Sekoele Basotho: Protecting Initiation through the Law in Lesotho

  • Posted on April 23, 2013

Initiation (lebollo) has from time immemorial played a significant role for both men and women in the Sesotho cultural setting. It was even the very foundation on which Moshoeshoe formed the culture of the Basotho. It is owing to its social functions that the rite still continues to be at the core of the Basotho’s hearts even today. Lebollo has been a crucial step in the development of a Mosotho child and has been an important part of Basotho culture that has for ages been respected, protected and preserved. It taught respect, made men and women protectors of the families and the country, protectors not violators of human rights. Lebollo is the process that separates maqai and mathisa (cowards) from real men and women.

Following concerns by the custodians of initiation (Babolli) regarding some of the elements of ‘real’ initiation that are on the verge of extinction, the Lesotho National Department of Culture was forced to make the rite regain its status as well as its core principles and guidelines by developing policies, measures and controls. This was done through a workshop that was driven by the voices, thoughts and views of the custodians of this culture.

Aware that cultural rights are an important component of the basic rights and interests of the masses, the department deemed that relevant systems and mechanisms needed be put in place to guarantee that coming generations are not deprived this cultural right and benefit from it as citizens with the vision to pursue the legacy of the founder of the nation. It is important that this is an inheritance from Moshoeshoe’s time. Among others, some of the positive feedback associated with lebollo is that it has for ages pioneered national unity, and other than promoting national survival and making boys men and girls women, this is the legacy that has been carried out by various generations. Moshoeshoe himself endured the same process in about 1804 in Menkhoaneng. This is why even today Menkhoaneng serves as the most crucial spot and the beginning mark of the annual heritage route taken in imitation of Moshoeshoe’s route in the formation of the Basotho nation. It is on the basis of this crucial cultural wealth that Menkhoaneng is today referred to as Bethlehem of the Basotho.

With the understanding that an essential step towards manhood for young Mosotho was his initiation, the rite was accorded the necessary respect until recently when it seemed to have lost some of its original elements due to lack of governance of the rite. Hence there was a need to develop a policy governing the rite. Historically, the chief was the one who convened the lebollo and it was also his responsibility to provide the crucial ingredient of the rite, that is, a bull and lenaka, which was preferably a rhino horn. Initiation was the moment when initiates were taught customs and traditions of the most important institution: chieftainship. One of other essential components going with the process were praise poems in which the initiate extolled his achievements, expressed his ambitions and gave himself a new name which in the case of Moshoeshoe became Tlapule, Lekhema and Letlama. This was the way in which Sesotho finest creativity manifested itself. It was the most essential ‘university’ where the initiates learnt, among other things, group solidarity, as well as obedience of elders and seniors, especially the chief.

On the other hand, it was the college preparing boys for their adult responsibilities as husbands and fathers, as guardians of cattle, as warriors and loyal subjects of the chief. One other essential component of initiation was the war songs, mokorotlo, which were also used for prayer and celebrations. Men used mangae songs to cry out to their ancestors during initiation, while today both men and women use mangae to express their deepest feelings. It was this tradition that formed the basis for new urban music that was developed by Basotho migrants and is still very popular among Basotho today. Initiation has also been an important platform for songs and heroic praises (lithoko). Mophato (a place of initiation) was the platform where men were taught the history of heroic ancestors and the Basotho values that made them great. Initiates also composed praise poems about themselves, which equipped them with poetic fluency and defined them in terms of Basotho culture. In the words of the former Prime Minister, Dr. Pakalitha Mosisili, initially initiation instilled respect and dignity among Basotho. The poems expressed the wealth of the Sesotho language as expressed in this common initiation poem:

Ke ratile ngoan’e motle lichabeng, nonyan’e talana,
Nko ekare nalete ea mochini
Mahlo ekare a holi la motsoetse
Molomo ekare kotloloana sa teke
Meno ekare phophi ea lebese
Ha a t’seha ekare shome lea oa.

I have a love bird in a foreign land
A dove with a sharp nose and sparkling white teeth
Whose gentle, soft smile leaves one stunned.

