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Child shepherds flock to night school

By Emily Wither for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In Lesotho, becoming a herd boy is a cultural tradition
  • Lesotho's Prince Seeiso and Britain's Prince Harry started the charity Sentebale
  • Sentebale says that one third of school-age boys are working full time tending cattle
  • The charity operates night schools for the herd boys

(CNN) -- In the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, boys as young as five spend months on end tending cattle in the isolation of remote highland country.

For the young, becoming a herd boy is a cultural obligation in Lesotho society, a practice which leaves many children deprived of an education.

"It's a very sorry state of affairs for young boys," said Prince Seeiso, the younger brother of Lesotho's King and the country's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

"The matter of herding is centuries old but sadly in the last half century increasingly it'll be younger men and lately young children that are involved in this traditional practice," he continued.

Often referred to as the "Kingdom of the Sky," Lesotho is completely landlocked by South Africa and is also the only country in the world where all of the land lies above 1,000 meters.

Much of the population can be cut off for months during bad weather with many living on rugged, mountainous terrain, only accessible on foot or horseback.

Prince Seeiso has co-founded a charity, Sentebale, with Britain's Prince Harry to help meet some of the challenges that face this remote country. One of Sentebale's missions is to help provide an education for the herd boys.

The charity says that one third of Lesotho's school-age boys and young men are working full time tending sheep and cattle at any one time.

In return for work, the boys will receive a cow or several smaller animals, as well milk throughout the year for their families.

Sometimes I am away from the village for a year.
--Mojafa Makepe, herder

Sentebale has opened two shepherd night schools in Semongkong, a village nestling between snow-capped mountains in the remotest part of the country.

The school is open four nights a week and around 60 herd boys, who are at work throughout the day, usually attend. They are given a hot meal as well as classes.

Seeiso says the night schools are the only chance the herd boys have of an education.

"To put it bluntly, basically ones that have dropped out of formal school they will not have any other access to learning because of the nature of what they are doing," he said.

Conditions are tough for the child herders who can spend months, sometimes years away from their families in often freezing and hostile conditions.

Mojafa Makepe is 20 years old and has been a herder since the age of eight. He told Sentebale that he is often away from home for long periods.

"Sometimes I am away from the village for a year, staying near the cattle post on the top of the mountains," he said.

"It's cold, there are dogs that bite you and sometimes we fight over grazing land. One of the biggest dangers is stock theft by armed rustlers."

From the cattle post to the school the round trip could be anything from 15 to 20 miles.
--Prince Seeiso of Lesotho
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But even when the boys are enlisted in night school, getting there isn't easy, with many having to walk for miles in the dark. Seeiso says that even if it's raining or snowing the boys will brave the elements.

"You just can't imagine a young child of 10 walking five, six, seven miles in the dead of night -- no torch, no anything," he said. "From the cattle post to the school the round trip could be anything from 15 to 20 miles."

As well as teaching the boys how to read and write, the schools help to develop their social skills and provide them with health education. It's an important lesson, with more than one in four of Lesotho's two million people infected with the HIV virus.

Sentebale hopes to open more night schools in the near future but in the long term it would like to try and stop the practice of children becoming herders.

"We need to look at the rural economy and see how we can provide other alternative avenues for families that are willingly giving up their child for employment," Seeiso said.

"I don't know if it will happen in my lifetime but my ultimate dream would be to see this practice cease all together and have kids able to go to school from pre-school all the way up through the normal way," he added.