Basotho Initiation Rituals

Initiation of Basotho Men

©Dr Peter Magubane
Young men return home from their coming out ceremony laden with gifts.
Before missionaries introduced schools, education took place during initiation, marking the passage to adulthood. The missionaries objected to initiation, and it became rare during colonial years, except among the Tlokoa in the mountains. In recent years, however, it has seen a major resurgence, and most young people today are initiated.

For years before they were initiated, boys considered initiation as an important, exciting part of their upbringing, without which they could not participate in some social activities and affairs. A great deal of mystery surrounded the initiation school, which took place in a lodge 'mophato' built at a secluded place in the mountains, and boys did not know what to expect. The mophato was opened by a series of rites and feasts lasting for up to three days; the initiates' parents and relatives gathered, and there was much beer drinking, and celebrations. At about midnight, they were led away to the place where the mophato would be established. At sunrise each boy was taken in turn to an isolated spot, where he was circumcised by specially trained men, who tended to all aspects of the initiation.

When the circumcision was over, the boys were left in the veld to recover. After a while, a large bowl of medicine, made from roasted butterfat mixed with a powerful narcotic made from the bulb of the leshoma plant, was given to them to drink, to deaden the pain. The mophato was built by the men responsible for the initiation process, and the initiates were inducted into it. For the next three months they were instructed in song, dance, history, and social etiquette, including behaviour and morality.

Chastity, honesty, reliability, courage, humility, and respect for parents, elders and the chief were emphasized. Sexual education took the form of encouragements not to commit adultery. Physical endurance was tested through strenuous hikes across the mountains, and emotional strength by being woken at all hours to rehearse songs and answer questions.

Their sleep was seldom sound, as they had only one skin blanket, and initiation was held in winter, when temperatures often fell below freezing. On the final day of the initiation, clay pots used to store food were smashed and the mophato was burnt down, to symbolize transition from the old to the new. The initiates were welcomed back by the chief at an elaborate ceremony.

Initiation of Basotho Women

©Dr Peter Magubane
At the coming-out ceremony, female Basotho initiates wear traditional beading and smear themselves with red clay.
Basotho Girls between 15 and 20 were also initiated; the process was less gruelling than the boys', but its purpose was the same: to perform a ceremony that would bring adolescent girls into the adult world. It was also a desirable, though not essential, prelude to marriage, as it was sometimes believed to encourage fertility.

In some cases, when an uninitiated wife was infertile her husband would send her to be initiated.Today initiation has a new, strong hold, tied in with a determination to use cultural activities as a mark of a Basotho identity and Africanness. While it follows similar patterns to those of the past, it has been altered to accommodate modern circumstances. A particularly recognizable change is that contemporary initiation schools are of much shorter duration than in the past, although endurance tests remain as stringent.