Basotho Women –Mothers to the Nation

Basotho Women – Each one a Mother to the Nation

Note : These comments are made from casual observations whilst working in three mountain areas of Lesotho some thirty to forty years ago. They are not the result of scientific study. During recent years much development has taken place in terms of building and improving roads, bus services, the establishment of water supplies and schools

Because so many able-bodied Basotho men are absent, working on the gold and coal mines; on farms and in the cities in order to earn money, the burden of ‘keeping the home fires burning’ in Lesotho falls to a very large extent on the women.

That is not to say there are no men left behind and the men are responsible for seasonable work at home such as ploughing and planting; dipping dosing shearing and marketing wool and mohair {Although sometimes the women must see to this work as well]. Men are required to attend Pitsos [public meetings] that may entail downing a jug or two of suitable refreshment. Having said that the reality is that Basotho women have    much responsibility towards the welfare of the nation.

Traditionally men see to the ploughing and planting of crops. Thereafter the women must attend to the cultivation and weeding. If her husband, for example, cannot get leave, women may have to arrange for ploughing or even do it themselves, this applies to single women as well

Later in the season she will have to reap, and stack grain crops in stooks to dry out until ready for threshing and winnowing and finally storing it safely in large picturesque grain baskets [holding about 5 bags of grain] which they will have made themselves from local grasses.

When possible each adult male is entitled to three pieces of land of unspecified size and situated on different soil types [It has been said that this custom is a form of hail ‘insurance’ since if one land gets knocked out there are still two to fallback on] These cultivated lands may be quite far apart, and this places an added burden on the women having to walk long distances from one to the other when work has to be done.

The day begins early for women as fires have to be lit, food cooked and children got ready to walk to school. At one time schools were few and far between, especially in the mountain regions. Sometimes children had to walk as much as 10 kms each way to school. During the past decade many schools have been established so these days it is easier for them to attend school.

To digress for a moment: boys had to herd animals from an early age, often at cattle posts far from the village, after which they would attend initiation school followed by a stint working on the mines. All this meant that their schooling might be neglected. Girls, on the other hand would attend school at the proper age and still be able to help with household chores. Girls therefore often received a better education than the boys. Some years ago men and women were employed on soil conservation works and it was interesting to note that most of the women could at least sign their names whereas, most of the men had to make crosses on pay sheets. This situation is probably vastly improved these days.

Women do an excellent job as recorders at woolshed during the shearing season and this work is not as easy and straightforward as it sounds. They also helped as secretaries of woolgrowers associations and other organizations. And were responsible for collecting school fees.

To get back to daily chores. It is pleasing at sunrise to smell the pungent and characteristic odor of dung fires as the smoke spreads over the village and down low-lying areas. The provision of fuel is a very important and irksome task for women. ^There is little firewood available instituted village tree planting projects to overcome this problem] in Lesotho and people rely heavily on dung for fuel. Women go to the fields to collect cattle dung and store it at home. When the dung in kraals has dried sufficiently in winter, it is dug out in blocks and stacked, rather like peat in Europe.    Sehalahala [Helichrysum [although the government has sp.] is collected on the hillsides and carried back to the village. For fuel. It has the advantage of burning while still green but gives off copious amounts of smoke. Women do much of these tasks.

Water has to be collected each day from springs situated quite far from the village. The provision of improved, piped, village water supplies is another excellent government project: but the water still has to be fetched. Wild spinach is collected and brought home to supplement the diet. Many huts have a small garden area where the women grow pumpkins and [with difficulty] vegetables as they seldom have water ‘laid on’ so it has to be carried in buckets. Then there are domestic chores like making and mending cloths for everyday use as well as ‘finery’ to attend church, weddings and other social events. Cooking takes up much time and is usually done outside where there is a fireplace built in the form of a cross, so that no matter from which direction the wind blows a sheltered spot can be found.

The women keep the inside of their huts exceptionally clean, neat and tidy, as well as the immediate surrounds of the hut. Both inner and outer walls are plastered with a mixture of clay,dung and colouring matter into which intricate geometric designs are emblazoned. More often just strips around the doorway and around windows are smeared. The inner wall is smeared all over. A beautiful work of art is the shelves built into the wall. A narrow row of the clay mixture is stuck onto the wall where the shelves will be. That is left to dry and harden; then another strip is added to the first and so on until the s elves are complete These are decorated using various colours; some from natural coloured clay; some using ‘blue’; others use red ochre and even coloured schoolroom chalks are ground down. Sometimes a framework of reeds or thin lathes is built onto which clay is plastered to form a workable ‘side board’. Usually a group of women work together to produce these effects. Large beer pots are made from clay, as well as smaller ones and other decorative articles.ay is plastered to form a workable ‘side board’. Usually a group of women work together to produce these effects. Large beer pots are made from clay, as well as smaller ones and other decorative articles.

Clothes and blankets have to be washed: usually next to a stream using cold water detergents. Often a group of women will work together to do their washing. It is a picturesque sight to see a number of coloured Basotho blankets spread out on a slab of rock to dry.

Most intricate designs are worked into one another’s hair. There are social functions such as beer drinks, weddings, births and ,of course, going to church in their best clothes together with the children. All these activities may entail a long walk.

Much of the work done is in groups making the tasks rather social occasions with much chattering and discussions about the days events. Naturally all the tasks and chores described will not be done every day, but clearly there is enough to keep women fully occupied throughout the year. No wonder it is said that the Basotho women play such a vital role in the well being of the nation: especially those whose menfolk are working in the mines or elsewhere.

Oh yes! In their spare time the women have to bear and raise several children! And that is a full time job in itself.

 

Story by Peter Millin

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