It’s not all doom and gloom in tiny Lesotho – although between the healthcare crisis, the spiralling unemployment and the dangerously messy political situation there is enough of that to go around too. MICHAEL J. JORDAN profiles the youth-driven peace concert that is demanding a brighter future.
MASERU, Lesotho – In a sea of unrelenting bad news around the world, we in the media should sometimes look harder for good news. Especially for me today, an outsider up to my ears in a tiny African kingdom I’ve grown to care about deeply.
With Lesotho and its mind-boggling range of health, development and democratization challenges – and now mounting fear of imminent election-related violence – it’s simply too easy to write about the negatives. (Guilty as charged.)
That’s why I’m stunned to have stumbled across a genuinely positive story: a new Basotho-youth organisation unveiled its plan to host a huge pro-peace concert, Stand United Music Festival. This Saturday, 14 February, two weeks before the vote.
At first I dismissed the concert as a cute idea, but not necessarily newsworthy. Now I see a greater symbolism, which even inspires me to write about it. Let me explain. Though, first a disclaimer: I’m not writing this piece because my documentary-film partner is a co-organiser, or that my wife works for one of the sponsoring agencies. (Let them do their own damn PR! Or, check their poster.)
No, I write for two reasons. We journalists have an obligation to look for good news. Sure, bad news, especially scandalous stories, help sell papers. But we have a duty to our audience to be as fair and accurate as possible. Disproportionate focus on the negative – the low-hanging fruit – may present a distorted image of a society. Particularly when reporting from faraway lands.
For example, we now live next door to South Africa, and all I hear about it is crime, corruption, cronyism and incompetence. Surely there are some positive trends to report about the ‘rainbow nation’, two decades after the end of Apartheid?
Now the second reason: the media must also recognise the vital role we play in shaping and influencing a national psyche. If I were the Basotho of Lesotho – which suffers from the world’s second-highest rate of HIV infection – I’d be very depressed, for sure. Not just by the reality around me, in my family or on the streets. But also the unyielding stream of bad-news headlines. As if Lesotho doesn’t have enough problems, the Basotho read recent newspaper placards such as ‘Teen Girl Gang Raped’ – by seven fellow villagers – or ‘Suspected Killers, Rapists Escape’. And so on.
I’d be shaking my head, all the time. It’d be like a steady drumbeat on the brain, surely souring the mood in that moment of my day, too. Similarly, I believe the media can uplift a national psyche. The Basotho are already in denial about their crippling their HIV crisis – and that hasn’t budged in more than a decade. Yet, if there’s one Basotho nurse, in some remote health clinic, in one rugged mountain hamlet, who’s doing everything she can to attract all pregnant women to the clinic, to immerse them in information about the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, enrol them in pre-natal services, ensure these women also immunise their newborns to avoid so many preventable childhood illnesses, doesn’t that nurse deserve to be profiled in a feature story in the paper, on the airwaves?
Yes, she certainly does. First, because in a country where Saturday continues to be funeral-day, what a great story that would be about an ‘ordinary’ member of the Basotho nation – yet doing something quite extraordinary. But there’s more. Her story, when shared with a far broader Basotho audience, will surely brighten the spirits at that moment. Even more, amid so much hopelessness and helplessness regarding the HIV scourge, this one nurse’s story may even awaken some Basotho: Hey, something positive is happening here. Ideally, it may even inspire a few: So, one person can really make a difference? Then let me get up off the couch and do something meaningful… for my people.
This leads me back to the good news story of Youth4Peace Lesotho and their pro-peace concert, with a line-up of leading Basotho musicians. They even have a catchy anthem, which they tout as the early favorite for Lesotho’s song of the year. They anticipate a crowd of 5,000 – which in a capital city of just 200,000, is enough to fill the main stadium for a World Cup qualifier or match with neighbouring South Africa. Security is a great concern: in hopes of keeping the peace, organisers make clear on their concert poster, “No alcohol, no weapons, no political attire”.
More important than the concert, though, is what it represents. In a climate of intimidation and impunity, few Basotho feel empowered to speak up, let alone act as a watchdog. Foreign aid workers bemoan the deep apathy – yet the health and development drama is enough to defeat anyone. Meanwhile, this just in: fresh research suggests that Lesotho’s youth endure the second-highest rate of unemployment in all of Africa.
For Youth4Peace, though, enough is enough. Of Lesotho’s 1.2 million registered voters, a whopping half are reportedly between the ages of 18 and 35. “I love my country and I want my country to be the best it can be,” says Moleboheng Rampou, spokeswoman for a group just two weeks old. “I also want the youth of Lesotho to be the best that they can be. Youth have a voice, but they’re not using it – or they’re not using it right. With a bit of inspiration, mobilisation and encouragement, they can take their rightful place in society – as leaders.”
Indeed, Youth4Peace has stepped forward to assume the role that Archbishop Desmond Tutu played nearly three years ago, on the eve of Lesotho’s 2012 elections. In a country that’s suffered its share of election-related violence, Tutu appealed to Basotho leaders: win or lose, please accept the results, peacefully.
To his credit, Lesotho’s long-serving premier, Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, kept his word about respecting the election results – win or lose – then conceded defeat and gracefully handed over power to the opposition. In the process, he helped Lesotho set a new standard for southern Africa. Why one of Africa’s rare coalition governments then disintegrated two years later – capped by the country’s sixth putsch in half a century of independence – is another story. But with accusations of corruption and political violence at its core, the factional fighting here is fierce. Indeed, restoring ‘peace’ to Lesotho just may require the sweeping away of a flashpoint of tensions: corruption cases.
Basotho youth can’t work miracles. But at least those driving Youth4Peace are speaking up for the unity of a mono-ethnic, mono-lingual nation that is more like one big family. Their voice should resonate more meaningfully among political rivals, even more than Tutu’s; the thousands of youth attending this concert will be their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandsons and granddaughters.
They’re also a sizable chunk of the electorate. And now, they’re finally calling on their elders to make Lesotho a better place – with a brighter future. DM