A blanket look at Basotho culture

Kate Bystrova

Spotlight: Lesotho

The country that rejected an offer to become part of South Africa in 1910 and finally gained independence in 1966 has held its own since the days of King Moshoeshoe I, maintaining a uniquely African culture and establishing traditions that are distinctly Basotho


Few people know how to pronounce ‘Lesotho’ (le-zoo-too) and fewer still know about the tiny mountain kingdom’s largely unadulterated African culture, which is steeped in unusual traditions and historic milestones. For instance, did you know that Sesotho, or Southern Sotho, was one of the first African languages to develop a written form? As a result there is an extensive collection of Sesotho literature, much of which has been translated into other languages, including books from the likes of Thomas Mokopu Mofolo, who is known as the greatest Basotho author. English is the country’s second official language – dating back to 1868, when Lesotho was a British protectorate needing security from invasion by South Africa – and Zulu and Xhosa are also spoken by a small minority.

The Basotho people are proud of their uniquely African heritage, which has remained undiluted by Western influences from the colonial era and by the policy of apartheid in surrounding South Africa. While the architecture of older buildings in main towns like Maseru bear overtones of European influence, also present are the cave drawings of San bushmen and fossilised dinosaur trails dating back millions of years. The lives of Basotho in rural areas, accessible only by foot or, at best, horseback, have remained largely unchanged for generations. To this day, many still reside in traditional villages and the Kome Caves, a collection of dwellings that was built out of mud by Basotho seeking to escape those who had resorted to cannibalism during a drought in the late 18th century.

Although Lesotho is 99 per cent Christian, even religious practices have been strongly influenced by traditional beliefs and customs – for instance, the dead are buried in a sitting position facing east, so that they may rise with the sun should their descendants need them. The country’s national anthem, Lesotho Fatse la Bonta’ta Rona or Lesotho, Land of our Fathers, similarly emphasises importance of ancestral heritage to Basotho culture.

The two holidays celebrated across Lesotho are Independence Day, which is marked by speeches, formal state ceremonies and traditional demonstrations of dance on 4 October, and Moshoeshoe’s Day, which falls on 12 March and is marked by the nation’s schoolchildren who prepare songs and engage in sports competitions in the old king’s honour. Festivals also call for traditional tribal music and dance, which are closely linked to the seasons and the agricultural lifestyle so central to Basotho culture, with traditional instruments comprising the setolotolo, a type of extended jaw harp played by men; the thomo, a string instrument played by women; and the lekolulo, a flute played by herding boys. More than being simple entertainment, certain dances are seen as a rite of passage, with all girls learning to dance litolobonya and all boys mokorotlo; mokhibo is another important dance in which women sing and dance on their knees.

When it comes to handiwork, Lesotho’s artistic crafts double up as practical items. Given the abundance of diverse grasses covering the mountain highlands, it’s no wonder that these are the most commonly used materials used by artisans in weaving baskets, floor mats and hats, which are part of the traditional Basotho dress. Pottery, beadwork, and the weaving of mohair carpets and tapestries make up the other prevailing crafts. While Lesotho is rich in precious stones, the Basotho believe that their kingdom’s natural resources are joined to them by spiritual bonds and must therefore be protected.

To visitors, it can seem that no one owns the agricultural land of Lesotho, which stretches out without fences or barriers, and indeed none of it is privately owned – rather, the land, including the high-altitude grazing areas, belongs to everybody.

Scattered across the Maluti Mountains, and throughout Lesotho’s rural lands, are lone shepherds, or herders, who are almost invariably boys as young as nine years of age, although there are also adult herders who have chosen shepherding as their trade. Dressed in a grey blanket and, often, a balaclava, carrying a short, heavy stick and normally accompanied by a large dog, the adolescent boys can come across as intimidating to the average Westerner. The sticks, which are called mulamu and carefully decorated with brightly coloured strips of wire, are traditional weapons that distinguish the adolescents as ‘young men’ and all men are trained in their use in combat. It is considered a sign of respect for a herder to place their mulamu on the ground when speaking with a stranger.

Undertaking a stint as a shepherd is an integral part of Basotho culture and helps instil independence and self-sufficiency in young men, who, in days past, would have been drafted into warrior regiments at the age of 16. Forced to survive on little food and learning to live with hunger is one part of the ‘toughening-up’ process that is seen as a rite of passage to manhood.

The silence of the Maluti Mountains is often punctuated by the shepherds’ calls to one another – they can communicate over distances of over a kilometre – as they herd their sheep or goats, throwing stones on either side of the animals to steer them along, and at their dogs to control them. It’s lonely work out in the mountains, but most shepherds live in groups of two or three in basic rondavels called motibos, with the youngest hen-pecked into doing the hardest work. Their animals are kept in an enclosure nearby and normally guarded by dogs from human thieves and jackals alike.

Lesotho may not have the flash manner of African giants, but that’s because it isn’t a giant – it’s a largely untapped refuge of African culture and tradition jutting out of a sea of countries that are all competing to out-develop and out-produce one another. That isn’t the way of rural Basotho, who are baffled at why Westerners would want to come to their lands, carrying around heaps of camera and camping equipment, or use cars when there are perfectly good horses to hand. As the rest of Africa vies for attention, Lesotho sits back, wrapped in a colourful woollen blanket, content in its identity.

Basotho blankets

Originally made only for royalty, blankets are now part of everyday life for most Basotho.

The inaugural Basotho blanket was presented as a gift to King Moshoeshoe, the founder of the Mountain Kingdom, in 1860. Swapping his traditional leopard-skin kaross for the woollen blanket, Moshoeshoe inspired a nationwide movement, and to this day the blanket is an integral part of Basotho life. Fewer blankets are visible in main cities, where people are more westernised, but even there they make an appearance on holidays.

The blankets reflect three classes and are distinguishable by material and fabric, the top-tier blankets made of wool and cotton, the bottom-tier of acrylic. Patterns vary from maize cob or wheat patterns, symbolising prosperity and fertility, to the royal pattern – crowns. Even today, all new patterns must be approved by Lesotho’s royal family.

But it isn’t just what they’re made of that can reveal a lot about a person – how they’re worn is important too. Not only do men and women wear blankets differently, but the way that the fabric is draped can reveal to the keen observer whether a woman is married or if she’s had a child, if a father is trying to arrange a marriage for his child, or if a boy has been circumcised. Even in death, you are buried with a blanket so that you may keep warm.

In recent years, Lesotho-born designer Thabo Makhetha helped take the trend to the world stage by making a series of women’s capes and jackets from the blankets.


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