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Political refugee becomes proud Mosotho

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Ntsebeng Motsoeli

MASERU — After fleeing war in his native Sudan, Francis Idris now brands himself a “proud Mosotho”.

Making the long trip from southern Sudan, where every man of his origin was viewed as a rebel, was not easy for the 44-year-old.

Yet, settling in one of Africa’s tiniest nations was easier than he thought.

Standing at 1.87m tall and now in his 18th year in Lesotho, Idris doesn’t miss the vast Southern Sudan he used to call home.

“Maybe one day I will visit. I still have family there. But after all the time I have spent here, I can safely say Lesotho is home now,” he says.

The basketball fanatic is now a top administrator of the sport in his adopted home of Lesotho.

He is one of 48 foreigners cutting across Africa and Asia who were granted Basotho citizenship at a ceremony in Maseru on Monday.

Unlike other immigrants, the 48 new citizens will now enjoy all the full rights of a Basotho citizen, including voting.

To acquire citizenship one should have stayed lawfully in the country for at least five years without a criminal record, among other requirements.

Applicants will also have to renounce their country of birth’s citizenship because Lesotho does not allow dual citizenship.

“It is my hope that you will contribute to the economical well-being of our country, your country. Countries give citizenship to people who could be of good. We want good teachers, doctors and businessmen,” Home Affairs Minister Lesao Lehohla said at the Monday ceremony.

Lehohla’s statements cannot describe Idris any better.

Since arriving in Lesotho at the age of 26 in 1993, he has given to the country as much as he has received from it.

Soon after his arrival he immediately got involved in the development of a fledgling church-run Zoe Bible Secondary School in Lithabaneng where he taught Maths and Science, apart from doing community work with the youth.

“We developed the school year by year until it was a fully fledged high school with classes from form A to E,” he says, a twinkle in his eyes betraying the pride of a foreigner able to contribute to his host country’s development.

As fate would have it, unrest again followed Idris, and again with results he wouldn’t dare change.

The 1998 Lesotho political unrest resulted in students burning down Zoe Bible Secondary School which, together with colleagues he had painstakingly built.

But there was also a positive, as it brought out another skill that has left footprints on many  Basotho youth.

“After the school was burned down I considered it was time for me to move on. I then moved to Mafeteng where I continued to teach.”

It was upon arrival in Mafeteng that Idris unleashed his basketball skills.

“There was no basketball in Mafeteng. I introduced the sport. We refurbished a warehouse that had been burnt during the political unrest and turned it into a basketball court. It still stands there today,” he said.

Idris is the vice-president of the Lesotho Basketball Association.

“Young people were interested and they joined in big numbers. That way they were kept away from the streets. I can proudly say I contributed in the building of another court in Mohale’s Hoek and also helped nurture basketball skills there.”

Yet, the ease with which he has fitted into this country’s system contradicts his situation back in South Sudan.

The country had been hit by internal strife until recently when warring parties signed a peace accord and held a successful referendum that established South Sudan as the newest independent country.

Having received a World Council of Churches scholarship to study in Zambia in 1991, getting out of Sudan where citizens needed an exit visa from the government was not easy for Idris.

During the war, all southern Sudanese were suspected to be rebels, he recalls.

“It was even difficult for me to get an exit visa. My father, Ezekiel, was a colonel in the defence forces and a colleague of John Garang, the man who had established an anti-government movement.”

Finally, Idris was granted a visa and moved to Zambia where, while studying youth and social work, he met a Mosotho college mate whose friendship was to set the course for his move to Lesotho.

During his stay in Zambia he heard stories of how people were being kidnapped and murdered back home in southern Sudan. His cousin had also been killed.

That got him scared to return home.

“Home was no longer a safe place for me,” he says.

After finishing school in 1993, with little convincing from his friend, Idris headed for Lesotho where he stayed as a political refugee until Monday when he received his citizenship.

Ke Lekaota (an affectionate term to describe a person from Mafeteng district) is how people in Mafeteng refer to him every time they greet him now.

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