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The Basotho of Lesotho

Southern Sotho

Ba Sotho - Suto Chuana - Sotho - Mosotho











The Basuto

The Basuto, or Southern Sotho, are one of the many Sotho-Tswana tribes who reside in Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa. They are also referred to as Sotho and Ba Sotho.













Kingdom of Lesotho


Kingdom in the Sky



The Kingdom of Lesotho (lusō'tō) is an enclave within the Republic of South Africa. Maseru is the capital and largest city. There are ten administrative districts.




King Moshoeshoe I   (1786-1870)  King Moshweshwe I


The Basotho nation emerged from the accomplished diplomacy of Moshoeshoe 1st, who gathered together disparate clans of Sotho-Tswana origin whom had dispersed across southern Africa in the early nineteenth century. Even so, the majority of  Sotho people today live in South Africa, as they have done for centuries.




Map of Lesotho


The Drakensberg range occupies the eastern and southern part of Lesotho. Elevations vary from more than 3353 meters (11,000 ft) along the eastern frontier to 2440 meters (8,000 ft) farther west. The rest of the kingdom is a heavily populated, rocky tableland with a semi-arid to semi humid climate. The population is comprised almost totally of the Sotho people. English and Sesotho (a Bantu tongue) are the official languages of the kingdom; Zulu and Xhosa are also spoken.


All land in Lesotho is held by the king in trust for the Sotho nation and is apportioned on his behalf by local chiefs. Non Sotho people may not hold land. Only a tenth of Lesotho's land is arable. Corn, sorghum, beans, peas, and wheat are cultivated. Much of the workforce is engaged in subsistence farming. Many staples however must be imported from South Africa, the country's main trading partner. Agricultural production has been hurt by soil exhaustion and erosion and recurring drought. Sheep are bred for wool, while cattle and Angora goats are raised.

Lesotho is a rich in water nation surrounded by a water starved region. The Lesotho Highlands water scheme, a six-dam project scheduled to be completed in 2015, already provides water and hydroelectricity for Lesotho and South Africa.

The country has some light industries, including food and beverages, textiles, and clothing. Tourism is also important. The country has two national parks bordering on the Drakensberg mountains.










History of Lesotho



Lesotho is made up of remnants of ethnic groups that were scattered during the disturbances accompanying the rise of Shaka Zulu (1816–30). They were rallied by Moshoeshoe, a commoner who founded a dynasty in what is now Lesotho. Moshoeshoe not only defended his people from Zulu raids but preserved their independence against Boer and British interlopers. He also welcomed Catholic and Protestant missionaries. By the later part of the 1800s, Moshoeshoe had established the nation of the Basotho. He was popularly known as Morena e Moholo/morena wa Basotho.  ie. Great chief/king of the Basotho.


The Mfecane - Lifaqane - Difaqane

Tragedy on a vast scale struck southern Africa in the early 1800's. The event was named the Mfecane "the crushing" by the Nguni and Difaqane "the scattering of tribes" by the Sotho-Tswana. Europeans called the catastrophe the "Wars of Calamity".

By 1825, two and half million starving, homeless people wandered about southern Africa looking for respite.

The Mfecane gave rise to Shaka Zulu. In less than two decades, a powerful Zulu empire arose from a typical Bantu decentralized pastoral society. Shaka Zulu had created a highly centralized, well organized nation-state, with a large and powerful standing army.


Shaka Zulu (1787 – 1828)

The causes of the Mfecane were many. Starting in 1800, a long drought made southern Africa inhospitable. People moved in search of food and fought for meager supplies, producing the Difaqane. The entire Sotho-Tswana region had fallen into a state of anarchy. One clan conquered the other, only to be defeated by another.

Shaka Zulu had started his campaign to conquer Natal. Refugee groups escaping his anger, invaded the lands of present-day Botswana. Sobhuza of the Swazi moved his people north from the Pongola River to present-day Swaziland and conquered the peoples living there. The marauding Hlubi and Ngwane created chaos as they tramped westward. The Basotho were pushed into the mountains where they were harassed by cannibals. Setting towns on fire, the Ndebele swept ahead of the Zulu Impi to settle in present day Zimbabwe, where they absorbed others and became the Matabele. These Matabele attacked the Mokololo to the northwest, who were Sotho-Tswana 's speakers from the south pushing north.




The Native Races of South Africa
Tribal Migration Map - 1880 - George W. Stow, F.G.S., F.R.G.S


The Mfecane "Difaqane" evidenced through tribal migration.


 Forced off their lands, many Nguni and Tswana peoples collided with the Voortrekkers moving from the south. The Xhosa expanded into Khoi-khoi lands. Some Khoi-khoi retreated into the Kalahari Desert. Others were killed or enslaved by the Voortrekkers. The Tlokoa marched from Natal leaving a path of destruction all the way to Botswana. They attacked the Fokeng forcing them west. The Fokeng marched north to the Zambezi River and beyond, where they raided destitute refugees. Vagrants from various Nguni and Sotho groups formed a new tribe, the Mfengu, which means 'beggar' in iziXhosa. By the time of Shaka's murder in 1828, no group of people were living on their original lands.  

