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Lesotho - History & Background

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceLesotho - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


The Kingdom of Lesotho, a land of sunny skies and pleasant climate, was formerly known as Basutoland. A tiny mountain country, Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa, and Lesotho's history is closely related to that of its powerful neighbor. When wars swept southern Africa during the late 1700s and early 1800s and wiped out large numbers of the population, remnants of the various nations fled into the highlands of what is now Lesotho. Moshoeshoe (pronounced Mo-shwe-shwe) the Great gave them protection. Building a stronghold called Thaba Bosiu (Mountain of Night) about fifteen miles from the capital city of Maseru, in 1824 Moshoeshoe united his approximately 21,000 followers into the Basotho nation. Known for his wisdom and statesmanship, Moshoeshoe is the subject of many works in African literature. The spirit of Moshoeshoe lives on in the pride of the citizens of Lesotho in their independence, their traditional crafts, and in their families.

In the mid-nineteenth century, from 1856 to 1868, the British and the Boer settlers tried unsuccessfully to defeat the Basotho. When in 1868 Moshoeshoe asked Britain for protection, Basutoland became a British Protectorate. After Moshoeshoe died in 1870, the territory was placed under the rule of the British Cape Colony, which tried to disarm the Basotho but was repulsed. In 1884 Basutoland was reestablished as a British protectorate governed by a British colonial administrator. Whites were forbidden to acquire land, and Britain ensured that Basutoland would not be absorbed by neighboring white-ruled colonies. In 1966 the protectorate of Basutoland became the independent Kingdom of Lesotho. During the 1980s political instability in South Africa, where 250,000 Lesotho nationals worked in mines, and South African control of the Highland Water Project, exacerbated Lesotho's own internal conflicts. A bloodless military coup in 1986 led to several years of changing government structures and political instability. In 1998 South Africa and Botswana intervened in an outbreak of civil violence that devastated the capital city Maseru.

In 2001 King Letsie III ruled as the head of a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. There being little land suitable for agriculture, the people of Lesotho are primarily herders who live in small family units far from their neighbors. The people speak Sesotho (also known as southern Sotho), a Bantu language they share with many of the Bantu inhabitants of South Africa from whom they were separated by the boundaries imposed on Africa by the European colonial powers. English is the second official language.

Historical Evolution: French missionaries of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society first brought Western formal education to Lesotho during the 1830s. The schools were few in number and low in enrollment. Schools concentrated on teaching reading and writing at a very elementary level and teaching simple vocational skills for boys and housecrafts for girls. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Roman Catholic missionaries settled in Lesotho and also opened schools. During the 1930's Roman Catholicism expanded, and by the middle of the 1980s, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lesotho Evangelical Church, the successor of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society, each enrolled 40 percent of the country's primary school student population. The focus in the early days was on religious purposes and economic necessity. Secondary schools only came into being in 1948 when the first four were built, of which only one had senior classes. Examinations for junior and senior secondary schools were set in South Africa until 1961 when the senior schools switched from the South African Matriculation exam to the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate (COSC).

Thus, for more than a century education was almost exclusively the domain of the missionaries. Even though Lesotho was a Protectorate, the British had no real interest in the education of the Basotho, and until after Independence in 1966, the missionaries were responsible for most aspects of education—school organization, curriculum provision, payment of teachers' salaries, teacher professional support, and provision of facilities. Much of the time church halls were used as classrooms, and often teaching and learning were conducted in the open air. Lesotho's harsh winters were not conducive to effective learning.

Originally teacher training was done in colleges governed by the missions. In 1947 there were four colleges, and this was increased to seven by 1959. In 1975 the National Teacher Training College replaced the various small Teacher Training Colleges operated mainly by churches. Missions were equally concerned with vocational training, and "industrial schools" were founded to teach both boys and girls relevant skills. The Lerotholi Technical Institute was founded after the people of Lesotho, on the initiative of Paramount Chief Lerotholi, contributed money toward the building costs. During the 1970s the Lerotholi Polytechnic was expanded, and vocational subjects were introduced in a number of high schools.

