LESOTHO; Land of blanket-swathed goatherders

By , Gary Thatcher was the Monitor's correspondent in Africa before taking up the post of American news editor in September.

It's called ''the Switzerland of Africa,'' a tiny mountain kingdom smack in the middle of the Republic of South Africa, yet independent of it. Lesotho (pronounced Luh-sue-too) is one of only two states in the world (the other is the Vatican) completely surrounded by another sovereign republic.

Lesotho's isolation has, however, helped to shape and preserve the country's unique character. It is an easy-going, unhurried place, where smiles come readily from many of the Basuto people. Often, those smiles are framed by the brim of traditional funnel-shaped hats woven out of mountain grasses. These hats , sported by countless blanket-swathed herdsmen, have become a sort of national symbol. A Basuto hat is even silhouetted on the national flag.

Goatherding is a national obsession, and, not surprisingly, mohair-weaving provides employment for hundreds of women. Their weavings often depict colorful village scenes, and it's not uncommon for them to sing soft ballads as they intertwine the multicolored yarns into tapestries and rugs.

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Because so many of Lesotho's men work at migratory labor in South Africa, women play a vital part in the national economy. Women are the shopkeepers at hundreds of sidewalk stalls in the capital, Maseru, and in other smaller towns, where they sell fruits, vegetables, and knitted garments. And in the evening, other women can be spotted carrying huge bundles of firewood on their heads, heading homeward over the rugged Maluti Mountains.

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