Notes on Lesotho -- An Overlooked African Country
Your guide to the arts of Lesotho: Siiri MorleyI would like to dedicate this Lesotho section to some much-loved, talented weaving artists from Elelloang Basali who passed away in 2002 and 2004 -- Mme Maria, Mme Makhotso, Mme Mamanekela and Mme Maitumeleng. Their warm and energetic spirits and fine skills as master weavers are much missed in their homes as well as in the Elelloang community. I will never forget them.
I had the great fortune to live in Lesotho for over three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2001-2004. It is a country about which I hardly knew anything when I was offered my Lesotho Peace Corps placement -- I didn't even know how to pronounce the name (Le-SOO-TOO). I had read a book about Lesotho in college so I had a tiny idea of what I was in for -- a land-locked country found in the center of South Africa, beautiful high altitude mountains, and a female population that is economically vulnerable. I had the romantic idea that Lesotho was "the Switzerland of Africa". Yet, I found a country that turned out to be much more complicated then I had ever imagined, and more touching and heart-wrenching than I was prepared for.
I worked with a group of female weavers called the Elelloang Basali (Be Aware Women) Weavers as a Community Economic Development volunteer. They had asked Peace Corps for a volunteer to help them with product development, English instruction, computer & email training, and marketing work to help them expand local and international sales of their mohair rugs and wall-hangings. Over the course of 3 years with these incredible women weavers (profiled on this website) I gained access to a fascinating world -- a world of women artisans struggling to find economic alternatives for themselves in a country with little employment. They worked hard in a spirited community of women who were attempting to create hopeful futures for their children.
In a country with drought and failing crops, high unemployment and high rates of HIV there are few appealing options for Lesotho's citizens. Yet throughout the country artisans are persevering in their efforts to find economic security through the sales of their crafts. Despite Lesotho's isolation, limited local sales possibilities and miniscule tourist flow, they continue to produce. These artisans are hard working, determined, creative and resourceful. These women (and a few men) have inspired me greatly and taught me a tremendous amount which far outweighs anything that I have been able to give back. Hopefully this section of Africancraft.com will be able to increase their pride and give them increased recognition as the profound and wonderful artists that they are.
Lesotho in a Nutshell
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. In some areas the land is reminiscent of the Southwest United States, in others the Swiss Alps, and even the Tibetan plateau. 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. Artists receive little government support or recognition, have no craft development or exporting program, and no art school to look to for training or funding. In addition, these artists live in a country with little local appreciation for formal artwork. Fine arts in the country continue without local galleries or art schools. There is, however, a huge amount of creative artwork that is used on a daily basis -- such as wire cars, molamus, and pottery. 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.
If you come to Lesotho searching for 3 meter painted modern art canvasses or intricately carved African wooden masks, you will likely be disappointed, but if you are eager to learn about the daily art that people create and use and lose your pre-conceptions about what in fact IS art, you will likely be surprised and inspired.
This Lesotho profile intends to share with you some of the high quality, unique, and, often, hidden work that is produced in this remote mountain kingdom. I am happy to report that, while often repressed or hidden, Lesotho's citizens are actively pursuing beautiful, high quality arts and crafts. You might need a different kind of eye and a shedding of previous ideas of "artwork" and prejudices to appreciate and admire Basotho arts & crafts, but once this is done, you will find much to explore and admire.
Basotho Traditional Crafts
Oral Traditions, Song and Dance
The Basotho people 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. All 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. 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. Rarely do you see someone without one, no matter the season or event. 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.
Baskets used to be common household objects in Lesotho. Enormous storage baskets used to be woven to keep various beans and grains, while smaller, more decorative baskets were created for collecting fruits and vegetables and for winnowing grains. Now, it is more economical and a sign of status to own enamel and plastic items, which tend to outlast grass baskets. Most baskets made now are created for a limited number of upper class Basotho and tourists.
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).
2. Pottery: Lesotho has a limited pottery tradition. Potters are found primarily in the lowlands and produce hand-coiled, pit-fired pieces. In the past, potters produced for local needs, making large pitchers and bowls, but like Lesotho's basket tradition, these products have lost local appeal with the proliferation of cheap and durable factory-made dishes.
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 (i.e. cultural days at schools, royal birthdays, song and dance competitions, etc). Other types of beads (plastic and glass) can also be found.
4. Molamus: Stick fighting is an important part of Basotho male culture. Herd boys often practice stick fighting while in the fields with their animals. Molamus are the sticks that are used. Sold at most border posts in the country, they are primarily purchased by locals, but are increasingly popular with foreigners due to their intricate telephone wire adornments.
5. Clothing: Historically, before much European influence in the region, Basotho clothing was created using primarily animal hides and fur. Now, when "traditional" clothing is spoken of, it usually refers to Seshoeshoe (pronounced: se-shway-shway) fabric, the Basotho blanket, and the conical Basotho hat. The only locally produced item in this "traditional" dress, however, is the Basotho hat! The British still have their fingers in the country, as the Seshoeshoe material and the Basotho blankets are manufactured in the U.K. for sale in Southern Africa.
