Lisebo Motjotji writes about her recent fieldwork in Lesotho.

Fieldwork preparations
The Pelargonium chase started with waves of anxiety that made me sweat profusely and yet it was the end of May meaning the beginning of winter in Lesotho! I became more restless with each passing day that took me closer to the point where I would be travelling to my study area at Ha Tlhaku in Quthing District where the first part of my PhD data collection would start in Lesotho. The second part of my fieldwork would follow in the Imingcangathelo area in the Eastern Cape, South Africa once the work in Lesotho was completed. The realisation suddenly hit me that I had no idea what fieldwork collecting qualitative data entailed – especially getting to the communities and interviewing them about Pelargonium sidoides.

In the past, when I studied the plant, my interest had largely been about the actual resource, not the people living with, using, and selling it. The plants were non-verbal and did not need me to have communication and people skills! I would just get into the field and take my measurements to determine tuber regrowth following harvest activities. This time, I had to face and talk to the humans – that is, the verbal part of ecosystems blessed with language and claims of superiority over non-humans. The humans included local authorities, chiefs, community councillors, villagers, harvesters, and traditional healers. Of these groups – as I later found out – the latter would prove to be the most difficult and yet the most interesting to interact with.

I had been communicating with the chief for my study area prior to coming to the field. This was done to set the fieldwork in motion – assessing availability of the chief and generally establishing rapport with him, arranging accommodation, and determining a baseline of the study area. All seemed to be set before I left my house some kilometres away from Maseru city. Little did I know that community entry at Ha Tlhaku and convincing people to participate in the study would be no easy feat. I arrived for the actual fieldwork in early June 2023, having taken a scoping trip to the area at the end of May of that year. The scoping mission had me fooled that I had rounded all the corners. Arriving in the villages convinced me otherwise.

Reaching and traversing the Ha Tlhaku area
I arrived in my study area for the fieldwork on 6 June 2023 where I had booked self-catering accommodation in Mphaki, a “mini” town located 45 minutes’ drive from the Ha Tlhaku area. The study area is made up of seven villages i.e. Ha Tlhaku Moreneng, Maqhenebeng, Ha Ratjeka, Polateng, Limapa (Ha Mosehle), Letsatseng Ha Ntamie and Mehlachaneng. The villages are geographically situated on mountain edges engorged with water. This “white gold” could be seen trickling from the mountains and moving downwards, forming tributaries that drained into the Qhoali River. Since it was in the middle of winter, some of the water drops had formed spectacular-looking “icebergs” on some slopes which no amount of sun could melt. Indeed, the villages are located in the upper Qhoali catchment with some in close proximity to the source of this river, as well as a Lesotho-South Africa border post a few kilometres away on the other side of the mountain range. Of course, the beauty of such an area is wonderful to behold, prompting an “outsider” like me to stare forever beyond the far hinterland of the Lesotho mountains. This beauty would later become a painful pleasure!

While most of the villages were accessible by small car, some, however, were completely isolated and could only be reached on foot or horseback. This meant I had to ride a horse on the unforgiving terrain, an encounter that was both scary and exciting at the same time. An unfortunate mishap (no fault of the horse) when trying to ride the animal on one of the days ended with me falling uncomfortably on my back. An elbow injury and some minor bruising resulted and became a constant reminder that I needed to realise that I could not dictate fully how the fieldwork went.

Following the horse “incident”, and other similar ones caused by my stubbornness, impatience, and perfectionism, I simply had to accept that some things were beyond my control. A re-organisation of myself, as well as the approach to the fieldwork was needed urgently. What followed next was a rebirth in me characterised by acceptance, humility, patience, respect, and being generally nice to everyone. For instance, I accepted that I needed to greet and make small talk with most people I met on the way to the villages (of course while also being mindful of my safety as a woman). These traits carried me throughout the whole month of June where I managed to blend in with the communities as I approached them for their consent to participate in the study and subsequent interviews. I would also be passing villagers in their fields collecting their crops since it was harvesting season. I would ask after their produce and initiate small talk about the weather. Thereafter, if I was lucky, some would agree to be interviewed right there and then which was a bonus since I struggled to locate them in their houses or villages as they left very early in the morning to the fields and came back late afternoon.

Besides having a personal awakening, I need to applaud the area chief and the various field assistants who paved the way for me to find potential participants who were willing talk to me. In fact, establishing rapport with local authorities and finding gatekeepers were perhaps some of the most important ingredients which ensured successful fieldwork in Lesotho. Also, respecting and accepting the way of life of the communities led to me finding people willing to be interviewed. For instance, I would always wear a dress, cover my head and wrap my waist with a shawl or blanket if wearing trousers when entering villages. Another case in point is when my field assistant took me to where there was a feast the previous day, and some villagers were in a household eating the remnants of mutton and drinking traditional beer. I later came to know from the field assistant that the feast was for a male initiate who was being taken to an initiation school up in the mountains. I got there and was served papa (a Basotho staple food prepared using ground maize flour) and meat and even managed to join in the festivities. The day ended with me being lent traditional Xhosa wear to put on, lots of pictures were taken and new friendships were formed.

Another cultural experience worth sharing is the day I met a traditional healer walking rapidly down the road I was ascending with my car to my study site. He was wearing white regalia, and some parts of his body (e.g. head, wrists and ankles) were covered in beads. He was also carrying a drum. I stopped the car and tried to talk him, starting with greetings. To my amazement, he just looked at me without uttering a word! In my head I was thinking very quickly trying to understand what his reaction meant, and how I was supposed to act. He kept making facial expressions and hand-gestures pointing down on the ground. My suspicion is he realised that I had no idea what was happening – whether this was a “tip-off” from his ancestors or his wisdom, I may never know because after some time, he said “I cannot speak to you, it’s not allowed before you throw some money to the ground” I immediately got him since I had interacted and worked with traditional healers (and still do) including an acquaintance who had done research on African healing and shamanism in Lesotho.

This is called “sekhants’o”, meaning to bring or provide light for the ancestors as a way of seeking their permission to talk to the traditional healer. I immediately did as he requested, and our conversation began, with interesting things following. He indicated that since he is still a trainee healer, it is not possible for him to sit in my car for an interview, he has to kneel on the ground, and he added that I could not record his interview. I took my blanket and sat beside him on the side of a public road where cars and people were passing by. I cannot imagine what people were thinking seeing us in that position together with his drum lying beside us! Possibly, one of their thoughts was “this is witchcraft in broad daylight” given that other ways of knowing are largely misunderstood and relegated to the margins.

Overall, I learned so many valuable lessons that have made me a better person – and surely a wiser researcher than before. I took most of these lessons with me when conducting my fieldwork in the Eastern Cape which started a month after the work in Lesotho was completed.

Photo: Lisebo Motjotji (on the right) with villagers from the Ha Tlhaku area.