Maseru, Lesotho Report of what it's like to live there - 08/03/15

Personal Experiences from Maseru, Lesotho

Maseru, Lesotho 08/03/15

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. Panama City, Panama

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington, DC. Can fly Delta from Atlanta GA to Johannesburg, South Africa, which is an excruciating 15-16 hour flight, plus 45 minutes to Maseru's tiny airport, only 3 flights/day. We did the Atlanta trip twice, and flew through Europe with a stopover twice (Paris or Amsterdam are good choices). I preferred flying through Europe, even though it meant more travel days.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years, 2012-2014

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. government - Embassy

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

We lived within a 5-minute drive of the Embassy, which was pretty typical, and we liked our house in theory, but not in practice. It was a very nicely laid out single-story 3 BD, 2 BA house with a tiny yard and shared pool with 5 other houses in a compound. I doubt it is still in the Embassy housing pool as the electricity was a huge problem, and we almost experienced an electrical fire. We had to move out of the house prior to departing the post. But just about all the other houses were fine, and as I mentioned earlier, many of them actually have heat and A/C, but they are poorly constructed and not insulated. Roofs have also been known to leak, because when it does actually rain, it rains quite hard. Many expat homes are large with large fenced/walled in yards.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

We could find most things we needed at the Pick N Pay grocery (which is a South African brand) in Maseru. You couldn't always get boneless, skinless chicken breast, but the produce was OK and inexpensive. For everything else, or specialty things, we drove 2 hours to Bloemfontein, South Africa, which is the nearest big, "real" city. We went to the Woolworths grocery store armed with coolers and ice packs to make the drive back to Maseru.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Canned black beans. We made everything else work, or could buy on Amazon, etc. I utilized the layette shipment through State Department when we had our son, but we could have purchased most baby things in South Africa if we had to.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

The only American brand was KFC, and it's very popular. There are several South African brands, including a peri-peri place that was pretty good, and 'just OK' pizza joints. When we were there, the No. 7 Restaurant at Kick for Life was just taking off and we had some truly fantastic meals. Also enjoyed the Portuguese restaurant near the Maseru Club and the Chinese restaurant in the Lesotho Sun Hotel. The fast food places were all under US$10 and the nicest restaurants in Maseru would be maybe in the US$12/entree range. The exchange rate could change all of that, but it was in our favor in 2013-14.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Typical household pests: black flies, ants, cockroaches. Nothing too terrible.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Diplomatic pouch. I imagine everything else (DHL, etc) is extremely expensive.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Many are available - and the really reliable ones tend to be kept within the Embassy pool. After several raises and bonuses, we were paying our full-time housekeeper and nanny approximately US$225/month. We paid a gardener US$10 and a meal for an afternoon's worth of work.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

We used the small Embassy gym which was renovated in 2013 and has a few cardio machines, some resistance trainers, and weight sets. It was great if you had it to yourself - got crowded with 3 or 4 people. Some people joined the Lehokewe club, but I found it to be too dirty and the temperature was always too hot. (Basotho love being warm!)

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Credit cards were accepted most places within Maseru city limits. Outside the city, you need to make sure you have cash, because even if a place does accept plastic, the line could always 'be down.' There were a handful of trusted ATMs in Maseru that we used without problem, but, we used the money exchange at the Embassy 90% of the time which was the safest route to take, and always got the best rate.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Don't know for certain, but I'll bet you can find an English-speaking Christian service.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You don't need any Sesotho in Maseru, but if you do know some, the Basotho will be delighted and you're bound to get better/friendlier service. Outside the city, you'll find English less prevalent but we were never 'stuck' in a language barrier.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

I imagine it would be very difficult. Roads/sidewalks are in various stages of repair and the escalators were out frequently at the little mall. I did know a Basotho woman who was confined to a wheelchair, but she was fortunate/wealthy enough to have the proper supports in place.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

