SEPOLO, LESOTHO — Tankiso Salemane spends his days scrambling over rocky outcrops in Lesotho's lowlands, wrapped in a tattered gray blanket, one eye on the family's wealth: eight skinny cows that will probably be used one day to secure a bride for him or one of his brothers.
But for years, Tankiso kept track of his wards not by counting to see if they were all there, but by color and shape. Tankiso is about 17 years old, but until he started attending government-run evening classes a few months ago, he couldn't count to 10, write his name or read a sign.
"I left school at grade two because there was no one to look after the cattle," he says shyly, only his eyes peeking out from between a black woolen hat and the blanket - traditional Basotho garb worn to ward off the bitter winter cold in one of the few African countries where it regularly snows. "I learned my letters and numbers, but I forgot them."
Lesotho is one of only a handful of countries in the world where proportionately girls go to school more than boys. In most poor countries, families' scarce resources are used to educate their sons. Girls are kept home for lack of school fees or sent out to work to raise money to pay for their brothers' books and uniforms.
But here in Lesotho, a tiny mountain kingdom of just over two million entirely surrounded by South Africa, boys as young as seven or eight forgo the lessons of the classroom for lonely days in the country's golden pasturelands. Unicef estimates that 20 percent of boys may be herding instead of attending school.
While the problem is worst in mountain areas nationally, only 59 percent of boys here reach the fifth grade, compared with 73 percent of girls. Many boys and men, like Tankiso, are completely illiterate and unable to count or do simple arithmetic.
When Tankiso's blanket slips, it reveals a fresh scar in his left cheek, left there after a fight with a bigger herd boy. But Tankiso, who is small for his age, swears fiercely that usually he's the one who leaves marks on his opponents.
Many herd boys lose more through missing school than just letters and numbers. Sent off to fend for themselves at very young ages - sometimes for days or weeks at a time at distant cattle posts - many become violent and antisocial.
Nadi Albino, who runs Unicef's education programs in Lesotho, says in some of the country's most isolated regions the herd boys' lack of social skills compares unfavorably even with that of child soldiers in her home country of Sudan.
"[The herd boys] don't know how to live within a community, within a society. They're rough because they fight to survive," says Ms. Albino. "They're quite shy - if you meet one of them they hardly speak. I've worked with child soldiers and seen the look in their eyes, but it's not as lonely as the look in a herd boy's eyes, because at least child soldiers run in groups."
Still, things in Lesotho are slowly changing and families are beginning to realize the benefits of education for boys and girls. With the decline of the South African gold industry, which once employed tens of thousands of Lesotho's men as well as paid but unskilled migrant labor, economic opportunities for uneducated men are shrinking. Lesotho's offices and government ministries are staffed almost entirely by women. This is unusual for Africa.
"Almost each and everybody now is aware that education is very important," says Neo Mohloni, one of the few male employees of the Lesotho Distance Learning Center, a government agency that runs evening classes. Called Learning Posts, the centers teach boys and men basic literacy. "Bit by bit it's changing," says Mr. Mohloni. "They understand that even the boys must be educated. Because to get work, if you want a job, you find that it's difficult if you don't know how to read and write."
More families are now sending their sons to school and the disparities in enrollment between boys and girls are shrinking, especially as girls are more likely to drop out when family members become sick or die of AIDS.
In order to improve education among both boys and girls, Lesotho's government is eliminating school fees. Though only a few dollars a year, the fees are often a major barrier to education for poor families.
In addition - to help those like Tankiso who are now too old to go to regular schools - the government also runs the Learning Posts, most often operating in the home of a local woman who typically receives about $20 a month for the use of her house.
The posts attract teenagers like Tankiso, former mine workers like Khatimyane Sallmane, who grew old without ever learning to read, and even a handful of women. The goal is not to provide a traditional education, but simply to offer students who didn't go to school some basic reading and mathematics skills and a sense of accomplishment.
"I've learned how to write my name and I know the letters A, E, I, O, U," Tankiso says proudly, sounding out the vowels carefully. "I want to learn how to write everything," he adds, eyes glinting.