By: Thandiwe Kubere

Having been remarkably formed ancient years ago by a founder who peacefully unified his followers, the Basotho nation, to this day, regardless of political difference, is remembered as militants of peace, honoring the deep rooted legacy of their legendary king Moshoeshoe.

During the late 1810s and early ’20s, when European land invasions led to migration in the region, Moshoeshoe led his people south to the stronghold of Thaba Bosiu (“Mountain at Night”) in the western Maloti Mountains, where his following expanded to other African peoples attracted by the protection he was able to provide.

Siiri Morley shares her experiences in the Mountain Kingdom, it reads:

Lesotho, for better or for worse, is one of Africa’s best-kept secrets. Easily overlooked on a map, and usually absent in international headlines, Lesotho is a unique and complex country. This small mountainous country, land-locked within the bulk of South Africa, is the kingdom of the Basotho nation. Lesotho is distinctive in its homogeneity. Roughly 80% of its 2.3 million people are Basotho and about the same percentage of the population live in rural areas. The remaining 20% of the population is composed of Zulus, Xhosas, Indians, Taiwanese, Chinese and Europeans. Both English and Sesotho are the official languages of the country, although English is only widely spoken amongst Basotho who have completed high school.

This country is a wonder to people who take the time to visit. The landscape of this tiny country of 30,355 square kilometers is stunning and defies most stereotypes of Africa. The country is heaven to hikers and mountain bikers, with no fences, diverse mountain ranges, and open land in any direction. Visitors leave enchanted by Lesotho’s rugged landscape, pony treks, remote mountain villages, and sights of Basotho horsemen wearing vibrant blankets around their shoulders. Young Basotho boys commonly ride donkeys along steep mountain roads. Lesotho can be the source of great romanticism. But like any romanticized, supposedly “untouched” and “virgin” country, there are many complexities and much substance that is often unseen in a quick visit just below the surface.

The Arts & Crafts of the “Mountain Kingdom”

When I told a friend in Lesotho that I would be documenting Lesotho’s art and craft work and creating biographies for the artisans, she simply responded: “Good luck. Here in Lesotho? What artisans are you expecting to find?”

I’m happy to say that I’ve surprised my friend with everything that I came across. While Lesotho’s art and craftwork is minimal in comparison to that of countries like Ghana, Morocco and Kenya, and is often overshadowed by South African work that receives more attention and promotion, the country does have a strong art and craft culture. Sadly, however, most visitors leave the country with minimal exposure to this work. Artwork can be found in unexpected places in Lesotho — like the streets of small towns, at school cultural celebrations and mixed in amongst tomatoes and onions in the local markets. Yet, overall, there is little formal support for the arts in Lesotho. It is a wonder how many artists persevere with their work.

With a quick look at Lesotho’s primary handicraft retail shop or a visit to a weekend flea market, one would imagine that Lesotho’s art and craft sector is very weak. In terms of handwork, Lesotho is known for its distinctive hand-woven mohair carpets and tapestries, but little else. Yet there are numerous artists in the country and high quality work is being produced. But the problem is that these individuals and small groups are often tucked into mountain and urban villages, working in isolation without local markets and little guidance as to how to seek outside markets. Many decide to continue their work in neighboring South Africa, where there is more market potential and artistic appreciation.

Basotho Traditional Crafts

Oral Traditions, Song and Dance

Basotho have a particularly strong tradition of song, dance, and storytelling. These cultural traditions are still quite vibrant in day-to-day life and are a source of great pride to all Basotho, including even trendy urbanites.

Traditional musical instruments are quite simple and are often made of old tin containers, animal hide and gourds. It is common to come across a shepherd in the fields whiling away the day with a tin guitar. Yet, Basotho music making tends to focus more on voice. The country is blessed with a population that can intuitively harmonize and bring tears to one’s eyes with the beauty of its songs.

Dance, along with singing, is also quite important to Basotho and the two are commonly part of any type of festivity. Some dances are seen almost as a rite of passage. Girls should learn to dance litolobonya and all boys mokorotlo. Another significant dance is mokhibo, where women sing and dance on their knees. (See Tsepiso Lesenyeho’s paintings for depictions of some of these dances and instruments.)

Storytelling is also an important part of Basotho life, that could evidently be traced at Thakaneng where boys and girls live separately. Indeed, most Basotho adults seem to be natural orators. It is impressive to see the eloquence with which Basotho present their words at communal meetings or other public gatherings. This skill of holding people captive to your voice comes from generations of talented storytellers. One artist, Chitja Racholoane, makes an attempt to preserve some of Lesotho’s common folk tales and historical information through depicting them in elaborate charcoal drawings. His drawings were donated to the Morija Museum and Archives in an effort to educate Basotho youth about these stories.

Utilitarian Crafts & Art

1. Grass Products: The types of traditional craft still most commonly seen in Lesotho are those made of grass. With an abundance of diverse grasses in the mountain highlands, artisans are rarely without raw materials. Basotho women, throughout the country, display great talent in weaving baskets, hats, brooms, joala (local beer) strainers and floor mats. Hats and brooms are still commonly used by local Basotho, even the very wealthiest, as they are more economical than store-bought ones. Most Basotho homes have a minimum of three brooms, for various parts of the family compound — one for inside the house, one for the latrine, and another for the courtyard.

 Hats are an enormous source of pride in Lesotho. Intricately woven grass hats are commonly portrayed as part of the traditional Basotho dress. They come in all shapes and sizes, yet the most well known is the conical Basotho hat that resembles Mount Qiloane, next to Thaba Bosiu (the famous mountain stronghold of King Moshoeshoe, the first Basotho king and great unifier of the country). These come in all varieties, — now often adorned with hot pink and neon green letters spelling “LESOTHO” — but originally, they were simple in design. Although the fluorescent colors were, I assume, developed with tourists in mind, they seem to have greatest popularity amongst locals. Basotho hats now commonly adorn the back window of every Basotho car, in and outside the country.

 Joala strainers and floor mats also seem to be a thing of the past. They are now created primarily for decorative purposes or to sell to tourists. The floor mats, along with animal hides, were used as beds (and occasionally still are by the elderly).

Potters still continue with their traditions, however, with the aim of selling to tourists and more limited local production. Particularly popular in villages are the wide array of chicken sculptures. Many potters use a shiny enamel-based paint to decorate the outside of their pieces or etch in traditional Litema-like patterns.

3. Beadwork: Lesotho has a limited tradition of beadwork. Clay beads are commonly made by women, which are then strung into elaborate necklaces. These clay bead necklaces are usually worn during events that call for traditional dress.

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Celebrating the 200 years of Basotho Tapestry is one worthy thing to look forward to!