The History and Culture of Lesotho
Language: Official is Sesotho and English.
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Handy Sesotho Phrases
Good Day: Lumela (pronounced Dumela)
Peace: (also used as a greeting) Khotso
How are you?: U phela joang?
I am well: Ke phela hantle
Stay well (if you are the one leaving): Sala hantle
I don't understand: Ha ke utloe (pronounced utlwa)
Which way to..... Tsela ea (prounounced tsela ya)
I want to buy.... Kea kopa ho reka
I want a place to slee: Kea kopa ntlo ea ho robala
Thank you (I am grateful): Kea leboha
Water: Metsi. Bread: Bohobe
Yes, no E-ea (eeya), Che
Most of the inhabitants of Lesotho are Basotho
and speak the national language Sesotho, although nearly all
speak at least some 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 centered 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
dance Ndlamo 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
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" —
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 woolen 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
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.
Popular superstitions, beliefs and customs
By Justinus Sechefo
The following is but a meagre account of
the many superstitions, beliefs, customs and practices still
common in the different parts of Basutoland. To enumerate
them all would be impossible for this would require the help
of many of the now unavailable gray heads to call them back
to memory; since through the coming of the white man, the
belief in Christianity, neglect and disuse, they are almost
forgotten or even abused, while to the present generation
many of the superstitions are entirely unknown.
However the in-born spirit, traditions,
influences and keen interest aroused by listening attentively
to folk tales, fables, ghost and witchcraft stories told by
grand mothers to their grandchildren at bed time in the hut;
and also other peculiar talks among the men at home or in
the "khotla" in the evenings about these beliefs
and customs; all these must naturally have implanted in the
minds of young listeners, deep and not to be shaken impressions
about these customs and beliefs. In those days to have doubted
the integrity of charms, the binding necessity of certain
incisions, the magical powers of the "baloi" evil
doers, witches and those of ghosts etc. would have deemed
worse than insanity itself
Poetical and rhymed amusing songs were sung,
nursery tales repeated about these beliefs at the hearth by
night, and fables were told at bed time by old grannies to
their grandchildren, who in every case slept at their houses,
in order to shun the abusive slander "ho hloba khoale"
to pluck the partridge recklessly or in ordinary. "DO
not pamper your children".
Superstitions, fables and nursery tales
were then and there related to the little ones. However it
must be remembered that fables were not too be narrated during
the day time but only at night, these being a strong belief
that a mysterious horn would happen too grow on the head of
the person who recounted fables during the day time.
Since death was considered so terrible an
occurrence in all localities, it would be out of question
to classify the many inconvenient superstitions about it.
In those olden times the "leqhofa" the hut of the
dead man, especially one in which an aged person died, who
had no family, was left unoccupied, its entrance blocked up
either with stones or bundles of grass. Kraals in which such
deaths occurred were deserted and the spots no longer held
fit for habitation.
Surprising or sudden deaths, such as caused
by the striking of lightning etc. were incidents of great
shock. Witch doctors were urgently sought for, and divining
bones thrown down them to reveal the mournful secrets. Death
reports were announced to relatives at night. Children upon
their inquiring as to the whereabouts of such and such a newly
deceased, we told, 'ofaletse' he has emigrated, and not "o
shoele" he is dead, which was a vulgar as well as a wrong
It was also improper especially during the term of mourning
to pronounce the name of deceased, but he should be addressed
'the late so and so'. .
In olden times there was no night watch over the corpse as
is done today, since as far s possible the corpse was buried
during the night of the day of death.
Funerals were nocturnal performances, held only by grown ups
at dead of night. In m cases the young were not allowed to
see the dead body, neither to attend the funeral
added to the popularity of this design There is one interesting
exception to the popular of the leopard marking; the people
living m the mountains do not wear the leopard markings motif
The reason could be that they fear to be mistaken for an animal
by other animals. One of the latest brands on the market is
the Sesecha, meaning 'brand new'.
"A very old man who would not die",
but was a nuisance and a burden to the family, was done away
with. He would be placed at the entrance of the cattle kraal,
so that the cattle getting inside the kraal for the night
would trample him to death and then he would be picked up
to be buried quietly.
On no account should the grave dug out for the dead remain
open during the night. The corpse must necessarily be buried
on the same day the grave was dug, that is on the day of death.
But in the case of great stress or perplexity impeding the
burial, the grave should watched by men throughout the night
to prevent the "baloi" (evil doers) from approaching
Graves of elders and owners of cattle were dug out in their
cattle kraals since necessity the rich should not be separated
from their cattle. The stones of the kraal we removed for
sufficient space for the grave, and the kraal was built up
again after the burial. The grave itself was nothing more
than a round hole, a few feet deep, since there were spades
for digging, but only small iron rods called "kepa"
used for digging medicines clumsy blindly pointed sticks made
from hard wood of the wild olive tree. The body was n laid
stretched out in the graves, but was buried in a sitting position.
Visible graves, outside the village, were as far as possible
avoided so as not to frighten people. In the case of those
who had no reason to be buried in respectable graves in their
cattle kraals and in the case of strangers, graves were dug
outside the village. These unfortunate places were dreaded
spots. People should not sit nor stand upon the heap of a
grave. A person who happened unconsciously to do so, should
have his or her feet passed slightly over a brisk fire of
grass to scorch off the misfortune.
1. A house spider should not be disturbed,
it being the pillar that sustains the "back-bones"
of the family.
2. A whirl-wind, whirling into a house, foretells the coming
of a stranger. A whirlwind whirling one about should be spat
upon to quell the misfortune it brings.
3. A dog howling ominously, "moola ke seotsa", brings
evil. It must at once be stopped or chased away.
4. A dog should not sit in front of people. especially in
front of men with it's back turned towards them. This portends
sure evil. At once it must be chased away with contempt.
5 A visitor going on a long journey, when passing a certain
place, (generally between two hills) where there is a heap
of small stones piled together, should pick up another stone
alongside of the road, spit on it and throw it on the heap.
This is omen for good luck and good eating along the journey
and at his destination. The common mountains of Sefikeng and
Sefikaneng derived their names from such big heaps made there
in olden times.
6. A person stooping to drink water at a spouting spring of
water should before drinking appease the master below by generously
throwing on the surface of the agitating water a tuft of green
herbs, otherwise the restless water will erupt onto his face.
7. A cock clucking like a hen brings evil to the owner - it
should be destroyed at once The same applies to a hen crowing
like a cock.
8. Pottery women should cease to mix up their clay, to form
pots, or to bake pots after a death in the village has been
announced. After this time all pot work cracks and spoils.
9. Men should not eat bread-scraps from the pot because doing
so would cause their drawers, "tseha" to burst asunder.
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