No public transit aside from taxis and mini-buses, of varying safety. There were a few trusted 'call-ahead' taxi services that we were encouraged to use as Embassy personnel. I would never hail one on the street or take a bus.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

If you want to get out to do anything outside of Maseru (and you will), you need a 'beefy' SUV. They drive on the left, so you'll want to buy a left hand drive vehicle. Lots of the cars in Maseru are from the online Japanese auto traders. We had a Nissan X-Trail which had optional 4x4 (and you'll need that) but there were many times I wished we had a larger and stronger engine. It did make it up Sani Pass, but I was nervous.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

It is available and can only get better as time goes on - we had a pretty fast (for Africa), uncapped wireless home package from Vodacom by the end of our tour that we actually received a bill for at the Embassy (approx. $150/month). Before that arrangement happened, we had to pay for the data ahead of time and load it onto a USB data stick. This infuriating process involved going to the store in the mall, waiting in line, paying, then loading the credit onto the chip through a cell phone.... they're not quite up to speed on paying for things online.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

There are several carriers available; we had ours through the Embassy.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No quarantine - at least coming from the U.S. We used a pet carrier who met the cats at Johannesburg airport and 5 hours to Maseru, crossing the border. We used a vet in Ladybrand (and the care was substantially less money than in the U.S.), though there are vets in Maseru. I believe there may be dog kennel facilities in S. Africa.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

I didn't know of any expats who were working locally outside of Embassies, NGOs, or non-profit health organizations, aside from a cake baker and a Thai chef who cooked for the Embassy a few days during the week. I think it would be frustrating and pay couldn't be that great.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

We did not, but I imagine there are lots of opportunities within the various health clinics, schools, or the Kick for Life foundation.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

The Basotho dress well, even outside of work. It was business at the Embassy/ Business casual if you didn't work directly with the public.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

We didn't experience anything, but this is a 'critical crime' post. Vigilance must be practiced, and just don't do anything stupid. Most expats and wealthier homes in Maseru all have high fences with barbed wire and 24-hour guards, but I knew of one case where a guard actually broke in to a residence. Car lock 'jamming' was common in the mall parking lots/garages. This is an extremely poor country, so those who have something really do stick out.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

YES, lots of concern. This is one of the highest HIV/AIDS populations in the world. Aside from that, the medical care is not great. For anything routine or major, you really want to go to South Africa. We did experience a medical emergency and I'm glad we were only 2 hours from Bloemfontein, but it was still 2 hours...I was medevac'd to the U.S. to have my baby, but Pretoria was an option.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Good, except terrible in the coldest winter months because people burn anything (trash, animal dung, etc.) to generate heat. Lots of particulate matter in the air. It's very possible our infant developed asthma from living there. Controlled field burning is also an established practice in parts of Lesotho and neighboring South Africa.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Lots of particulate matter /air pollution from burning garbage and all sorts of things in the winter. I'm not sure about seasonal plant allergies as we didn't have a problem. Can't speak to food allergies, but there aren't many alternative options at the grocery store in Maseru. I'm sure you could find alternatives in South Africa, though.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Very pleasant; very little rain. Cold winter months are tough because houses typically are not insulated. The only source of heat in our house was underfloor heating in the kitchen and living room - nothing in bedrooms. We cautiously used electric oil heaters and lots of blankets. Summers were awesome. On the hottest days, ceiling fans kept us comfortable. We didn't have A/C in the house, either, but some expat houses have both heating and A/C.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I didn't have direct experience, as my child was not school age, but there were a small handful of options. It seemed to be fine for the younger years but problematic for older children.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I could be wrong, but I doubt the schools are able to handle special-needs kids.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