The fact that these items are produced overseas doesn't seem to bother Basotho, as they have taken great pride and ownership in these items. Indeed, to own a Basotho blanket is an economic statement of prosperity. It is the pride of one's wardrobe. Although they are made of heavy wool, they can still be seen wrapped around the shoulders of Basotho in the midst of a sweltering summer day. Designs on the blankets have various meanings and certain colors and patterns related to various parts of the country.
Seshoeshoe fabric is the last thing that most foreigners would associate with African dress -- it is a stiff, heavy fabric that is usually brown, blue or red, and is printed in intricate designs. Some designs are reminiscent of Litema patterns found on Basotho rondavels, or traditional thatched-roof mud walled homes. This fabric is usually tailored into dresses that are reminiscent of British colonial dress, with wide skirts, tight waists and puffy sleeves. These dresses are widely popular with middle-aged women, yet young Basotho women are reclaiming the fabric as their own and creating unique, contemporary clothing lines.
6. Basotho Toys: Basotho have long been creative and resourceful when creating toys for their children. Most commonly seen are wire-cars made out of scrap wire and often embellished with tin cans and plastic bags. Also seen are homemade dolls, airplanes, and cyclists, among others. Wire-cars are often made by young children and they are immensely proud of them.
7. Litema: Litema designs are common in some parts of Lesotho on the round, thatched roof homes known as rondavels. This artistic tradition of etching complex designs on the exterior and (sometimes) interior walls and floors of homes is unique in the fact that is has never been a commodity for sale. Litema was, perhaps, Lesotho's first purely aesthetic art. Although now less commonly seen due to the proliferation of cement block homes and tin-roofs, Litema patterns are still a source of great pride in rural villages.
Most of the craftwork promoted with tourists today is actually new to Lesotho. In an effort to romanticize weaving, some mohair weavings are labeled as "traditional" crafts of the country. Yet, with the exception of those listed above, crafts sold to tourists are primarily recent innovations. Craftwork, in any culture, has never been stagnant, and thus recent changes or introductions fail to make these contemporary crafts any less significant to the culture of Lesotho. They cannot, however, claim to be historical crafts and, for the most part, were and are rarely used domestically by Basotho.
1. Mohair Weavings: As stated earlier, Lesotho is best known for its mohair weaving tradition. Foreigners introduced weaving in the 1960s. These foreigners wanted to put to use the high quality mohair found on local goats. Foreign weaving business owners trained hundreds of women in carding, spinning, dyeing and weaving and the weaving industry grew to become the prominent craft of the country.
The mohair weaving industry in Lesotho focuses on the creation of wall hangings, rugs, table runners and bags. These thick, single-ply weavings are created on simple wooden frames and are woven entirely by hand. It is a labor-intensive process. 100% mohair is used, all of which is hand spun and dyed. Mohair is sourced in Lesotho, but twine and dyes come from neighboring South Africa.
A few weaving groups are also using floor looms that facilitate faster weaving. They are producing finely woven 100% mohair shawls and scarves, as well as pillowcases, bags and table runners.
At one point, the industry had a very stable local market, due to the high number of expatriates living in the country prior to the political instabilities of the 1990s. But once the bulk of foreigners left, the local market dried up. Business problems were exacerbated by the fact that foreign owners also left the country and, often, sold the businesses to local women who were poorly trained in business management.
Now, there are roughly 7 mohair-weaving businesses in Lesotho, and Basotho women run all but one. Hundreds of women are employed by this industry which is targeting tourists. But this market is limited, as Lesotho has done little to court international visitors, and the weaving groups are looking for more export connections.
While not a traditional craft, mohair weavings have become distinctive as a Lesotho art form. They are acclaimed for their high quality and many outside visitors see great exporting potential in these products. Indeed, mohair distinguishes them in the international market.
Teyateyaneng (or T.Y., as it is known locally) has become known as the "craft center of Lesotho", primarily due to the high density of weaving businesses in the town. T.Y. boasts 4 weaving businesses. Yet another lies north of T.Y. in Leribe, and several others are based in the capital city, Maseru.
(For more information on the mohair weaving process, click here.)
2. Sheepskin Products: Many foreign residents are great fans of Lesotho's warm sheepskin slippers. For cold nights in the mountains they are ideal. There is a growing industry, although still quite small, that produces these slippers. Sheepskin has historically been used for clothing, but the slippers are a new innovation, which have also been quite popular with locals.3. Leatherworks: Like the sheepskin slippers, leather is not new to Basotho, but is now being used in innovative ways by a few young designers to target local needs. A few leatherworkers are creating various sandal designs with locally sourced leather. Some sandals in the country are also adorned with sections of cowhide across the top, as well. They are popular shoes with local women.
