The Basotho tribal blanket is no ordinary blanket. It embodies the identity of an entire nation, from birth to death. Southern Africa is believed to be one of the world’s largest blanket markets. But not for the conventional reasons known to most of the world. The reason for this is the Basotho tribal blanket, the cultural brand of the people of Lesotho, South Africa.
Two types of blankets have evolved in the Lesotho region, the tribal and the domestic. For the Basotho people, the tribal blanket is more than a means to ward off the cold. The Basotho tribal blanket is a practical and useful garment, meant to be worn and not displayed. Moreover, the Basotho blanket’s uniqueness is found in the layout of the design. It uses various symbols, bold colours and a unique pin-stripe. When worn traditionally, the pin-stripe runs vertically, symbolising growth.
The history of the Basotho tribal blanket is intricately woven into the tradition of this nation. The vibrant designs of these blankets can, for example, represent fertility, fortune and family. This is a story about the history and cultural importance of the Basotho tribal blanket.
The story of the Basotho tribal blanket goes back over 150 years. It started in the early 1800s when hordes of Zulu, Matebele and many other tribes of the Nguni nations swept down through Africa. As a result, the existing populations in their path were forced to flee. The remaining people fled into the mountains of the area now known as Lesotho. The Thaba Bosiu mountains in the centre of South Africa became their new home. Their leader, King Moshoeshoe I, gathered around him around 3000 people, comprised of fourteen different tribes. Consequently, by 1833, the Basotho nation was born.
Origin of the Basotho Tribal Blanket
Two major factors contributed to the origin of the tribal blanket; necessity and royal approval.
First of all, the Basotho tribal blanket was born out of necessity. Before the woollen Basotho tribal blankets were introduced in the 1800s, Southern African tribes traditionally fashioned karosses from animal skins. The leopard-skin bore the most pride of all. Hides and skins that were tanned and worn by the tribes of Southern Africa became scarce in the second half of the 19th century. This was probably due to overhunting. Additionally, the rinderpest of the 1890s wiped out more than five million cattle and unknown numbers of wild animals in this region alone.
The Royal Seal of Approval
Secondly, the first blanket was given as a gift to King Moshoeshoe I by a trader in 1860. According to legend, he was extremely taken with it. Consequently, he soon exchanged his traditional leopard-skin Karros (animal skin garment) for a blanket. After that, the Basotho people naturally followed their leader. As a result, to this day, the blanket is an integral part of their lives.
Traders had been selling blankets across Southern Africa much earlier than this. But the adoption of the Basotho King gave them royal approval. Soon after, the King met with a Scottish textile manufacturer, Donald Fraser. He secured the production of sturdy Basotho tribal blankets that resembled the Karros. The Basotho took to these new blankets like no other group. Eventually, it became part of their cultural heritage.
Symbolism in Basotho Culture
The Basotho tribal blanket is the ultimate symbol of rich culture and identity. At birth, babies are welcomed into the world in blankets. After that, they are worn through initiations, pregnancies, ceremonies, weddings and deaths. Furthermore, special versions are released to celebrate the birth of successors and the coronations of kings.
In 1897, Fraser, encouraged by the Basotho King, designed a blanket that could replace the leopard skin because of its scarcity. Accordingly, he designed a blanket and had it manufactured in England. It was called “Skin” but he needed a proper name. Coincidentally, it was also Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Queen Victoria had extended her protection to Lesotho before and the King was very fond of her. As a result, the most famous blanket in the world, the Queen Victoria, was created. It soon became a much-desired status symbol.
In Lesotho, blanket gifts are exchanged between the groom and the bride’s family. When a woman is pregnant she wraps herself in a blanket to symbolise the life that has formed in her womb. The reason for this is that to the Basotho, it represents fertility, fortune and family.
To outsiders, it became a mark of ethnicity and therefore a token of cultural identification. South of the Sahara there is no other nation that illustrates their culture through such an individualistic item as the tribal blanket.
Links to WW2
Basotho blankets have several links to World War 2. The collection includes Badges of the Brave, Crest, Crown, Spitfire, Malekable (flame), Skin (traditional leopard-skin) and Pelo eas Morena (heart of the king). Badges of the Brave pays tribute to the regiments from the British Empire and the Basotho soldiers who served in World War 2. The people of Basutoland had collected enough money for 25 Spitfires for the Royal Air Force. They flew as the “Basutoland squadron” in the Battle of Britain. Based on this, the Spitfire blanket was also introduced around this time.
Towards the end of the war, a textile factory in the Tuscan town of Prato was blown up by Nazi forces as they retreated. The town was liberated by, among others, South African troops under the command of Colonel Arthur Aiken. He persuaded the owners of the textile mill to start again in South Africa. The brothers started Aranda Textiles in 1951.
How to wear the Basotho Tribal Blanket
Basotho blankets are meant to be worn. They measure 155 cm x 165cm, which makes them too small for beds. Therefore, their purpose can only be as a garment.
