We’ve strolled into town this Saturday to watch Lesotho’s annual high-altitude marathon, which culminates in a sprint along the wind-whipped main drag through Mokhotlong, the largest town in Lesotho’s northeastern highlands. Hundreds of townspeople have gathered along the road. As my wife and I amble with our friends Nthabeleng and Kokonyana, I consider the logistics involved in running this marathon. The lowest point in Lesotho is 4,593 meters above sea level, the world’s highest low-point. The elevation here in Mokhotlong District, where I get shortness of breath from chewing too quickly, ranges from 7,000 to 11,000 feet. The runners will be finishing this 26.2-mile race along these murderous gravel roads, up these roller-coaster grades, with times just over two hours.
We head toward the finish line, scouting for prime spectating locations.
“Hey, Moshoeshoe!” Nthabeleng yells at me. “Get moving or I’m going to watch this race from your shoulders!” Nthabeleng is a tiny dynamo who runs the local safe home for children with AIDS, where Ellen and I volunteer.
Kokonyana, her sister, breaks into her giddy round-cheeked laugh. “Yes, yes, Moshoeshoe, you must make haste!”
Nthabeleng and Kokonyana delight in addressing me by my Sesotho name. They do this as often as possible, in front of as many people as possible.
If you live in Lesotho for any amount of time, you will acquire a name in the local language—Sesotho, which is spoken by the Basotho ethnic group—unless you are unloved or perhaps unlovable. Strangers will fall into step beside you and—after inquiring about your business in Lesotho—will inevitably direct the conversation toward your Sesotho name.
“Ah no,” they’ll say, “it is a must. You must take the Sesotho name.” Then they will suggest an appropriate name. Several strangers blessed me with the name Mpho, which means gift and which is a girl’s name.
Perhaps this underscores why Sesotho names are objectively excellent: They literally mean something. Maybe you’ve heard a new parent declare, “We named him David, which means beloved.” This is only true if you live in ancient Samaria. In North America, in the present day, David means David. Sesotho names are far more fascinating, however. One boy I know carries the name Lebuajoang, which means “How do you say?”—word for word—Le bua joang? Rethabile, a joyous, jowly baby who lived at the safe home for several months, literally means “We are happy”—Re thabile—which indeed you might declare if Rethabile were your child.
I didn’t want a girl’s name, though, and so I asked Nthabeleng to give me a new Sesotho name.
“Something regal,” I say. “Something befitting my stature.”
“Ache, uena!” Nthabeleng yells, “you are regal like a fariki [pig].”
But she plays along. Nthabeleng sweeps over me with a coolly analytical eye. “Okay, you can be Moshoeshoe.” She pauses, lets the silence draw out. “And for the surname, you will take Mochochonono. From now on we can call you Moshoeshoe Mochochonono.”
The following day it becomes clear there is something unusual about my new Sesotho name. When I introduce myself as Moshoeshoe Mochochonono, the man I am talking with falls off his stool laughing.
She is grinning now.
“A real Mosotho man.” (A Mosotho is a member of the Basotho ethnic group.)
The following day it becomes clear there is something unusual about my new Sesotho name. When I introduce myself as Moshoeshoe Mochochonono, the man I am talking with falls off his stool laughing. He is drunk, I should note, and we are in a bar, but still—his reaction suggests some irregularities with my new sobriquet. This is confirmed when I deploy it again and the female bartender yells: “Ah ah—it cannot be!”
When I confront Nthabeleng with these results, she begins shouting. “You said you wanted a regal name, uena! Now you are blaming me?”
A bit of context for those unfamiliar with southern African history.
Moshoeshoe: founder and first king of Lesotho.
Moshoeshoe: national icon, hero, saint.
Moshoeshoe: person of first-name-only importance, like Oprah or Prince or Jesus.
When I press her on the matter, Nthabeleng admits the last name was the funniest-sounding surname she could conjure on the fly. “For Basotho people, it is too much.”
She makes this clear with a demonstration, pursing her lips and gumming over my new name: “MO-SHWAY-SHWAY MO-CHO-CHO-NO-NO! MO-SHWAY-SHWAY MO-CHO-CHO-NO-NO!”
In the United States, it would be something akin to the name Georgewashington Humperdinck.
