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In Lesotho, boys go to farm while girls hit the books

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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.

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