The chief was the one convening the initiation with his son becoming a member in the rite and this would be the most dramatic episode in the life of chiefdom. The chief’s son’s comrades would later become his regiments that worked with him in governance and became his advisors, which was democracy of its sort in the then days. The chief authorised the initiation by appointing the distinguished warrior, the instructors and the surgeon who conducted the ceremonies.

It was in the light of the role lebollo played in shaping Basotho that the National Department of Culture as the national body mandated with promotion and safeguarding of national artistic, cultural and linguistic heritage, made all possible efforts to regulate and shape the legal framework governing the operations of initiation colleges through engaging the custodians of this cultural asset on the way in which the rite could be made uniform nationally and help put it back the on track.

With representation from all Lesotho districts with assistance of selection for representation by Principal Chiefs, the team that gathered to unpack the lebollo issue composed of the custodians of culture (Babolli and Babolotsi), although one limitation of the gathering was that there had been a bias as women representatives were invisible, while on the other hand the bias was on the basis of reliance of the female initiators on their male counterparts. Core was to maintain and add omissions to the Initiation Bill before it was passed to the parliament.

Since culture is created by the people, and it should keep close contact with reality and life, one other essential component was on the issue of ‘modernising’ it to respond to contemporary demands like in the case where an initiate died in the mophato (a place for initiation), as historically, the norm was to bury the deceased initiate next to the mophato and his grave became an archive only known by culture custodians (in this case initiators and initiates). So this challenge was tabled by the team regarding the way deaths of initiates are to be handled, especially during these days of insurances, where at times post mortem exercises are needed. The age of initiators was another crucial stance discussed during the workshop with the understanding that the rite needs initiation leaders to be men and women who have endured the journey of the initiation fraternity and have gathered enough experience and expertise so that unnecessary deaths cannot prevail as that lowers the dignity of lebollo.

Massive developments advocated by the Bill include, among others, essential institutional arrangements: the establishment of the national council for protection and administration of initiation schools. The Bill also recognises the institution of chieftainship in an exceptionally immense manner as it advocates for inclusion of Principal Chiefs in the council. Among the credentials needed of those to compose the council is that members should also be married and not divorced, patriotic, law-abiding citizens and worthy to uphold the secrets of the custom, among others. It also proposes for national Initiation Appeals Tribunal to deal with cases of initiation.  The bill also sets rules on the period of initiation, which should be a minimum of six months. With the element of recognition of Principal Chiefs playing a leading role in the initiation, it becomes obvious that one obligation left for them is that they have to undergo the rite in the imitation of the founding leader of the Basotho nation, especially because the Bill places them at the forefront of this rite as key custodians. They are the ones charged with ensuring the preservation of this heritage as among others and the Bill forces them to curb infant initiation, which has become quite popular. The team also unpacked the way charges for initiation should be shaped as to prevent initiators from making the rite a business out of which to make a gain.

All these views and insights were meant to shape the Protection and Administration of Customs on Initiation Schools and Other Related Customs Bill that will soon become an Act and above all bring back the dignity of and respect for this rite.

Sebinane Lekoekoe is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Lesotho

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  • Well done to the department of culture Lesotho,initiation has been the important part of Basotho culture that has for ages been practiced, respected and preserved however recently some of its custodians and leaders have used it as form of business and also initiating under age boys. Therefore safeguarding this cultural heritage through legal framework will keep the rite uniform while also promoting it and help put it back on the track.

    By Nomvula on 30/04/2013
  • indeed lebollo has been and will remain an intergral part of Basotho culture however numerous challenges face this pratice because i think the legal framework is there, but it is a toothless bulldog. in many instances we see in our communities young boys being deprived formal education in exchange for lebollo. thse boys dont seem to have learnt respect and unity looking at some crimes committed by them. my point in tighten the law more.

    By sebutsoe on 26/11/2013
  • this is a very interesting article. i wish many would read this, especially those from initiation school, because they seem not to be the way they have been expected to be after initiation. with this regard, i agree with Sebutsoe that the law must be more tightened up. this is because initiates seems commit crimes and do many other unacceptable things. i would also like to get help on how lebollo can be preserved.

    By neo ramoets on 16/12/2013
  • Lebollo its a gud thing nt yet bad you 2 go u will see…

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