remind me of the fifth one, I have forgotten it!)

Here, he points out the bullrushes,
and explains how pillows are made using the fluff from their seed heads.
Sisal is grown, and the leaves sold to a company that uses the juice in face creams and cosmetics.
He points out the reeds that are grown in the watercourse, to supply thatching material for his family, and the surplus goes to the village.
Barley is grown to feed his cattle after they have worked hard drawing the ploughs, and vegetables are grown to feed the family.

Bear in mind when you look at all this that you cannot judge it through the eyes of those accustomed to first world farms that are run on huge budgets and with modern machinery. This was a subsistence farm, that was so damaged it could barely support 1 family, and it has been reclaimed and made productive enough to feed the family and start generating an income as well as jobs for others, with no capital whatsoever in the early years. As it began to generate an income, they were able to buy extra items to help the productivity, like this water tank, which is gravity fed from the water-course higher up, and in turn feeds a tap used to irrigate the good selection of vegetables. Crops are rotated regularly.

The farm now manages to produce a crop surplus and supplies the nearby Tourist Lodge of Malealea, with whom they have a partnership. At Malealea, they are a wonderful bunch. Instead of just raking in the bucks from their tourist venture, they are working hand in hand with the community to uplift the villages around them.

They arrange guided tours into the villages so that the people can earn money as guides, or showing how traditional beer and wine are made. Local pony owners are employed to take tourists on Pony Treks through the mountains, thus bringing Malealea an interesting and authentic activity to offer their visitors, and providing income for the pony owners at the same time. They ask visitors to sponsor trees, so that more gullies can be planted and reclaimed, and they are involved in health programmes and schools. They buy as much of the produce as possible locally for the restaurant at the resort.

That is where the Musi's farm comes in, they host tours of the farm on the one hand, and also supply produce to the resort.
Bouquets to you guys at Malealea, you are the sort of tourist operators who give the industry a good name, and who , as visitors, we are delighted to support!

It was really a privilege to meet the Musi family and see what can be done with a vision and a lot of hard work.

Albert's fondest dream is to own a small tractor, which would make life a lot easier on his land. We told him we are not in a position to help financially, but that we are able to spread the word, and would mention it, and if it is meant to be, someone who reads this will capture the vision and make it happen. I don't know what the logistics would be, of buying an old second hand tractor and getting it to him in Lesotho, but if anyone is able to help, I'd be willing to communicate with him or Malealea to set it up.

The question one is forced to ask is, if this is such a success, why is it the only farm in the area that has tried it? I can only assume it is the familiar "prophet not recognised in his own hometown" syndrome, but it would be wonderful if word of Musi's Farm got around and the lifeblood of Lesotho could stop bleeding into the sea!


Janet said...

This is, indeed, an inspiring success story! As I was reading it I was thinking this make a wonderful book....the story of the Musi family and how they tamed their little plot of land. I'm so happy you shared this with us and I do so hope that by putting this out in Blogland that someone somewhere will be able to help with the tractor. If there is any kind of donation acceptance set up I would love to contribute to it. This is a beautiful family working hard to make their lives better.

Suzi-k said...

Janet, you are a star, I never thought of that! I will e-mail the people at Malealea, and find out the logistics of it all, and see how much would be needed. Then I'll do a post about it. Thanks for the idea, and the warm response. I can't describe how I was moved by this family and their farm, it was amazing!

Rethabile said...

Heart-warming, and very logical reaction of the 'Musi family to the tragedy of soil loss the country is now sadly accustomed to.

I say it is logical because I've always thought of how I'd reclaim the land if given half the chance. And use (and pay) the local populace to do the same for our region, if given more than half the chance.

It all starts with two things, really: destruction of plant life by domestic animals (overgrazing) and by man (burning dry lands and chopping trees for firewood). That's where the government needs to step in with:

(1) plans for giving people a livelihood other than cattle-rearing and/or helping them feed their livestock appropriately and/or educating them on the insanity of letting land go to waste.

(2) provision of electricity to Basotho. God knows we can produce enough of the stuff with our damn dams (I couldn't help that, sorry). And if we can't, then wind turbines at appropriate locations would do the trick. A wind turbine or two per village, village by village, year by year. Warmed thus, and provided thus with cooking energy, what need would there be to chop trees down and uproot shrubs for burning? None.

It's easier to say than do, you may be thinking. But actually, it probably isn't, when one looks at the amount of money being spent in the capital by civil servants. Mansions are springing up all over Maseru, and Mercedes Benzes and Camrys are parked in their driveways, all at the expense of the villager.

But let's not get political. Nice post. I wish the best to the 'Musi family and to Basotho in general.

Rethabile said...


I forgot to mention that the name 'Musi means "the ruler." And to say it properly, you need to pronounce a double M at the beginning. So, not /MOO-see/ but /mMOO-see/. That's why the name is sometimes written Mmusi by foreigners, whereas we just place an apostrophe at the beginning to represent the first M.


Anonymous said...

An inspiring success story with amazing photos!

sam said...

Rethabile, thanks so much for the informative and interesting comments, so good to get an insiders take on the subject! We deliberately avoided the built-up areas, so gave Maseru a miss... thus we didn't get to see the affluent parts you describe. I am sorry to hear that Mercedes Benz is doing as well there as it seems to be in so many other capital cities! I get so mad when fat cats flourish at the expense of the rest of the Nation!!!

sam said...

oh sorry, I am still signed in on my Port Elizabeth Daily Photo name, its me... Suzi-k!

And I also got an e-mail from a regular reader from Oregon who has sent an e-mail to Oprah about the Musis.... Thanks Kiki, one can but hope!

Old Wom Tigley said...

Fantastic post Suzi.. I look forward to seeing where this goes to..... if you can incorperate another post with a Sky Watch post I can draw peoples attention to it one Friday...

dot said...

Wow, this was a great story and your pictures are amazing. I really enjoyed it. I hope this family can somehow get the tractor they need.

photowannabe said...

Suzi-K, this is my first time here. I have followed your husbands blog for some time and finally decided to give yours a look.
This is a powerful post and my heart goes out to the people. How wonderful that one family can do so much.
Looking forward to finding out if a fund could be set up for the Musi family tractor. I would contribute to it too. Can't afford much at all but every bit would help.
Oh yes, these are very beautiful and moving pictures too.

Texas Travelers said...

This is a great story and you did a fantastic job telling it.

Wonderful photos to add to the imagery of your words. You are a great word-smith.

Well done.

Thanks for the visit,