The people of Lesotho live in a tiny, land-locked country within the borders of South Africa and enjoy lots of mountain high view because their land has one of the highest elevation roads in the world.
The kingdom of Lesotho apart from their traditional culture, some of which have remained with them for a long time, has something they can’t keep to themselves – The Basotho blanket. This is probably the most striking thing about them.
Also known as the traditional Sotho clothing, the Basotho blankets are a part of everyday life and can be seen all across the country. But these blankets are more than just a way to keep warm – they are woven into every part of the Basotho culture.
The Basotho blankets date back to pre-civilization days. Originally, they were traditionally made from only animal skins which are a part of a Mosotho life from birth to death. According to their culture, a newborn receives their first blanket before they are even born, for many events throughout their lives, and eventually will be buried in one.
The transition from animal skins to the textile blankets done today is attributed to one of their ancient rulers, King Moshoeshoe I, who was gifted a textile blanket by a British man known only as “Mr Howell”. As soon as the King began wearing the “new thing” on his shoulders in the late 19th century the people quickly followed suit.
Since then, with the help of European innovation, the Basotho blankets have become a national symbol. What makes the Basotho blankets unique is the layout of the design, with various symbols used including the bold colour combinations. Oral history goes that the stripes design on the blanket was originally a weaving fault which has now become a unique part of the design and dictates how the blanket is worn. When worn in the traditional way, the pin-stripe runs vertically symbolising growth. The Basotho blankets are manufactured from wool to offer warmth and protection from the wind and rain in the high altitude.
Occasions for Basotho blankets:
In Lesotho, an average household will have up to a dozen blankets which have been acquired over the years, starting with a blanket given before the birth of a baby. They are used as a gift for events, but till today, play the biggest roles in birth, marriage and death.
As tradition demands when a male child reaches puberty, his parents, guardians or relatives give him a new blanket, thus ushering him into puberty and through their circumcision.
Marriage in Lesotho is deeply rooted in tradition, and surrounded by family members. When a man wants to marry a woman, he starts by talking to his parents. First, he will be interviewed to be sure that he is mature enough for marriage and are pleased with his choice of a bride. Once he crosses that level a letter of request will be written and delivered to the bride’s family by a male member of the boy’s family, dressed in his blankets.
Upon receiving the request, the future bride’s parents will go through the same process of interviewing the girl just like the boy to be sure of her readiness. Upon approval, the letter of request is accepted. The next important step to take is to buy the bride-to-be a blanket which will be used at her wedding.
The people of Lesotho have long believed in life after death, and so they bury their dead with a blanket to keep them warm for the afterlife. Strangely, their dead are not buried laying down, but instead in a squatting position, covered with their blankets, seeds and other important items needed for the afterlife in their hands. Although, the practice of Christianity is widespread in Lesotho, this tradition remains.
Basotho blankets and pop culture:
This deep-rooted tradition which has remained for years, has been passed down to generations and even exported to other countries. While the Basotho blanket is equated with the people of Lesotho, the style has made its way out of the country.
Apart from tourists who buy them when they visit and traders who export them, the Basotho blanket inspired the costumes of “Black Panther”, an African themed movie that took the world by storm in 2018.
Note: Differentiating between “Basotho” and “Lesotho”.
Lesotho is the name of the country (the Kingdom of Lesotho).
Sotho: The Sotho languages and cluster of Bantu speaking people.
Basotho: The name for the ethnic Bantu group in Lesotho and the former name of the country and its kingdoms, as early as the 19th century. It was also known as Basutoland.
Mosotho: The singular word for a person from Lesotho.
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