IN FOCUS: The Horsemen of Semonkong Moved by the lifestyle of the young herders, daily commuters and horsemen of Lesotho's Semonkong region, photographer Thom Pierce began a project to document their unique traditions.

I travelled to Lesotho for the first time in 2015 when I was working on The Price of Gold,  a project for the Treatment Action Campaign where I documented 56 miners who – on behalf of hundreds of thousands of other miners suffering from silicosis and pulmonary tuberculosis – initiated a lawsuit against South African gold mines.

Lebohang Monyamane – Letseng, Lesotho
Lebohang Monyamane – Letseng, Lesotho. Many rural villages are inaccessible by car and can be up to four hours walk away from Semonkong. Horses are an important part of daily life, linking the villages with the bigger towns. While most people are almost self sufficient, basic provisions are purchased from Semonkong.

Although I was immediately captivated by the beauty and drama of the Drakensberg mountains, I was drawn back to Lesotho by a desire to document the lives of the herd boys, commuters and horsemen living there. Luckily I based myself in Semonkong, which turned out to be the perfect spot to wander around and spend time with the herders while they watched over their animals.

Thapelo moiloa with his dog Limo
Thapelo moiloa with his dog Limo – Ha Salemore, Lesotho. The winter is cold and harsh in the mountains of Lesotho. Blankets and balaclavas are worn to protect from the icy wind.

The boys – who learn the trade from a very young age – work either for their families or for an independent owner. They usually have little education and see herding as a long-term career. Sheep or cows are used as a means of payment and, even though the amount is fixed at the start, it increases with age until the herders have earned enough to own their cattle.

Retselisitsoe – Semonkong, Lesotho
Retselisitsoe – Semonkong, Lesotho. Herd boys as young as 13 work out in the fields, seven days a week. They go to school in the evenings to learn basic mathematics and literacy. Mostly the schools are funded by NGO’s, the local community or the Catholic church.

To offer the boys opportunities to work outside herding, school programs are being set up by charities but much of it is being imposed without necessarily benefiting the entire community. Yet it would be wrong to be disappointed by modernisation just because we – as outsiders – decide that their way of life is quaint and beautiful, and therefore needs to be preserved. We embrace modernity and others should have the choice to do so too. With this series, I am simply trying to open a window onto a place that many will never have the opportunity to experience.

Mamasisi & Masisi Letsapo – Mohlakeng, Lesotho
Mamasisi & Masisi Letsapo – Mohlakeng, Lesotho. It is increasingly common to see women riding horses, but that has not always been the way.

Before shooting the portraits I worked with an interpreter from the area with whom we went to great lengths to explain the intentions behind the project. We took our time and always respected people’s wishes when they didn’t want to be involved. Another concern was the comfort of the horses – if they were spooked then the photographs didn’t work. There is a sense of stillness in the portraits that could only be achieved through both the people and the horses feeling relaxed. Generally though I was amazed how quickly people felt comfortable in front of the camera – I’ve not always been able to work in such a calm and methodical manner as I did in Semonkong.

Paleho Silase - Ha Bati, Lesotho
Paleho Silase – Ha Bati, Lesotho. The mountain trails in the area are used by herders and commuters. Many people will travel great distances for funerals and other important occasions – it is not uncommon to walk for the whole day and stay over in another village with family and friends before the journey home.

 PHOTOGRAPHY + WORDS: THOM PIERCE

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