Additionally, the blankets are always reversible, with one side more colourful than the other. This is because husbands and wives share blankets. Thus, one side is male and the other female. Women’s blankets are also worn in a different style from men’s blankets. They are pinned over their bosom, whereas the men pin them to the right shoulder.
Types of Blankets
The higher class blankets are distinguished by more differentiated designs. For example, a third-class blanket will have four cobs of corn, while a higher class might have sixteen. Different blankets also serve different functions in Basotho culture. These will be explored next.
Sefate and Morena
These blankets are used by the Basotho people as everyday wearing blankets.
This design is named after the spiral aloe which is only found in the Maluti Mountains. The aloe is featured prominently in the centre of the blanket and surrounded by the iconic Basotho hat and shield.
These particular blankets are exclusive and show the status of the wearer.
This blanket is mostly made of patterns from the skin of wild cats or leopards. This is a special design and not made unless by special order.
Seana Marena means “chief’s blanket” or “to swear by the king”. It has the highest status of all Basotho blankets. The most famous of these is the Basts, characterised by their distinctive corn cob design symbolising fertility and wealth.
An important part of the heritage of the Basotho tribal blanket is that it is worn by the Basotho to represent the different rites of passage in society.
The Matlama blanket has a striking border pattern and reversible centre. Traditionally, the fringed version is worn by women during a wedding ceremony. In contrast, the bound version is worn by men.
This blanket is worn traditionally by initiated men and women. “I have tied it (the blanket) for my own problems, not for other men’s wives” is what one who wears this particular blanket would say.
Before, a Mosotho (singular for Basotho) bride would wear a Motlotlehi blanket on their wedding day. However, the Lingoetsi blanket has since replaced its obsolete counterpart.
The Moholobela is a fertility blanket worn by young Basotho men in preparation for their transition to manhood. After the initiation ceremony, the young men in Lesotho will don a different blanket known as the Lekhokolo. This confirms that they have reached adulthood.
Husbands traditionally gift their wives a Serope blanket when their first child is born.
There are also special occasions in the Basotho’s national life where blankets symbolise a particular event. For instance, on Independence Day or National Tree Planting Day. A man of substance may wear not one but three blankets to mark the occasion.
Batho Ba Roma
This blanket was designed in remembrance of Pope John Paul’s visit to Lesotho in 1988. However, the Pope never made it due to heavy rains and floods in the region.
Ketelo ea Morena Papa
Ketelo ea Morena Papa means “the visit of the Pope”. This was also created for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Lesotho in 1988. He was destined to visit Roma, about 30 km north of the capital city Maseru. The blanket gift was given to him and placed in the Vatican in Rome.
The Motlatsi was designed and produced to pay tribute to the birth of Crown Prince Lerotholi in 2007. Motlatsi means “successor”. The heart symbolises the love, respect and loyalty that the Basotho nation has for its monarchy.
This blanket was named for the home of Britain’s queen. It also resembles the inside of an animal’s stomach. Therefore, it is called Mohodu, the Sotho word for stomach.
According to a local legend, in 1897 Queen Victoria visited Lesotho (this did not actually occur). She gave King Lerotholi a gift, which happened to be a blanket. He wore the blanket with elegance, in a manner that represented the Poncho, over his shoulders and there the blanket wearing tradition began. The blanket was named Victoria England. The Sotho people had a great love and respect for Queen Victoria because she responded to their request to protect them against a Boer invasion. As a result, the Victoria England blanket has become a sought after status symbol.
In Popular Culture
The Basotho tribal blankets are moving with the times. They are being promoted by the younger generations through Lesotho’s annual Royal Fashion Fair. Some are even being sold back to Britain.
More designers are working with the blanket to make contemporary clothes and products. Most notably is designer, Thabo Makhetha. She recognised the beauty in the blankets and modernised them for a younger audience. Having been born a Mosotho, she wanted to honour her heritage through her Kobo Ea Bohali (Blankets of Prestige) collection.
Louis Vuitton‘s designs for the 2017 menswear collection featured designs from Basotho blankets. This caused controversy in South Africa with accusations of cultural appropriation.
In the 2018 films Black Panther and in Avengers: Infinity Wars, W’Kabi and his tribesmen appear in many scenes wearing what looks like the Basotho blanket. Given that the actors in the film were not from Continental Africa, several Continental African groups viewed the appropriation of these cultural symbols as inappropriately used. However, the movie brought the blankets to international attention. Above all, it brought about an increase in sales.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
A common saying in Basotho culture is ‘Kobo ke bophelo, the blanket is life’. Blankets are a part of the Basotho people’s lives from birth to death. Newborns have blankets before they are born, and they will be buried in blankets. In conclusion, the blanket may have originated in England. But through their culture, meanings, traditions, and colors, the Basotho have made it their own.
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