The Origin of the Basotho Nation
The Origins of the Basotho Nation
Like with many nations, there are mythical and historical stories of the origin of the Basotho nation. There is therefore no single explanation of the origin of the Basotho nation; hence the heading refers to the ‘origins’. Historically, the origin of the Basotho can be traced back to the arrival of the Bantu-speaking peoples south of the Limpopo River from the areas of the Great Lakes and north eastern parts of the African continent apparently after the over-flooding of the Nahara or Nile River as early as A.D. 270. Within the four major groupings of the Bantu-speaking peoples such as the Nguni, Sotho, Tsonga and Venda, the Sotho group was in turn divided into arguably three subgroups like the western Sotho (Batswana), northern Sotho (Bapedi) and southern Sotho (Basotho). All these subgroups could arguably be referred to as Basotho if you take the meaning of the word, sootho ‘brown’ which refers to ba sootho ‘the dark brown ones’ owing to the colour of their skin into consideration.
The term Basotho could have its origin in reference to Bapedi whom the Amaswazi called the Abashuntu in mockery around the 1400s. The Swazi referred to the Bapedi as such because they wore breechcloth made of animal skins and tied in knots to cover their private parts - derivative of the verb uku shunta, “to make a knot”. Even though the Swazi were mocking them, the Bapedi adopted the term with pride and later by other tribes similarly clothed.
Another theory contends that Basotho originates from the word, lesôtô, refers to ‘a leg of a tanned skin used to tie the thari on the back of a woman and was also worn by the Basotho men as a short loin garment, tsheha, to cover their private parts. The proponents of this theory maintain that: “the prefix le- in lesôtô indicates that the latter refers to an object, it was necessary to change lesôtô to mosôtô so that the prefix Mo- should indicate human beings. The word originally pronounced Mosôtô came to be used and pronounced as Mòsóthó in the singular form and Basóthó in the plural”.
Another argument which is almost congruent to the theories above trace the origin of the Basotho from Mathulare, daughter of the Bafokeng chief, who was married to chief Tabane of the Bakgatla. According to this theory, Mathulare became the mother of the founders of five great tribes, namely: the Bapeli, Makgolokwe, Maphuthing, Batlokwa and the Basia and these became the first to bear the name of Basotho.
The last assertion is a mythical one. It maintains that the first Sotho people emerged from the ground decades if not centuries before Difaqane at a place called Ntsoanatsatsi which is situated in the eastern (Bochabela= east) parts of the Free State between Vrede and Frankfort. Smith in Ellenberger alleges that the first Sotho people were of the Kwena clan who lived at Ntsoanatsatsi, but were forced to leave because of famine and clashes between them and Bafokeng. This assertion implies that the first inhabitants of Ntsoanatsatsi are Bakoena. Nevertheless, this is disputed by Ellenberger and Macgregor who are themselves confused. At one stage they state that the first of the Sotho-Tswana people to cross the Vaal River were Dihoja and later they say it was the Bafokeng.
On the other hand, Walton argues that the first people to reside at Ntsoanatsatsi were the San and that when Bafokeng arrived there before 1500, they intermingled and intermarried with various San and half-caste groups found in the vicinity. In support of the argument that the Bafokeng were the first of the Sotho-Tswana people to settle at Ntsoanatsatsi and intermingled with and married the San, Schofield contends: “At Ntsoanatsatsi the Bafokeng Tradition states that it was such a marriage by the Bafokeng chief, Napo, at Ntsoanatsatsi which led to a serious civil strife. When the chief died the sons of his San wife were denied recognition as legitimate heirs, a situation that resulted in the disgruntled San-Fokeng sons of the late chief Napo hiving off. They migrated with their followers across the Drakensberg mountains and down along the Natal coast.” Archaeological evidence to this migration route is marked by the type of pottery which bears a strong resemblance to early Bafokeng pottery found in the Orange Free State and Lesotho. A pre-1500 date for Bafokeng occupation of Ntsoanatsatsi is in harmony with the tradition that they were found there by the Lesotho line or branch of Kwena clans. It is clear that there is no agreement among the Basotho and historians on the origin of the term - Basotho.
Despite the assertions above, the term is today used to refer to the conglomeration of different nations from the Sotho-Tswana, San, Zulu, Xhosa and Ndebele origin into a single nation known as Basotho. Moshoeshoe I welded together his own Sotho people with the refugees of the nations he defeated to establish the Basotho nation through the use of wisdom and diplomacy and not through force or aggression. A popular praise poem dedicated to Moshoeshoe I is:
Ke nna Moshoeshoe Moshoashoaila wa ha Kali, (I am Moshoeshoe, Barber of Kali),
Lebeola le beotseng Ramonaheng ditedu; (Shaver who’s skinned off Ramonaheng’s beard);
Le ho hola, ha di eso hole, (And as for growing it hasn’t grown yet),
Di ya sala, di hola maisao. (It remains to grow in years to come).
This poem is also recited by Basotho in order to distinguish themselves from other tribes.
His philosophy was Kgotso e aha setjhaba ‘Peace build nations’. He collected a large number of followers by offering food and water and a place to stay to the refugees that came his way during the Difaqane and his livestock raids against other tribes. Many historians agree that the building of the current Basotho nation started in early 1820s at the advent of Difaqane. The Basotho clans include the Maphetla, the Mapolane, Baphuthing, Bakgolokwe, Basia, Batlokwa, Bafokeng, Bakwena, Batloung, Bahlakwana, Dihoja, Bataung, Batshweneng, and, as said before, tribes from the Nguni and San as well as few Griquas and Korannas. Moshoeshoe allowed some of the tribes he conquered to retain their customs and traditions but some adopted the Basotho traditions and customs. All Basotho belong to a clan or share a clan name that associates them with a specific animal totem or an ancestor.
