The African Studies Center (ASC) recently caught up with Brian Stewart (Anthropology and Museum of Anthropological Archaeology) who received a seed grant in 2016 for the project Kickstarting an Ecomuseum in Highland Lesotho

ASC supports research in and about Africa in many different ways, from academic workshops and conferences on our campus and on the continent, to bringing African scholars to campus through our UMAPS program. Our Seed Grant program serves to enable collaborative research between U-M faculty and researchers affiliated with universities on the continent. Administered by ASC’s three disciplinary Initiatives (AHHI, ASRI, and STEM-Africa) has supported over 80 projects representing the full breadth of scholarly endeavors at U-M. 

Stewart applied for the seed grant to support a fact-finding mission to assess the feasibility of establishing an eco-museum in the highlands of Lesotho. He envisaged the possibility of an open-air cultural heritage initiative that binds together tangible and intangible aspects of the landscape, its history, and the people of Lesotho. This project, which focuses on both the cultural and the natural aspects of the region, also aims to bring communities together from within and beyond the borders of the country. 

The southeastern corner of Lesotho is a high plateau and “a very special kind of place, with beautiful rolling highland landscape and amazing rock shelters and caves,” according to Stewart. The area is the site of preserved early historic houses from early Basotho migration, with these houses lying among caves in the region. It is also home to an abundance of rock art, which is of enormous cultural, historical, and academic importance. Stewart aims to work to preserve the region’s archaeology through promoting eco-tourism within Sehlabethebe National Park.

“The ultimate goal of the project,” said Stewart, “is to bring tourism revenue and employment opportunities to relatively isolated highland communities, while promoting the region’s unique highland cultures, spectacular natural beauty, and world-class heritage resources.” Funded by the ASC’s seed grant, Stewart traveled to Lesotho to develop a 30 - 40-mile trail between Sehlabethebe National Park and the village of Sehonhong. This trail will help bring visitors and tourists to the area, allowing them to partake in hiking, cycling, and horseback riding. Revenue from this is planned to help support local communities, preserve the cultural and archaeological heritage, and help better establish the Lesotho tourism industry.

The national park is very near Drakensburg in South Africa, which gets an abundance of tourist activity throughout the year. However, Stewart notes that “just over the border, in Lesotho, you get a lot less tourism. And every one that visits goes in 4x4 vehicles for shorter trips, often missing the rich cultural, historical, and archaeological potential of Lesotho.” 

During the trip, Stewart spoke to ministers, chiefs, local officials, and national park authorities about the feasibility of the project. The trip helped him establish that this project is both feasible in scope, and is supported by all the people he discussed it with. Stewart is excited about the next steps for the project and is confident that marrying eco-tourism to cultural and archaeological preservation is a mutually beneficial undertaking for all stakeholders. He is excited about establishing a heritage initiative on the coattails of other scientific work.