Why the Basotho wear blankets

6 min read

Why the Basotho wear blankets

Why The Basotho Wear Blankets 

Men and women of the Basotho nation wear their blankets differently, but this does not alter the significance of the blanket itself. The Basotho blanket is worn over other clothing to emphasise a common identity as part of the Basotho people. The design and type of blanket depict the persons standing within the community and hold value as a status symbol.

Basotho blankets are divided into three classes based on the material they are made from.First and second-class blankets are made from 90% wool and a 10% cotton blend, whereas the third-class blankets are made from acrylic.

Blankets are part of Basotho ceremonies like the right of passage where boys become men and girls become women. It is gifted to a baby at birth and as a wedding gift as well as being used in funerals where the deceased are wrapped in a blanket. Basotho blankets can be seen as the outer identity of a Basotho person because it displays their life journey and reveals their status within the nation.

Loyalty and respect are deep-rooted in Basotho culture, and wearing blankets is not only functional but also serves to pay homage to their king, almost in a likeness of being manner. Honouring of Basotho's elders and their ancestors is taught from birth, and the blanket serves as a symbolic gesture of righteous standing within the nation.

Young girl sitting on a Basotho blanket

Kingdom in the sky

The Kingdom of Lesotho is a small landlocked country completely surrounded by South Africa and is nestled in the Drakensberg mountains. The Basotho people of Lesotho migrated to the area in the 17th century from the northern parts of southern Africa that cover Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. Although the kingdom was initially a lot larger when established, much of the land was dispossessed through tribal wars and the Dutch settlers claiming farmland in the Free State province of South Africa.

As a Bantu tribe, the Basotho were no different to other Bantu tribes with the wearing of animal skins, feathers and headgear, which pronounced the status of the person within the tribe. All this changed for the Basotho in 1860 when European settlers gave gifts to King Moshoeshoe. 1. and among the gifts was a woollen blanket. He was so impressed with the blanket that he replaced his leopard skins with it.

To understand why the king preferred the blanket to his leopard skin, one only has to understand how different the climate is compared to the rest of Southern Africa. Winters can be extremely cold with regular snowfalls, and the wind at such high altitudes can be unbearably cold even during the summer months.

The Basotho grew accustomed to seeing their king wearing the blanket, and in 1897 British Queen Victoria visited Lesotho, which was then called Basuto land. She presented a blanket as a gift to then King Lerotholi Letsie. The blanket was named Victoria England after the queen and was regarded as a status symbol from then on.

The designs or patterns on Basotho blankets each tell a story. The blankets have the customary label depicting the material used and other details that are always displayed outwards when wearing the blanket. This is done as a matter of pride and not so much as a brag.

A brief history

Bantu history pre-colonisation was largely passed down through the generations in the form of folklore, song, cave paintings and rock engravings of tribal activities like animal hunts. To a large degree, what was originally written on Bantu history was compiled by early European missionaries. As we all know, folklore paints a biased picture of the past where even the defeated are hailed as heroes. This is common among all people of the world, where facts are distorted to keep hope alive.

The history and significance of the Basotho blanket have had their fair share of distorted interpretations and meaning. Distorted interpretations are common when discussing fertility, and emphasis is placed solely on the woman, but the concept of fertility in the Basotho context goes a lot deeper. It encapsulates the fertility of the soil, the growth of plant life (crops), and livestock, which all contribute to the nation's health and well-being. But, regardless of this fact, the Basotho blanket holds great significance to the Basotho people and because of strict controls and a deeply cultured people, the history has pretty much remained untarnished.

The culture and traditions of the Basotho people have remained intact thanks to a lack of tribal conflict and the difficulty of travel within the mountain kingdom. Most of the kingdom is only accessible by foot or on horseback.

Wearing of Basotho blankets became part of the Basotho culture towards the end of the 1800s, so it has a relatively recent history, and although the world has changed dramatically, Lesotho and the Basotho people have managed to keep their culture and traditions alive and well.

Why basotho wear blankets mother and daughter embrace and hug on basotho blanket

The Basotho blanket range

There is a wide range of Basotho blankets especially designed for ceremonies and special occasions. Each Basotho household will have a dozen or more blankets in their possession at any given time, and it is culturally expected of subjects to wear the correct blanket that fits the occasion.

Strict control over blanket designs is maintained, and each design must display and relate to the Basotho culture. Every design must be approved by the king, and the blankets' manufacturing is only permitted by one company in South Africa called Aranda. This is apart from the Victoria England range that was always manufactured in England but to a lesser degree nowadays. The rights to manufacture this range by Aranda in South Africa were granted, and instead of "Made in England" displayed on the label, it now just states "England" with the "Made in" removed.

The list below will give you an idea of the importance of blanket design for specific occasions. It also highlights the link between the British and the Basotho nations.

  • Victoria England. This blanket is reserved for royalty only and is called the Lefitori, which includes badges of the brave, crest, crown, spitfire, Malekable (flame), traditional leopard skin and Pelo ea Morena, which means the heart of the king. The badges of the brave are a tribute to British regiments and Basotho soldiers who served in world war 2.
  • Seanamarena. which means "to swear by the chiefs", is the crown jewel of the Basotho blankets, and it dates back to the 1930s. This collection of blankets includes the Poone design that incorporates the corncob motif, a sign of fertility and wealth.
  • Motlatsi. The name means successor and was created in 2007 in honour of Crown Prince Lerotholi. The design showcases a collection of hearts on a houndstooth background, symbolising love, respect, and loyalty for the Basotho monarchy.
  • Matlam This blanket is commonly worn at wedding ceremonies, and the design differs between men and women

Wearing a Basotho blanket.

Basotho blankets are more like a throw than a blanket and are designed to wear as a garment. The size measures 155cm by 165cm, which is practical for a garment but too small for a bed.

The usual way that the blankets are worn is over the shoulders, and the blanket is pinned onto clothing on the right shoulder. Alternatively, it is worn around the waist, but women also use the blanket to carry their baby on their back or in the front, and it is normally pinned at her bosom.

The ease and simplicity of wearing and using the blanket against the elements are quite remarkable, and contrary to public belief, the Basotho only clad themselves in their blankets when it is cold. Other cultures or nations use blankets in a similar way, like the Ndebele, but they have their own unique designs which are easily identifiable.  

Why the basotho wear blankets young girl ltying on basotho blanket

A cultural farewell.

The Basotho people are a very proud nation who refused to become part of South Africa but rather stayed as a British protectorate until their independence in 1966. Their isolation in the mountains served to preserve their heritage, traditions and culture.

There is no private land ownership in Lesotho as all the available land belongs to every member of the Basotho nation. Each Basotho person holds the nation's responsibility and is embedded in their lifestyle to preserve and care for what they have for the greater good of the nation. The land is sacred to the Basotho, who are predominantly farmers and rear livestock, plant grain and vegetables.

City dwellers are more westernised but still embrace their culture as their identity. This collective unity that binds the nation together shines through in their blanket designs which emphasises the important features of life in the kingdom in the sky.

 Family sit on beack wrapped in baotho blankets

Steve Watts
Steve Watts

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