Whenever possible citizens of the then Basutoland would go to neighboring South Africa, a fellow British Commonwealth country, to obtain an education. However, when South Africa introduced the Bantu Education Act, its first educational legislation bringing into effect the segregationist values espoused by apartheid, the landlocked mountainous nation had no option but to develop its own educational programs, and today its education system reflects little of South Africa's system. The Lesotho educational system has, in several respects, developed in opposition to that evolving in South Africa. Lesotho's geo-political situation has encouraged a certain amount of external financial aid, a great deal of which has been for educational development. Consequently, multinational characteristics are apparent in some of the developing educational structures.

Yet, despite the outside help, and even though the government of this country has been involved in education since the 1920s, sharing responsibility for its provision with the churches, much of the formal education system is still run by missions and is largely administered by the three largest churches—the Roman Catholic Church, the Lesotho Evangelical Church, and the Anglican Church of Lesotho—under the direction of the Ministry of Education. Until the mid-1970s Lesotho shared a common examinations board and a common university with the other two former British Protectorates in the region, Swaziland and Botswana.

Lesotho, with one of the highest literacy rates in Africa of 72 percent for males and 93 percent for females, has a traditionally British-style formal education system that still is Euro-centric rather than Afro-centric. The Cambridge Overseas School Certificate (COSC), set in England, is the final external exam that students take at the end of Form E, the fifth year of high school. The criteria for education and examinations, as well as the higher education that follows the school leaving exam, are thus still to a large extent set in England and not in Maseru. English is both the medium of instruction and a subject taught. It is compulsory to obtain a pass in English if one wishes to pass the COSC. Other areas of the curriculum such as history, geography, biology show evidence of similar concerns. None of the textbooks are written for the African situation. Most references are to flora and fauna, or geographical places that occur only in Europe and the United States. Historical events are never portrayed from an African perspective. Abstract concepts provide few opportunities for practical, hands on learning experiences. Attempts to complement materials received from England and from the United States have been undertaken.

At Independence in 1966 the United Nations and donor agencies helped identify the educational programs they felt most needed to be supported and supplied "experts," mostly of foreign origin, and funds. The focus was on curriculum development, and national programs became attached to international activities. When the efforts of the United Nations and other donor agencies slowed, the World Bank became one of Lesotho's chief educational advisers. While the Bank stressed "selfreliance," it also focused on the perceived need of its financial backers and of transnational corporations to make the largest possible profit. Consequently, there was what many have described as a new kind of economic colonialism. The focus in education was less on what the people in the country needed to help their children mature to their true potential and more on the need to educate and train workers who would supply the international markets with goods and services. Because of the inherited structures of authority that place complete trust in the wisdom of the King, and as parents were often illiterate and unable to fulfil their role of letting the King know their wishes and anxieties, educational structures foreign to the needs and the character of the people of Lesotho have once again been imposed on them. The criteria set for them by others cannot be met. The resultant descent into international debt and the consequent destruction of the education system, which has become less important than the servicing of the international debt, will continue to put education far beyond the reach of many.

Political, Social, & Cultural Bases: As has been the case in other African countries, Lesotho's choice of English as a national language and as the medium of instruction, in a country where Sesotho is the mother tongue for the majority of the people, has created a dilemma for educators and students alike. Officially the medium of instruction in Lesotho's schools is Sesotho until about the fourth grade when the medium of instruction becomes English. In reality, however, a mixture of languages is often used until secondary schools, and even then students have very little opportunity to use English. The National University of Lesotho has special programs to improve the communication skills of new entrants. These programs do not, however, come to grips with the under-lying issues faced by students and educators in the Kingdom of Lesotho.

It is an extremely exacting requirement for students whose first language is Sesotho to speak English as fluently as those who speak it as a first language, to study all subjects in a language totally foreign in style, cultural base and concept to their own, and to have to compete with others in their mother tongue. Furthermore, in a newly independent nation, being able to decide on the national language rather than having one imposed on the country, is a moment of great national and cultural pride. Not being able to use that language as the medium of instruction throughout the education system creates the implicit suggestion that country's own language is inadequate and therefore inferior. And this is definitely not a desirable attitude to have in a nation that is going through the process of decolonization.

