Reappropriating Lesotho's Cultural Heritage
Through New Media
From January 2022 Morija Museum & Archives has embarked on a year-long project titled Re-appropriating Lesotho's Cultural Heritage Through New Media. The project, as implied by the title, seeks to reclaim the cultural heritage of Basotho people, both material and intangible through the use of cutting-edge modern digital media. The Sound Connects Project is segmented into three major components: Research, Documentation & Archiving; Policy & Media Intervention; and Education, Arts & Creativity, all three tied together by Publishing and Communications activities centred around this website and associated media with a strong emphasis throughout on creating a wider footprint through various media outlets, print, electronic and social.
This project is part of the Sound Connects Fund which is made possible with funding from the ACP-EU Culture programme for Southern Africa, a project implemented by the Organisation of the African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (OACPS), funded by the European Union (EU) and administered by The Music In Africa Foundation and the Goethe Institut.
“The Sound Connects Fund (SCF) is a multifaceted initiative that aims to accelerate development and increase the capacity of the cultural and creative sectors in Southern Africa by offering financial support in the form of different sized grants and comprehensive capacity-building programmes to eligible creative and cultural industry organisations based in Angola, Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe; and operating in the performing arts, animation, film, gaming, photography, videography and visual arts sectors.” -www.musicinafrica.net>SCF
History & Background
The Basotho of Lesotho (South Sotho) and surrounding areas of South Africa are closely related to the Batswana and Bapedi (Northern Sotho) as they all originate from a cultural cluster stretching from present-day Gaborone to Johannesburg. It is postulated that around the 15th century this cluster began to disperse, with those now called the South Sotho migrating to the east and south. In this movement they intermixed with the San and diverse peoples of Nguni origin. The language we call Sesotho today demonstrates these influences, as do the music, architecture and other features which highlight the increasing interpenetration of Nguni culture, thus distinguishing South Sotho from the Tswana (sometimes called the Western Sotho) and the Pedi (North Sotho).
These inter-regional connections stretch further to the North where the Barotse people are to be found. Barotse are a Sotho-Tswana language group who are located primarily in Western Zambia, but stretching into what is now Namibia (Caprivi Strip) and south-eastern Angola where the Bafokeng Sotho under Sebetoane conquered a large but declining empire during the first half of the 19th century, thus imposing their language over a wide area.
While Lesotho is regarded as the home of the Sotho people, paradoxically there are fewer Sotho people within the geographic borders of Lesotho than elsewhere. According to certain sources, South Africa has 5 million South Sotho while, in contrast, Lesotho has a population of 2.2 million.
As such, the Sound Connects Project has the potential to impact far beyond the borders of Lesotho, not just with South Sotho peoples, but more generally as many of the string instruments (chordophones) which are the focus of this project were played more widely across the whole of Southern Africa before these gradually died out over the past two centuries as a result of diverse influences. It is from this perspective that we approach our project to re-appropriate cultural heritage through new media.
The people of Lesotho share a close interconnectedness with the peoples from the rest of Southern Africa. Nowhere is this interconnectedness so evident than in music and language. The phonetic similarities to be found between Sesotho (the language of Basotho) and the languages of the region are unmistakable and striking. The way the languages are spoken, how words are articulated, and how the speakers listen are so similar that often people can converse in two or more languages and comprehend each other with little difficulty.
So it is with storytelling (lits’omo) and folklore, not only do we find universality in the themes and structures of these stories but their delivery as well. The way the storyteller's voice rises and falls is in itself an art shared among the people of the region. Similarities of an acoustic, articulatory, and auditory nature are further accentuated in music. The tonality, rhythm, melody, and other musical qualities in song are similar across the cultures of the region.
It is not surprising therefore that certain instruments, particularly drums, bow instruments, and flutes are shared amongst different ethnicities across Southern Africa. As with certain songs, ideophones, and other sound expressions like ululating and whistling, while some of these expressions are common to all humanity, their use in Southern Africa is distinct to the cultural expressions of this region.
It is unfortunate however that some of these instruments are on the verge of extinction and their sound may forever be muted if efforts are not made to preserve and regenerate them now. In short, although our project is focused on Lesotho, it may have ramifications more broadly as Sotho speakers from South Africa as well as groups across the region appropriate the results of this initiative in order to enhance their own cultural, educational, and artistic endeavours.
Seven indigenous musical instruments were selected for particular attention through this project because of their endangered nature, namely: Lesiba, ‘Mamokhorong, Lekope, Mokhope, Setolo-tolo, and Thomo, which can all be classified as chordophones, while the seventh, Sekebeku, is an idiophone. The sounds they make are rich and distinctive from western instruments. Take the ‘Mamokhorong, for instance. It may resemble a one-stringed violin, yet the deep-rounded sound it produces is far from similar to its western facsimile. Even when played in staccatos, yet it is strangely melodic and harmonious. The same can be said of the Lesiba, which may be described as a flute, yet the sound it produces is characteristically different from the western flute for instead of blowing, one is producing sound both by blowing as well as sucking air through the quill. The lesiba has a mournful drone when played in a particular way.These are sounds that popular musical instruments do not produce. Such instruments and the sounds they make are facing an existential crisis and in need of resuscitation.
Storytelling may also suffer a bleak fate if no intervention is made. With the advent of mass media and most recently social media, the communicative art and aesthetic of storytelling have been fading in the collective consciousness. This wealth of cultural sound and narrative may yet come to be re-appropriated if re-packaged in a more attractive and sometimes modified form for a new generation of creatives, thus rescuing these traditions from extinction as the older keepers of these forms fade away.