The well-spring of learning

Ekaterina Bystrova

Basotho art, music and literature are being rediscovered and nurtured as Morija Museum’s plans to create a ‘cultural precinct’ in Lesotho take root 

Widely known as ‘the well-spring of learning’, the town of Morija has a cultural and academic history that resonates throughout Lesotho. This is where the Sesotho language was first transcribed and the country’s publishing tradition flourished, having been home to some of Lesotho’s most prolific creative figures including Thomas Mofolo, the first Black African novelist, and Joshua Pulumo Mohapeloa, the famous lyrical songwriter. But despite such achievements, the mountain kingdom’s track to securing its own distinct legacy has been fraught with social oppression and economic flux, often becoming lost in the tradition of its vast neighbour, South Africa. 

Today, the multifaceted and unique heritage site of Morija is a prime example of Lesotho’s culture, playing host to the Morija Arts and Cultural Festival – an annual celebration of traditional Basotho art, music and history orchestrated by Morija Museum and Archives (MMA), Lesotho’s premier heritage institution. 

MMA has been working under the Lesotho Evangelical Church for more than 25 years to deliver cultural programmes and initiatives for international and local tourists alike, with more than 175,000 visitors since it first opened. The museum’s grounds are filled with renovated outhouses and a huge amphitheatre capable of hosting grand festivities and plays, while adjoining the museum the archives hold a wealth of texts that document the development of the Basotho people alongside African Christianity. 

Stephen Gill, who has been curator of MMA since 1989, spoke to Global about the essence of Basotho culture. 

“History and culture give us an individual and collective sense of who we are, where we come from, our basic values and traditions, but within every nation or group there are multiple subcultures and areas which are highly contested,” says Gill. “Much as each nation seeks to realise a larger sense of unity, and to distinguish itself from others, there are cross-cutting areas of commonality with others, ‘outsiders’, and we often differ from people from within our own culture. Festivals should help to bring out that diversity and address social issues that are relevant,” Gill adds, referring to Morija’s annual fête. 

The Morija Arts Centre, MMA’s major initiative, was launched in 2011 by the King of Lesotho. The Arts Centre and gallery sit near Maeder House, the oldest building in the country, and foster art exhibitions, sales and the mentoring of young artists and students in visual art, ceramics and wood carving. 

“Music, often accompanied by dance, is very central to expressions of value, as well as to both joy and sadness, at most public occasions,” Gill told Global. “Art is much less central, and yet we find a great deal of artistic creativity at our arts centre – it just needs to be nurtured.” He believes the Basotho have had to work hard to develop a shared identity – a heritage that was threatened by British rule and South African apartheid. 

Since 1999 the Morija Arts and Cultural Festival has developed into Lesotho’s most prestigious annual cultural event. Festival activities range from lectures and school contests to dramatic performances, art exhibitions and music recitals, with fashion shows, church services and film screenings taking place alongside the festivities – all accompanied, of course, by a great deal of dancing. 

“It started as an effort by a number of local people to overcome the terrible negativity that shrouded Lesotho after the 1998 political upheaval. We, perhaps naïvely, thought that a cultural festival that highlighted our uniqueness and diversity, the beauty of our different genres of performance might make us understand anew our common destiny,” Gill recalls. 

A lack of funding has constrained MMA’s ability to invest more in the development of local talent, with the majority of international funders prioritising investments into basic education and health. 

“Nonetheless we are moving forward with plans to develop a more vibrant and sustainable ‘cultural precinct’ here at Morija.” 

Gill is referring to the Seriti sa Morija Project, which is planned to transform Morija from a centre for mentoring artists and crafters into a hub for ongoing cultural activities and entertainment, stimulating tourism in Lesotho and its ‘cultural precinct’.


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