Back at the finish line, we have staked out an excellent vantage point and are chatting with some locals. As they greet people, Nthabeleng and Kokonyana refuse to introduce me by anything other than Moshoeshoe Mochochonono. But I must admit I have grown fond of my new Sesotho moniker, in part because I’ve learned that the original Moshoeshoe was a brilliant and charismatic roughneck-savant, the kind of guy you’d get Denzel to play in the movie version.
Moshoeshoe came to prominence in the 1820s as a cattle raider, cattle being the ultimate status symbol of southern Africa. Moshoeshoe was so skilled at making cattle disappear from nighttime mountain pastures that people soon began addressing him by the praise name of, well, “Moshoeshoe,” which translates roughly as “The Shaver” or “The Razor.” Say it out loud—MO-SHWAY-SHWAY—and you will understand its onomatopoetic nature. The sound you hear is that of an upstart no-name as he shaves clean the grazing land of rival chiefs, psychologically shearing them of their manhood.
Over several years, as Moshoeshoe accumulated cattle—as well as increased reputation and status—he began to amass that most valuable of natural resources: allies. Some neighboring tribes began willingly to offer their allegiance; other local groups fell into conflict, but Moshoeshoe—who always favored the nonviolent path—never stepped on vanquished foes and was wise enough to let assimilated chieftains rule over their own people. During Moshoeshoe’s transition from genial highwayman to regional power player, tribal warfare was raging through southern Africa, and Shaka Zulu and his armies left thousands of families uprooted and wandering. Always a canny strategist, Moshoeshoe offered shelter to these refugees as long as they operated under his brand. In a further act of generosity fused with psychological leveraging, the Razor dipped into his massive bovine war chest and doled out cattle to the refugee families, cattle that essentially became their property. Under this system of mafisa, everybody won: The newly moneyed refugees swore their lives to Moshoeshoe, and the ranks of the Basotho people swelled.
The man had an innate understanding of human behavior, but his knowledge of the land around him secured his legacy as pater patriae. As his nation grew, Moshoeshoe established his headquarters on a flat-topped mountain that doubled as a natural fortress. This spot offered abundant fresh water, plentiful pastureland, a commanding view over his kingdom, and only a handful of easily defensible mountain passes.
So when the Ndebele, another powerful regional group, decided to take a shot at Moshoeshoe, he crushed them, literally. As the Ndebele doggedly picked their way through the mountain passes, the now-numerous Basotho rolled boulders down on top of them. And then, in a gesture that can only be labeled “Moshoeshoe-ian,” he sent a hecatomb of fattened cattle after the retreating Ndebele. It was simultaneously a peace offering and a taunt: “Good game” and “Screw off.” And it was practical too: The limping Ndebele lived off the cattle on their way home, surviving to inflate the myth of the Razor, the man who dropped boulders on them and sent them away with a consolation feast.
At the height of his power, Moshoeshoe defeated the British, twice. In 1851, the Brits, who had been looming in the distance, decided it was time to assert their authority over this native rabble-rouser. A soon-to-be-disgraced Major Warden sent a force of 1,000 men up the mountain; Moshoeshoe promptly sent them back down again. A year later, a British force of 2,500 men arrived, led by a man named Cathcart. They were properly equipped this time and intent on humbling Moshoeshoe in front of any other indigenous troublemakers who might be watching. The British invaders were quite surprised, then, when Moshoeshoe and his rifle-wielding Basotho cavalry fought them to a standstill—a second very public humiliation for the colonizers.
But Moshoeshoe was a pragmatist, a man who knew his limits. By the mid-1860s, he was starting to lose the total control he had once exercised, and he was unsure who would succeed him. Even worse, the Boers—Dutch Calvinist frontiersmen—were chipping away at his territory in increasingly bloody battles. Over the course of just 30 years, Moshoeshoe had coaxed a fragile nation of almost 200,000 people from a handful of decentralized farmers and cattlemen. He wanted to see that nation endure.
The Razor was no bridge-burner; he had left his interactions with the British on honorable terms. After repulsing Cathcart in 1852, Moshoeshoe famously sent a letter declaring Cathcart victorious in his loss, an olive branch that was snatched up by the British. In 1866, Moshoeshoe reached out with an offer of annexation. The Basotho would voluntarily come under British rule as long as they could maintain a sense of national identity.
