MATEKA, LESOTHO (AFP) – Inside a dimly-lit mud dwelling nestled within a rocky mountain in the southern African kingdom of Lesotho, Mamotonosi Ntefane, 67, dusts off an animal skin.
Her household is among a handful of families who still inhabit the Kome Caves, a heritage site in the north of the country, first occupied about 200 years ago by local tribes seeking shelter from conflict and cannibalism.
“Life is good, we grow our own vegetables, I can pray anytime I want,” Ntefane, a rosary around her neck, tells AFP.
More than 1,800 metres above sea level, some 50 kilometres from the capital Maseru, the settlement is surrounded by barren pastures, where shepherds draped in long woollen blankets graze cattle in the morning mist.
Thin white smoke billows from outside the caves as papa, a traditional corn porridge, boils in a black cast iron pot over a wood fire.
The cave is divided into several round houses propped against the basalt rock.
Open passages just high enough for a person to walk through serve as doorways. Walls and floors are made of a mix of mud and manure that require regular upkeep.
Inside are basic items including pots, plastic buckets to store water and a cowhide for a bed.
“There’s no electricity and no fridge but this is our home, it’s our history,” said 44-year-old Kabelo Kome who is descended from the first people to settle the caves, after whom the place is named.
The caves became a hideout for members of the Basia and Bataung tribes in the 19th Century, when conflict and a severe drought ravaged the region.
Christian missionaries travelling the area at the time reported some groups resorted to cannibalism to survive, as livestock and grain reserves dwindled.
It was in this period that Lesotho emerged as a single entity, as the Sotho, the region’s largest ethnic group, united to fight Zulu raiders and European settlers.
Today, most of the country’s two million people live off subsistence farming.
Inhabitants of the Kome Caves grow corn, sorghum and beans and raise chickens and cattle.
The elderly receive a state allowance, while others make money showing their homes to tourists.
Some like Mamatsaseng Khutsoane, a 66-year-old former teacher, have moved to a nearby village with greater creature comforts.
“I come here to eat, or with my grandchildren,” she said.