Evidence has shown that before colonialism and Difaqane, the Basotho people mainly settled in what is today known as the Free State Province. Even though they were never annihilated by the Boers or the British, they were forced by the fire-power of the Boers and the British to retreat to arid and mountainous areas. Under Moshoeshoe I and Mantsopa’s guidance, the Basotho fought gallantly and won battles over land against the Boers such the Ntoa ea Senekal / the Battle of Senekal (19 March 1858); and Battles of Thaba-Bosiu (1858 and 1865-1867) also called Free State-Basotho Wars and sometimes called the Seqiti (Cannon) War. With regard to the British, the Basotho defeated and shamed the British in the various battles such as the Battle of Viervoet (30 June –August 1851) also called Tigela (falling) or Major Henry Warden’s defeat; and the Battle of Berea (1852) which culminated in the defeat of Major George Cathcart. Most of these battled were fought in the Free State and this further demonstrates that the Free State belonged to the Basotho. The battles for land have resulted in the division of Basotho into mainly two groups, namely the Basotho of Lesotho and Free State, notwithstanding the fact that there are Basotho in all provinces of South Africa. However, the Basotho tribe that exists today was founded by King Moshoeshoe I.
Social and cultural life of Basotho
Socially, Basotho were agriculturalists planting mostly sorghum, wheat and later maize. They also lived by meroho, milk – sour or fresh, fruits and meat from their livestock and wild animals. The daily life of the villagers followed a certain routine and there was a strict division between the tasks done by men and those done by women. Work consisted mainly of tending cattle and farming the land. Women had to do all the household chores as well as take care of the crops and they were often busy from sunrise to sunset. The elder daughters helped their mothers with tasks such as grinding the corn. Their precious leisure time was usually spent playing games such as diketo, kgati, mantloane, or visiting family and friends. The boys tended first the goats and then, as they got older, the cattle and will hunt birds and wild animals.
Culturally, the totems of Basotho were sacred and were treated as gods but they also believe in ancestors and Modimo (Sky-Divinity) or Modimoi wa Kgale (God of Old) or Tlatlamatjholo and there are arguments that believed in Water Snake (Water-Divinity). Traditional beliefs have been modified over time owing to the relatively early influence of missionaries and their Christian teachings on the Basotho. The early Basotho believed that man has two elements, the corporeal body (mele) or flesh (nama) and the incorporeal spirit (moya, also means wind) or shadow (seriti). The clan name was passed on through the father.
Dance and music
Basotho distinguish themselves from other nation by means their music and dance which has always been part of their life. Song and dance plays a significant role during Basotho’s special occasions such as during rituals and social activities. There, three dances; mokorotlo (war dances performed by males), mohobelo (also performed by males) and mokgibo (shoulder dances performed by females) mangae (songs sung by male initiates) are performed regularly. Diroki (poets) would perform dithoko (poems) and the mine workers chants difela, some fragments of diboko were performed during traditional festivities.
The Basotho used a variety of music instruments such as the moropa, a small drum usually played during the initiation rites of young girls, the lekoko that consisted of a roll of hardened cow hide that when beaten with sticks, produced a dull thumping sound and the lesiba that produced a strangely haunting sound. The thomo, a bow with horsehair or thin wire stretched across it, was attached to a calabash, which acted as a resonator. The player plucked the string or picked at it with a stick. Basotho musicians today use a combination of all these with ‘koriana’ and other western music instruments.
Initiation school (lebollo, in plural mabollo)
As with other groups, Basotho practice lebollo for both boys and girls. This is a necessary educational process that prepares the initiates for adulthood. It took place in a lodge (mophato), which was built in a secluded spot mainly on mountains or sometimes in the dense bush (moru). Boys who had not gone through initiation could not take part in certain activities and were not considered men. Great mystery surrounded the initiation process and boys did not know what to expect. The processes of rites, a feast and circumcision take place there for three months. The following are the things boys learn whilst there: learn songs, dances, the history of their nation and the rules of acceptable behaviour, chastity, honesty, reliability, courage, humility and respect for parents, elders and the chief were stressed; warned not to commit adultery; their physical and emotional courage was also tested.
Girls between the ages of 15 to 20 were initiated separately and differently from boys. Girls’ initiation rites had to be completed before marriage, since these were believed to enhance their fertility. The same lessons as boys were taught to girls with the exception that girls learned female chores and to satisfy and respect their husband. The old ways have been adapted to modern circumstances, the major difference being that the initiation course now takes place over a much shorter period.
Courtship and marriage
Ancestry and family connections were important to the social structure of the Basotho and are one of the reasons why arranged marriages used to be a common occurrence.
The courtship process was initiated by parents but today is initiated by boys.
Traditional marriages are confirmed by the transfer of bohali (bride wealth) usually by livestock such cattle, sheep or donkeys, horses from the man’s family to that of the bride.
Although Basotho have evolved as indigenous tribe over centuries, they cannot easily be distinguished from other African tribes. Cultural globalisation, colonisation and modernisation have influenced the cultural and traditional uniqueness of each tribe. Despite this, the Basotho pride themselves as a nation of the great Moshoeshoe I and have done well to retain and practice their culture and traditions in a way that still make them recognisable everywhere they go. They are known as the people of kgotso (peace) and Ma-apara Nkwe and Seanamarena; and Modianyewe plays a significant role ensuring their uniqueness.
Compiled and arranged by Buti Kompi. ( Department of History- University of the Free State.)
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