In 1868, the British colony of “Basutoland” came into existence.
By 1870, Moshoeshoe was dead.
The land is rugged in the extreme, the ring of peaks across the ravine reaching 8,000 feet, the lone road into town tiptoeing along a gorge where the Senqu River ribbons below.
I’m thinking about my namesake as we stand near the marathon’s finish line, taking in our surroundings, this nation that he cultivated. The land is rugged in the extreme, the ring of peaks across the ravine reaching 8,000 feet, the lone road into town tiptoeing along a gorge where the Senqu River ribbons below. I can almost see the boulders careening down through the valley, can almost hear the armed Basotho galloping through on horseback.
Suddenly the crowd begins to stir. Runners appear on the horizon, out past the edge of town, where a wooden sign requesting KENA KA KHOTSO (“Enter with peace”) leans against the wind. We push forward, eager to take in the finale of this grand human agon. Shepherds rein in their horses and draw alongside. These beasts, with 175-pound sacks of maize meal strapped to their backs, stamp and whinny in the dust. From here the shepherds will continue on to cattle posts farther up in the mountains, where they will wait out solitary nights.
In the distance, we hear sirens. Two police motorcycles tear down the road, lights flashing, clearing the course for the leaders, sponsored international athletes testing themselves up here in the clouds. There are two men in full sprint, separated by no more than a foot. The crowd comes awake, surging in that symbiotic moment of spectator and athlete. The two men stride, a sheen of sweat on their faces, bound at the hip by an invisible cord. We watch the pulse of muscle, the translation of energy along pavement, the striking ugliness of the human body at its limits. The man in the lead is barely able to maintain his foot of separation as he leans through the finish line. We cheer and clap and we are satisfied in some general way.
The truck is close on his heels now, four people in the cab and ten people in back. They are standing and yelling and seem to be urging this nameless runner on.
But there is a third man back.
No one else is in sight. This man, he cannot compete with the first two. He is clearly a great runner, but he is not a sponsored athlete. He has separated himself and will take third easily, but we can see it—we in the crowd—we understand he will never win these races.
And then, rather suddenly, the man has competition: not other runners, to be clear, but a pickup truck that has swerved madly into the road behind him, bearing down hard. The truck is close on his heels now, four people in the cab and ten people in back. They are standing and yelling and seem to be urging this nameless runner on.
Kokonyana begins waving her arms, looks back at us with wide eyes: This man is from Mokhotlong!
“Tiea! Tiea! Tiea!” she shouts—“Strength! Strength! Strength!”—as she dashes into the course after him, after the truckload of cheerleaders, laughing as she goes. And Nthabeleng is off after her, bellowing, “O tla fihla!”—“Almost there!” The crowd is roaring for their native son, even the impassive shepherds are cheering. He will take third!
As I watch him run, I remember a race back in Chicago, a high school cross-country meet where my sister Anne, eight years younger than me, was competing. At Montrose Beach, Lake Michigan sweeps out to the eastern horizon, and just inland there are hundreds of high school runners from across city and state, a giddy throng of hormonal youth navigating the course in heats. Meanwhile, I am staring out at the churning lake, doing my best impression of a Caspar David Friedrich painting: I am a young man contemplating some important matter of metaphysics, in my early 20s and dwelling in whatever solipsistic embrace that implies. Then I catch a glimpse of my teenage sister chugging up the Great Hill, that devious course killer—she is lanky and flushed and working hard, maybe 15 and somewhere back in the pack—and before I can process how exactly it has happened I find myself at the course ropes, shouting her name. There is no time to consider whether this aligns with my romantic posturing.
“Anne!” I am screaming. “Anne!”—it is all I can think to say—and she passes by with her eyes on the ground, a look around her mouth that is either amusement or annoyance or some blend of the two. I watch her go, surprised to find tears in my eyes.
The man from Mokhotlong passes and the crowd thunders its approval. I can see his face twisted in agony and a strange wave of pride washes through me, a visceral full-body shudder.
I want to reach out to him, I want to call out his name.
Excerpted from Everything Lost Is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho by Will McGrath, with permission from Dzanc Books. Copyright © 2018 by Will McGrath.