Since one-half the world's scientific knowledge is available in English and those who have attained the necessary English language skills have access to the international world of science, technology, commerce, and politics as well as the Internet, it would seem that a Euro-centric bias in education would allow greater access to international education and research. It can, however, also be seen as one of the reasons for the high failure and drop out rate, especially in those cases where students are not adequately prepared to live between two cultures in a way their parents were never expected to.

The dichotomy that the children of Lesotho live in becomes apparent when one remembers that, even in modern times, traditional African society is centered around the extended family homestead, the principal social unit. Education of the young is the responsibility of the entire community that tries to instill values of respect and obedience. Each member of the community shares responsibility for the whole community. Thus, asking a young boy to be a herd boy and take responsibility for the community's cattle and sheep is not considered child labor, but merely the chore assigned to this member of the community. The whole community transmits the cultural knowledge, ways, and traditions that are related to children's surroundings, to prepare them not only for adulthood and for employment, but for every stage of life, from birth to what is called being "almost an ancestor."

By contrast, Western formal education, an import often in direct contrast to traditional African education, strives for change. It relies less on the lived values and knowledge of the community than on curriculum and an abstract examination system set by faceless entities. In Lesotho's case the latter are totally uninvolved people who reside somewhere in Britain, setting the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate with British children in mind who have grown up far from the arid mountain regions of Lesotho. The students of Lesotho negotiate this cultural rift every day, yet little attention has been paid to helping them deal with what can often be an almost schizophrenic experience between two realities. Despite the disruptive nature of Western style formal education, parents generally wish their children to have access to a Western style education, especially because it will give access to formal sector employment. Yet, they also wish them to be grounded in the traditional practices of the Lesotho culture. At present the students in Lesotho's education system have few role models who can accompany them on this path.

The process of acculturation and of learning to live between cultures is made even more difficult for the children of Lesotho when fathers are part of the migrant labor force and spend long periods in the gold mines of South Africa and the mothers have to take on more responsibility than usual. The continuous absence of large numbers of the male population is destructive to cultural structures in general. The extended family system has traditionally provided a great deal of security for all its members. Yet with so many of its members gone, there is a new tension that has lasting effects on the academic progress of Lesotho's children. Consequently, the place of the children in the society often becomes ambiguous, and they exhibit negative attitudes toward formal learning. The absence of fathers could be part of the problem behind both the high drop out rate in Lesotho's schools and the relatively small number of students who go beyond primary school.

Approximately 25 percent of children do not attend school, particularly in rural areas where families involved in subsistence activities need the help of their children to survive. In many cases families cannot afford the costs associated with school attendance. Uniforms, books, and other educational materials are beyond the means of many families where family stress, poverty, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and divorce have led to a rise in child homelessness and abandonment, creating growing numbers of street children. Boys are more affected by nonattendance than girls. Even though in traditional rural Basotho society, livestock herding by young boys is a rite of passage and a prerequisite to manhood in the community, the absence of fathers makes this a heavy burden when boys must often tend flocks all day for months at a time. The legal working age is twelve.

Some of the main challenges facing Lesotho's educators are the lack of financial resources needed to meet the growing demand for well educated local teachers, the need for literacy and for vocational and technical training outside the formal academic setting. Attempts are being made to introduce more practical subjects and so to make education relevant. However, one of the spillovers of British education is that these subjects are still regarded as second rate, inferior to a purely academic education that leads to a position of status in the community as well as to white collar jobs.

In 1998, the government announced plans to eliminate school fees to help more children gain access to education. Yet, although the government has devoted substantial resources to primary and secondary education, and education takes up approximately 25 percent of the country's budget, children's rights and welfare have not been adequately addressed.

Education is not compulsory even at primary levels as the government lacks the resources to finance it fully. This situation is due partially to the increasing international debt, and Lesotho's increasing structural dependence on the rest of the world, South Africa in particular. The country is increasingly reliant upon remittances from migrant workers. Additionally, the interests rates imposed on foreign loans made by the international banks and the restructuring demands made by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, affects the country's ability to provide essential health and education services.

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