In 2009, photographer Tom Oldham was in Lesotho on assignment, documenting the work of Riders for Health – an NGO that provides medical aid to villages in Africa. Using motorbike helps them reach remote areas not accessible by larger roads or highways. He was in the company of seasoned health workers, who braved the untamed mountains to carry out their humanitarian work.
They traversed trying terrain which was desolate, but not entirely. If you looked hard enough you’d see that lone figures dotted the landscape. These were the herder boys of Lesotho wandering the valleys and hilltops with their animals; their dramatic caped silhouettes a result of the large blankets they carried.
Though intrigued, Oldham had to ride on and continue his journey with the Riders for Health but he vowed to return and did in 2016, this time in pursuit of the herder boys. For a week he traveled around the region, with his kit and a translator Mr Moleko who he had befriended on his previous visit.
Used to isolation and suspicious of outsiders, the herder boys weren’t easy to approach. There’s a reason for their hardened demeanors – the work is physically demanding and the weather conditions are brutal. The blanket each boy carries becomes his armour against the elements, the flag that marks his territory and a statement of his identity – inseparable from his person.
The boys work alone or in small bands of four or five, they must always stay with their animals making sure they have food and water. They sleep in make-shift huts, but must stay alert to keep their herd safe from wild animals or bad weather.
Even getting the job is hard, Oldham explains: “The boys who want to become a herder boy find an employer and go to Initiation School, it’s like Fight Club! They wear red for six months to indicate they passed. They are then employed, and paid about 12 sheep a year, to stay within a certain geographical boundary and report to their employer once a month. It’s very, very tough, especially as they may be only 13 years old.”
Sensitivity, Oldham says, was key to the success of the whole project. “The boys were always reticent at first,” he explains “but we were in no rush and we gave them time to warm up to us. We’d have stone throwing competitions or chat about their favourite animals, they’re fun to be around and we were interested in them of course – any photographer would find it a privilege to be in such a far-flung location meeting people they would never normally meet.”
Oldham was open about his desire to photograph them and wanted them to feel like they were a part of the process, not like they were being viewed by an outsider. They weren’t ever photographed without their knowledge, but were asked to pose using their blankets and other accessories the way they liked. Oldham’s camera was tethered to a laptop, so the boys could see their images right away. They even picked their favourites. “We wanted the herder boys to know they were being respected – these are iconic, emblematic symbols of Lesotho and are heroic in their endeavours to, quite frankly, keep themselves and their flocks alive – so the least we could do was reflect that in our work.”