4. Jewelry: As stated above, clay bead jewelry is a long-standing tradition in Lesotho. Today, artisans are creating sterling silver jewelry and cow-horn jewelry. Now, in Maseru, one can see silver earrings that depict traditional rondavels, cow-horn pendants and earrings with mountains painted on them, and other innovations. Again, these products have a wide local appeal and it is common to see them being worn by local women. Tourists also support these artisans.
5. Tie Dye & Batik: Although tie-dye and batik are very new practices in Lesotho, one business, House of Africa, is making an effort to introduce it to the country. As a Tanzanian businesswoman in Lesotho says, "Why should we be importing it from Ghana when we can make it ourselves?" While production and skills are very limited at the moment, it has explosive potential, as locals will pay good money for imported fabric. House of Africa is now beginning to create comparable quality for reasonable prices. Alongside seshoeshoe dresses, it is now common to see local women wearing West African-influenced dresses.
6. Bags: Some young designers are putting large international garment factory scraps to good use and creating unique and trendy handbags. One artist named Manyo has found a huge number of customers in some of Lesotho's tourist lodges, but also has a growing clientele of local women. As Basotho women become more fashion conscious and have more disposable income, they are proving to be steady clients.
A Growing Artistic Tradition
Although Lesotho has had a weak tradition of visual arts, the situation is changing. As curator of the Morija Museum and Archives, Stephen Gill has stated, "It is now that we are reaching a certain critical mass of artists in the country." There are a handful of self-taught, successful artists (like Tsepiso Lesenyeho) who have made the country proud. But now, dozens of young Basotho have gone to school in South Africa and have emerged with extraordinarily fine arts skills. They have developed skills in ceramics, painting, sculpture and drawing. Yet they rarely return to Lesotho, due to the lack of support and appreciation for their skills in their home country.
Lesotho does not have an art gallery or museum. Nor does it have an art school. There is the Lesotho Academy of the Arts, but this school, due to a lack of funding, runs on an informal basis, working with artistic protégés. Most high schools do not have art programs, and the few that do are very weak. And art courses are rarely found in higher educational institutions. It isn't any wonder that artistically inclined youth flock to South Africa -- where cities like Cape Town embrace artists and provide inspiration and support.
Yet some people in the country are trying to reverse this trend. The government, in partnership with various interested individuals, is investigating ways for artists to collaborate and promote their work. This is just beginning. But as it develops, there are dozens of artists who may find ways to live a fulfilling artistic life within Lesotho. Keep an eye open for their work on this site.
Craft Centers of Lesotho
As stated under the description of the mohair weaving tradition, Teyateyaneng (T.Y.) has become known as the "craft center" of the country. The town, however, only has four weaving businesses within. But, when compared to other regions of the country, four craft businesses in one town do legitimize it as a craft center. Other craft businesses are based in Leribe, Maseru, Thaba Bosiu or rural mountain villages. The work is scattered throughout the country and there are few venues for display -- one of the many reasons that visitors often fail to discover it!
Economic Independence through Craftwork
Due to the lack of employment options in the country, many people are turning to crafts as a source of income. The common thread between all the artisans in the country is that they are struggling to provide for their families. Almost all of the artists profiled here have children who they aim to support. Without their handwork, they don't have money. The local market is limited, as few Basotho have enough money to buy luxury goods. Tourism is also quite limited in the country.
As local markets prove to be insufficient, artisans look outside for assistance. Many are seeking out new export connections to help increase and diversify their business prospects.
Yet despite the challenges that artisans face in Lesotho, some craftspeople are doing quite well. They are making profits and are supporting their children. And in the process they are creating exquisite and dynamic pieces of art that enhance people's lives and share cultural information.
I welcome you to explore the artistic traditions of Lesotho, overflowing with the work of talented, proud artisans and artists. For more information about individual artists click on the links in the sidebar near the top. You will find that they are remarkable individuals, each with complex histories and talents that have risen against many challenges. Contact them; ask about their craftwork: how it's made and how to buy it; inquire about their lives, and their children. Better yet, visit the country and get to know them personally. Basotho are a beautiful group of people. Lesotho is not what Africa is stereotyped to be: full of lions, drumming, the Kalahari and jungle villages. Lesotho is, like any country, unique. I encourage you to explore it and get to know it personally. Move beyond the stereotypes and be inspired by the perseverance of Basotho artisans. You will fight back tears when you hear them sing for the first time and be greatly impressed by their diverse and creative artwork of all types.
Khotso, Pula, Nala. Peace, Rain, Prosperity.
Note:The information on this page has been gathered informally during my three years living in Lesotho and working with craftspeople. This summary is, in no way, meant to be exhaustive and I cannot guarantee that all information is completely accurate. Many of the comments are my impressions of traditions. Much of Basotho cultural history has not been formally recorded, thus it is difficult to verify origins of crafts, specific dates, etc. Please feel free to contact me with any thoughts or questions. If interested in researching the arts and crafts of Lesotho further, I will happily direct you to some authorities on the subject. --Siiri Morley