Fleeing the expansion of Shaka's Zulu empire, thousands crossed the Drakensberg's and ravaged Sotho land. From his mountain fortress of Botha-Bothe, Moshoeshoe watched as neighbouring Sotho clans collapsed under the pressure. Thousands were killed in battle and thousands more succumbed to starvation and disease. Some desperate villages even turned to cannibalism to survive this period of great unrest.





King Moshoeshoe I   (1786-1870)  King Moshweshwe I


Moshoeshoe knew he would not be able to hold out forever. By 1824 he had moved his people to another mountain stronghold to the southwest. After staging a number of cattle raids on settlements in what is now the Eastern Cape, Moshoeshoe found himself with a modest kingdom. Secure in his mountain fortress, he could have weathered the storm and still maintained his kingdom. Instead, he took great risks and showed uncanny diplomatic skill to earn the loyalty and respect of his followers.

According to Sotho custom, captured cattle belong to the King. This includes cattle that was stolen from his subjects and re-acquired in subsequent raids. Moshoeshoe stopped this practice, returning stolen cattle to its proper owners and keeping only a nominal number for himself, this a significant gesture in an economy where cattle are the main units of wealth. He also opened his kingdom to the refugees, a practice unheard of in a time of rationing and sacrifice. Families were granted land in exchange for loyalty to Moshoeshoe. Furthermore, any chiefs who came to him were allowed to retain their authority if they pledged loyalty to Moshoeshoe. He also introduced an innovative loan system to grant people cattle from the national herd. He even made peace with the cannibal tribes living around him, granting them both land and cattle.

His success gained him enemies in the form of the Ngwane under Chief Matiwane. A refugee from Shaka's rule, Matiwane unseated several Sotho clans to settle east of Moshoeshoe. Matiwane expanded westward to the border of Moshoeshoe's kingdom by 1826. Seeking to avoid war, Moshoeshoe paid tribute to Matiwane. In 1828, seeking all Sotho land and cattle, Matiwane struck but was soundly defeated by Moshoeshoe's forces.


Moshoeshoe also faced attack at the hands of Ndebele leader Mzilikazi. His forces travelled south to confront Moshoeshoe at his mountain fortress, only to be repulsed by a fierce assault of boulders and spears. In yet another display of diplomatic expertise, Moshoeshoe reportedly sent an offering a cattle and a message of salute for the Ndebele warriors and their chief. Mzilikazi never bothered the Sotho again.

By the late 1830s, Moshoeshoe had withstood the results of Shaka's wars and fended off his two main rivals. His people were no longer going by their clan name, but rather larger name of BaSotho or "Sotho People". With the exception of a series of annoying but largely harmless raids by a group of bandits known as the Kora, things were looking good...

The first missionaries came to him in 1833 and Moshoeshoe welcomed them with open arms. He acutely saw the superiority of European arms and sought to align himself with them. Through them, he was able to access horses, guns, and first-hand knowledge of European culture. The Boers arrived on their "Great Trek" in 1835 and again, he sought to avoid conflict. He allowed them to pass through his land unmolested and granted grazing rights to some.

His benevolence could not prevent the inevitable. After a number of clashes with the Boers, Moshoeshoe sought British protection, signing the Napier Treaty. Among the provisions of this treaty was the annexation of a tract of land that many Boers had settled. The outraged Boers were suppressed in a brief skirmish in 1848, but remained bitter at both the British and the Sotho.

Meanwhile, a dispute between the Sotho and the Tlokoa threatened Moshoeshoe's northern border. Cattle raids between the two groups grew in number and intensity. In time, the Boers and another African society called  the Rolong, would become entangled in the web. After the Sotho expressed support for the Xhosa in their dispute with the British, the British retaliated by sending refugees from the Xhosa wars into Sotho lands.

The situation erupted in 1851. A British force was defeated by the Sotho army at Konoyana, touching off an embarrassing war for the British. After repulsing another British attack in 1852, Moshoeshoe sent an appeal to the British commander that allowed him to save face. Once again, diplomacy saved the Sotho empire. After a final defeat of the Tlokoa in 1853, Moshoeshoe reigned supreme.

Sotho supremacy would last only one year. The British pulled out of the region in 1854, causing the de facto formation of two independent states, the Boer Orange Free State and the Sotho Kingdom. The first war broke out in 1858, which ended in a stalemate. The second war in 1865, was far more destructive. Both sides lost men, land and cattle. The last war in 1867 ended only when the British, eager to check Boer advances, agreed to make Lesotho a protectorate.



