Popular superstitions, beliefs and customs
By Justinus Sechefo
Most of the inhabitants of Lesotho are Basotho and speak the national language Sesotho, although nearly all speak excellent English.
Although many Basotho still live and work outside their Country, their attachment to their local village and traditional culture is still strong.
The family is still the dominant unit, and respect for the elder generation important. Basotho culture is centred around village life, and most traditions and festivals relate to local village life and the seasons of the year.
Of all our people it is the Matabele who have preserved their traditions best, and their traditional danceNdlamo is now a great way to celebrate throughout much of Lesotho, where no traditional wedding is complete without this colourful dance. Basotho people are predominately rural, and getting around in mountainous areas has always been difficult. However, the Basotho pony is ideal for local transportation and so breeding and riding these surefooted ponies is very important. In the towns, as well as in the mountains, it will not be unusual to meet a Basotho horseman, clad in a kobo, his traditional cloak or blanket, and who will raise his hand in the traditional greeting “Khotso” — meaning peace.
The Basotho people have developed a unique culture. As one of the few African tribes living in a mountainous environment, they have made many adaptations to their conditions. The Basotho blanket is one example. All around the country you will see people dressed in woollen blankets, often with beautiful patterns. This is the ideal garment for a cold environment, and also has the versatility of keeping the rain off.
Villages are often located high in the mountains, usually on the mid-levels well above the deep river valleys and the flood dangers they carry. Villages are very structured. They are made up of a number of kraals, ie. a collection of buildings belonging to one family. Some are for sleeping, some for storage and one for cooking. Each kraal will also have an enclosure for livestock. Each village has a chief, or headman, who will fall under the chief for the area.
The Basotho are agriculturalists. All around the village will be many fields and these are allocated by the chief to villagers. Many crops are cultivated including maize, wheat, sorghum, beans and peas as well as vegetables such as onions and cabbage. Many local herbs are also gathered as green vegetables, which the Basotho call Moroho.
Animals are very important in Basotho society. The Basotho pony represents the best form of transport in the mountains, and donkeys are often used as pack animals. Most families will have some cattle, and oxen are used to plough the sloping mountain fields. Wool is a major source of income both from Memo sheep and mohair from Angora goats, and you will see many herds of both deep in the mountains. They are looked after by shepherds, often young boys, who live in simple huts called motebo, often perched on ridges at well over 3000m and very well hidden.
Passing a village you will frequently see a flag flying from a tall pole. This indicates a place where something is being sold. A white flag means “joala”, a locally brewed sorghum beer. Yellow means maize beer, red means meat and green means vegetables.
The powerful South African economy, and particularly the mining industry has proven a great magnet for Basotho men. Many spend years as migrant workers in the gold mines around Johannesburg. This has had a profound effect on Basotho society, as the women of the family are left to hold home life together. Thus you will see many more women than men around the country, and often it will be women out working the land. Around Christmas time the men flock home for the holidays.
The money sent home by the migrant workers does much to keep families afloat financially, as Lesotho is a poor country. Drought in the early 1990’s hasn’t helped, and most of the population is unable to subsist on what they grow. The country has little manufacturing and most goods are imported from South Africa. The Lowlands are densely populated and even the mountainous interior is filling with ever more people. This pressure on the land causes immense problems, especially in terms of overgrazing by livestock and consequent erosion. Huge erosion gullies called dongas, grow ever larger and deeper, literally eating up the arable farming land.
Lesotho follows the British education system. Children spend 7 years in primary school, with Sesotho the medium of instruction. English is supposed to be learnt in the final years to prepare students going on to high school where English is the medium of instruction. Three years of secondary school culminates in the Junior Certificate, with the best candidates going on to spend a further two years doing Cambridge ‘0, levels. With many boys spending years as shepherds one generally finds more girls than boys at the schools, and often the boys are older. Most schools in the country are connected to missions. Missionaries started arriving in the country in the early 1800’s and some were close advisors of Moshoeshoe. French missionaries were the first to transcribe Sesotho.
The Roman Catholic church is very influential as are the Lesotho Evangelical church and the Anglican church. Almost every mission has a school attached.
University and college entrance is based on ‘0’ level results. The country has one university, the Lesotho National University in Roma. Originally the university catered for students from Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland. The three countries were all British protectorates and were administered very similarly, particularly in terms of education. Today Botswana and Swaziland have their own universities. There is a Polytechnic in Maseru.
The education system means that some Basotho speak English. In the rural areas, however, older people do not usually speak English and neither do those who did not reach high school. A smattering of Sesotho is worth
learning for the traveller.