Basotho Religion and Beliefs

© Dr Peter Magubane
The Basotho tribe gather at a traditional ceremony.

Modified Religious Practices

Basotho beliefs and doctrine regarding death and the after-life have been influenced by Christian gospel spreading. Consequently, growing Basotho doctrine, beliefs and practices have been modified over time. The Basotho believe that man 'motho' has two elements: the corporeal body 'mele' or flesh 'nama', and the incorporeal spirit 'moea' - also the word for wind, or shadow 'seriti'. The body is temporal and subject to death and decay, but the spirit is indestructible and immortal.

During life the spirit lives in the body, some believe it is in the heart, others in the head, but the more general view is that it suffuses the whole body. The spirit may leave the body at night and roam about, dreams being the manifestation of these wanderings. Witches and wizards can make their spirits leave their bodies at will and direct their activities.

At death, the spirit leaves the body and hovers nearby. Until the grave is sealed, the spirit is vulnerable as it could be turned into a ghost if the dead person's tongue were cut out or a peg driven into the head by medicine men to make strong medicine. To prevent this, the body is treated with special medicines and a vigil kept over it until burial. After the final funeral rites have been completed, the spirit departs and proceeds, some believe, to the ancient home at Ntsuanatsatsi or, others believe, to a home in the sky. Spirits can be either malevolent or benevolent. It is in this spiritual benevolence that the practice of ancestor worship is grounded.

Ancestral Influence

Traditionally each kin group was considered to be under the direct influence and protection of its own ancestors 'balimo' and the chiefdom as a whole under those of the ancestors of the chief.

Belief in ancestor influence in daily life is common, particularly in sickness. All illness used to be attributed to the ancestors, who were believed to induce sickness among the living to cause their death, thus securing companionship in the spiritual world. Today only a few ailments, e.g. hysteria, insomnia and epilepsy, are directly ascribed by some to their ancestors.

They believe these can be cured by appeasing the spirits and restoring good relations, by sacrificing an animal, or by performing a neglected duty. On the other hand, Basotho continue to believe that, in general, the ancestors play an important role in curing a wide variety of diseases and ailments. Their assistance is invoked through divination by an 'ngaka' doctor, when the remedy is revealed.

Basotho Healers and Diviners

An ngaka is very influential in local Basotho society. He or she diagnoses and prescribes remedies for ordinary ailments and diseases, alleviates and prevents misfortunes, protects against sorcery and accident and brings luck and prosperity. The ngaka helps in situations which people cannot control alone, or where they feel insecure. To do this, he or she uses medicines made mainly from herbs, bark, other forms of plant material and animals. The ngaka tends to view disease and its treatment organically, and therefore little, if any, recourse is made to the supernatural.

A selaoli divines ailments by throwing bones, shells etc. Depending on their position and angle, the selaoli diagnoses the patient's illness and interprets the treatment. The approach is generally based on the influence of supernatural phenomena and the invocation of magic. Treatment tends to rely more on ritual and appeasement of offended spirits, through sacrifices and observance of taboos, than on medicines. A senohe is a person who can see what others are unable to, which enables him or her to diagnose illnesses and to foretell future events.