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The History and Culture of Lesotho

Language: Official is Sesotho and English. I had fun trying out the language. Give it a shot!

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 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 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 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.

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 saying.
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.

Common Beliefs

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.

Content courtesy of Africa Insites



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