Young Thabo left school at nine years of age to tend sheep, goats and cattle in the treacherous mountain passes of Lesotho, in southern Africa. Despite his young age, he lived in complete isolation for months at a time, with only the company of the herd and two dogs. Thabo made the journey back to his family twice a year in the winter, so the animals could be checked, counted, and kept warm for a brief period.
Thabo’s interactions with people were strained – he was accustomed to hitting and yelling at stubborn animals to express his displeasure and get results.
If hitting and yelling worked with his herd, why not with people?
In the solitude of the mountains, Thabo’s word was law. There was no one to ask permission from and no one to guide him about what was right and wrong. In a world where aggression was a survival tactic, he knew no other way. Sexual violence, rape, and physical abuse were acceptable. Thabo believed that it was his right as a man to take what he wanted from a woman. In the herd, there was no such thing as consent.
Although Thabo’s story is startling, it is the reality for countless boys in Lesotho. For most rural families, their animal stock is their only means of providing for themselves. They cannot afford to lose their herds to thieves and stock theft is an all too common problem. Thus, they send their boys up into the mountains, away from thieving hands, to keep watch over the herds day and night. Some herd boys must even watch the herds of several families.
Without any education or guidance, the herd boys become awkward social pariahs, which only increases their feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Thabo is 17 now, and is, by his own admission, a much different person. He recently completed Help Lesotho’s six month “Herd Boy Training Program” that provides much-needed support and education for the herd boys. Topics include healthy relationships, preventing HIV transmission, reproductive health, gender equity, preventing sexual and domestic violence, the effects of drugs and alcohol, peer pressure, self-esteem, and role modelling. For Thabo, and many herd boys like him, being part of the program made him feel connected to society:
“All the issues that were being discussed are the issues that affect us as human beings. Whereas in other meetings, we felt like objects. We felt like objects because the only important things in those meetings were the animals that we are taking care of, not us.”
His coping mechanisms no longer include hitting and yelling. He understands that women deserve the same respect he does. He recognizes gender equity doesn’t imply that men are inferior. He feels a sense of self-worth. He knows that he is intrinsically valuable as a person, not just as an animal guardian.
But perhaps the most astounding thing about Thabo is that despite the hardships he has faced and the abandonment he has experienced, he now believes that he can make a difference in his community. He feels compelled to share what he has learned, particularly about gender-based violence and HIV transmission, with other herd boys. Thabo now proudly acts as an ambassador for change in the very community that shunned him.