Basutoland - 1868 to Present


This would be his last shrewd act. Moshoeshoe who was now in his 80s,  knew that rivalries among his sons would threaten his empire and that the British presence would prevent the same.


Although he had ceded much territory, Moshoeshoe retained most of his kingdom and all of his culture. The fact that he never suffered a major military defeat undoubtedly caused hesitation among the Boers and British, who satisfied themselves with what they had and left the Sotho to themselves. His death in 1870 marked the end of the traditional era and the beginning of the modern colonial period.


Sotho resolve would be tested one last time in 1880. The Sotho revolted against British attempts to disarm their army, causing such losses that the British eventually backed down.

Lesotho remained a British Protectorate until 1966 when it gained its independence. King Moshoeshoe II was the new head of state of the constitutional monarchy of Lesotho. Although Lesotho was unaffected by South Africa's repressive Apartheid system of government, King Moshoeshoe was very supportive of efforts to resist. So supportive in fact, that the South African government blockaded Lesotho for failing to release several dozen African National Congress activists. A coup occurred soon thereafter,  "presumably instigated by South Africa" and Major General Lekhanya took control. He was ousted in 1991, but armed opposition continued through the 1990s.

During this period, King Moshoeshoe II lived in exile and his son, Letsie III served as King. Letsie stepped down when Moshoeshoe II returned from exile in 1995, only to retake the throne after Moshoeshoe II's death in 1996. Another political crisis in 1998 required South African intervention, and the political instability continued.


Elections in 2002 brought hope, as the new government begins the task of healing past wounds and improving the quality of life for all Sotho.









Sotho Warrior


Circa 1880




This circa 1820's Sotho warrior in seen in full dress. In his right hand is held a knobkerrie or koto. Around his neck is a brass gorget or khau, beaten from thin brass wire and awarded by Moshesh to his bravest warriors. There is also a knife with a carved wooden handle and sheath. His headdress kharatsana, is partially made of  porcupine quills.



Images of Lesotho



The following images were taken in Lesotho during the course of four field trips made between the years 2002 and 2006. We hope they will spark your interest in Lesotho and it's fantastic cultural heritage.



Bushman Paintings



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These rock paintings are some of 1000's to be discovered when visiting Lesotho.




Lesotho Landscapes




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Yes, it does snow in fabulous Lesotho!




The People of Lesotho





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Sotho men and woman are WAY cool and generally terribly honest.




Sotho Traditional Healers - Ngaka





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The Sangoma or Ngaka of Lesotho are proud and of both genders.


Like other Bantu peoples,  the Sotho-Tswana peoples practiced traditional a Shamanist type religion, based on devotion to ancestors. Ancestors were intermediaries to god and the spirits. A person was said to exist for as long as his shadow was still “felt” on earth by living relatives. Each community had its traditional herbalist healers called Ngaka in Sesotho. They functioned as shamans, spiritual counselors and protectors against evil spirits and magic.



Click thumb to view  clip of a Sotho Ngaka.  




Sotho Initiation Attire





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Both boys and girls participate in coming of age ceremonies.



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Sotho girls initiation known as bale includes wearing beaded masks and goat-skin skirts.


The girls smear their bodies with a chalky white substance.





Click the thumbs to view clips of Sotho girls dancing in modern - yet traditional attire.



Ba Sotho Kids





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Lesotho children's inquisitive reflections flow in happiness.




Sotho Beaded Kids





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Girls wore beaded titana's while boys have there own tsĕa.



Sotho Homesteads




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Fantastic stone structures are often decorated with murals.



Sotho Craft




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Everything the Sotho put their hands on becomes decorated and / or detailed.



Sotho Beadwork



Circa 1900 Child Figure



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Many of these items are of 19th century in origin.



Sotho Beer - Grain and Water Pots   






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The Sotho built pots into their homes and decorated their homes with pots.


Smaller pots are called Maritsŏana.



Sotho Brewery Vessel / Eqho


This is a massive example of what the Sotho once used to brew beer called an  Eqho. Prior to the introduction of plastic containers, owners would painstakingly mend leaks with that developed. This particular example was copper pegged at two points, then sealed with hornets wax. An iron band was cut and attached to it's neck for added strength.


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When this container was discovered it would not exit through the door. The owner called her neighbors for help and  together they got it out. All present were in agreement that the pots function and purpose had long past. Enjoy larger images by clicking the thumbnails below.



A field collected object is the catalyst for the objects preservation.


This magnificent item has continued it's journey into time in the context of art. From early times, collectors have been the fundamental reason humankind shares the arts of antiquity. Let those who suggest field collectors and / or art collectors are looters %$*# - off....



Another Sotho Vessel - Eqho





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Another old vessel which travelled into modern times.








Click this thumb to download the master thesis of David Riep Ph.D



Khotso, Pula, Nala! 


We hope you have enjoyed the page.



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