We hired an extremely competent and caring fulltime housekeeper who became a part-time nanny once our son was born and I went back to work part-time. We offered a couple of raises and bonuses throughout her time with us. By the end, we were paying her roughly US$225/month, which I believe was on the higher side. But she earned it.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Not sure, but I doubt it.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Large expat community for the size of Lesotho, and lots of Peace Corps volunteers all throughout the country. Many expats love the Hash, and a lot of our friends tried to organize trips together. Morale was good, for those who were willing to make their own fun or find new interests. Morale was terrible for the sticks -in- the- mud.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

I've addressed this before in other answers. You've got to make your own fun and friends. the most fun we had was at other homes or group dinners out to one of the few restaurants.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It was great for us - a couple who had a baby about half-way through our tour. We didn't need a lot of nightlife or exciting options. We enjoyed our small group of friends, the hash, and made our own fun traveling around. I knew a couple of single folks who bonded together and found things to do, but there were also singles who came through and complained about being bored or outcast from the 'family set.' I blame their own inability to adapt and make friends. So I would discourage singles who struggle to socialize with a diverse mix of people or who can't make their own fun.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I don't have any direct experience with this, but did know one gay couple who were really active and social within the expat community. Not sure what they faced locally; it's a fairly conservative Christian country.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Asians aren't liked too well by the Basotho, even though there is a sizable Chinese population in Maseru. It is a Christian country, but I'm not sure about religious prejudices. I think other African people (not Basotho) and African-Americans also faced discrimination. As a married woman and mother, I didn't have too many problems, probably because I 'fit the mold.' I think some single women are harassed. It's a man's world.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Traveling through the country and taking in the amazing landscapes and witnessing people who live much the same way they did 100 years ago. Skiing in Africa was a huge highlight, and we have very fond memories of the Basotho we really got to know. It was also a good place to have an infant - not much night life, which suited us just fine, and we enjoyed a quiet 2 years spending a good amount of time out of doors. My husband really enjoyed the Hash House Harriers, which is a hiking club. It wasn't really my thing, but it is very popular among the expat community and those with dogs.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Right in Maseru, there aren't many places to eat, but I found them adequate. Again, the hiking Hash is very popular among the expats and takes place on Sunday mornings. Shopping in Maseru really isn't great, but you can find your typical handmade crafts at small markets in town (mats, brooms, Seshoeshoe (fabric unique to Lesotho) things.. some expats get dresses made from seshoeshoe fabric. We enjoyed going across the border to the neighboring South Africa town of Ladybrand to eat in a pleasant little restaurant called Living Life. If we were in town for the weekend, it was a Saturday morning ritual as long as the border wasn't too backed up. Lots of things to explore outside Maseru, including huge dams, caves with paintings, AfriSki, etc.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Special Seshoeshoe fabric gifts (dolls, clothes, journal covers, purses), grass mats and brooms, Basotho hats, and wool Basotho blankets.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

You can save a lot of money as there isn't a whole lot to do right in Maseru, and the cost of living is cheap. You can hire housekeepers, nannies, and gardeners for very little money. You can spend a lot of money, however, by traveling to and spending money in South Africa. The exchange rate was in our favor, but the posh safari experiences (worth it!) are not cheap. We also took several trips to Cape Town and the wine country. Weather is phenomenal - sunny and gorgeous huge skies almost every day. Basotho culture is fascinating, and it is worth it to get out to the hinterlands of Lesotho. Winter can be very cold (but warm in the heat of the day), and summers are mild and very pleasant.

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10. Can you save money?

Yes - we saved some, and still traveled quite a bit. You can spend a lot of money in South Africa or regionally in southern Africa, for sure.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

We did a lot of reading/talking with folks, and I believe we were fairly prepared. We honestly didn't have any expectations, but ended up being pleasantly surprised about the easy living. It was just simple.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Need for nightlife and poor attitude.

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4. But don't forget your:

Sense of adventure!

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

No? You could watch "The Gods Must be Crazy" - that's about the San people in South Africa, but not far from Lesotho border, to get a sense of the landscape.

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6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

The Rough Guide for South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho

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