Basotho Beliefs

The following is but a meagre account of the many superstitions,
beliefs, customs and practices still common in the different parts
of Basutoland. To enumerate them all would be impossible for this
would require the help of many of the now unavailable gray heads to
call them back to memory.

Superstitions, beliefs & customs

By Justinus Sechefo

The following is but a meagre account of the many superstitions,
beliefs, customs and practices still common in the different parts
of Basutoland. To enumerate them all would be impossible for this
would require the help of many of the now unavailable gray heads to
call them back to memory; since through the coming of the white
man, the belief in Christianity, neglect and disuse, they are
almost forgotten or even abused, while to the present generation
many of the superstitions are entirely unknown.

However the in-born spirit, traditions, influences and keen
interest aroused by listening attentively to folk tales, fables,
ghost and witchcraft stories told by grandmothers to their
grandchildren at bed time in the hut; and also other peculiar talks
among the men at home or in the “khotla” in the evenings about
these beliefs and customs; all these must naturally have implanted
in the minds of young listeners, deep and not to be shaken
impressions about these customs and beliefs. In those days to have
doubted the integrity of charms, the binding necessity of certain
incisions, the magical powers of the “baloi” evil doers, witches
and those of ghosts etc. would have deemed worse than insanity
itself.

Poetical and rhymed amusing songs were sung, nursery tales
repeated about these beliefs at the hearth by night, and fables
were told at bed time by old grannies to their grandchildren, who
in every case slept at their houses, in order to shun the abusive
slander “ho hloba khoale” to pluck the partridge recklessly or in
ordinary. “DO not pamper your children”.

Superstitions, fables and nursery tales were then and there
related to the little ones. However it must be remembered that
fables were not too be narrated during the day time but only at
night, these being a strong belief that a mysterious horn would
happen too grow on the head of the person who recounted fables
during the day time.

Death

Since death was considered so terrible an occurrence in all
localities, it would be out of question to classify the many
inconvenient superstitions about it. In those olden times the
“leqhofa” the hut of the dead man, especially one in which an aged
person died, who had no family, was left unoccupied, its entrance
blocked up either with stones or bundles of grass. Kraals in which
such deaths occurred were deserted and the spots no longer held fit
for habitation.

Surprising or sudden deaths, such as caused by the striking of
lightning etc. were incidents of great shock. Witch doctors were
urgently sought for, and divining bones thrown down them to reveal
the mournful secrets. Death reports were announced to relatives at
night. Children upon their inquiring as to the whereabouts of such
and such a newly deceased, we told, ‘ofaletse’ he has emigrated,
and not “o shoele” he is dead, which was a vulgar as well as a
wrong saying. It was also improper especially during the term of
mourning to pronounce the name of deceased, but he should be
addressed ‘the late so and so’. . In olden times there was no
night watch over the corpse as is done today, since as far s
possible the corpse was buried during the night of the day of
death. Funerals were nocturnal performances, held only by grown ups
at dead of night. In many cases the young were not allowed to see
the dead body or to attend the funeral.

“A very old man who would not die”, but was a nuisance and a
burden to the family, was done away with. He would be placed at the
entrance of the cattle kraal, so that the cattle getting inside the
kraal for the night would trample him to death and then he would be
picked up to be buried quietly.

Graves

On no account should the grave dug out for the dead remain open
during the night. The corpse must necessarily be buried on the same
day the grave was dug, that is on the day of death. But in the case
of great stress or perplexity impeding the burial, the grave should
watched by men throughout the night to prevent the “baloi” (evil
doers) from approaching.

Graves of elders and owners of cattle were dug out in their
cattle kraals since necessity the rich should not be separated from
their cattle. The stones of the kraal we removed for sufficient
space for the grave, and the kraal was built up again after the
burial. The grave itself was nothing more than a round hole, a few
feet deep, since there were spades for digging, but only small iron
rods called “kepa” used for digging medicines clumsy blindly
pointed sticks made from hard wood of the wild olive tree. The body
was laid stretched out in the graves, but was buried in a sitting
position.

Visible graves, outside the village, were as far as possible
avoided so as not to frighten people. In the case of those who had
no reason to be buried in respectable graves in their cattle kraals
and in the case of strangers, graves were dug outside the village.
These unfortunate places were dreaded spots. People should not sit
nor stand upon the heap of a grave. A person who happened
unconsciously to do so, should have his or her feet passed slightly
over a brisk fire of grass to scorch off the misfortune.

The Burial

In those primitive days of feudal times, even in days of leisure
and peace, men and boys did not sit down heavily on the ground.
They always “satup” even in the “Khotla” while eating, so as to be
able to leap up instantly at any call of alarm.

The dead body for interment was wound up in an ox skin, bound
with ropes of the “moli grass” and placed “sitting up” in the
grave, sop as to be able to rise up instantly o the day when it
would be summoned to do so. Under no circumstances should the
corpse be buried lying stretched out in the grave The corpse was
gently lowered down into the grave and supported on all sides with
the ground dug out to keep it firmly “sitting up”. A few grains of
the seeds of the “mabele”, occasionally maize, sugar cane, pumpkin
seeds and a tuft of ordinamy dog grass twisted into a tiny ring
were thrown beside the body in the grave. His or her snuff box, if
any, was also placed at the side of the body.

The corpse was placed sitting up in such a way as to half face
the east, so that the rising sun might slightly cast its rays on
the corpse’s right cheek. Some of the binding ropes about the head
were gently cut through with a knife so that the covering of the
face could be slightly opened to prevent suffocation. The ground
was then thrown in as far as the level of the head. Lastly a small
flat stone was placed directly above the center of the head and the
grave was filled up with sand.

In each case the ground dug out of the grave should all be
brought back to fill it up again, so that none of it remained
scattered about. The surroundings should be swept clean and all
particles of earth remaining placed on the newly covered grave.
However, should it happen that much of the ground remained, it was
carefully removed and scattered thinly over the grass at some
distance from the grave so as to prevent evildoers from taking any
of it to do mischief over the corpse. A mound of stones was over
the grave and a higher stone planted at the top end’ to mark the
head side. In certain cases the dogs would smell out the putrefied
body which was not too deep in the ground and would scratch at the
grave. In these cases it was necessary to crush the bitter roots of
the “leshokhoa” plant, which were dipped in water and sprinkled
over the grave, or placed in pans “mangetana”, around the
grave.

An unfortunate man who died stretched out without people to help
him to close his mouth and eyelids, or fold his arms and legs, had
the stiff muscles at the back of the knees joint gently cut through
with a knife, so as to allow the body to be easily positioned
sitting up in the grave. Now in modern times, since the heir is the
first to let flow his blood at all incision ceremonies in the
family, it is also his privilege to be the first to throw a handful
or spadeful of soil into the grave. The rest of the family,
beginning with the eldest, follows after him, after which everyone
can then take part in filling up the grave. The custom of the olden
times was that the person who placed the corpse into the I grave
had to be purified or compensated as explained later. At the same
time, this showed the public the lineage and succession of the
family in case of any dispute afterwards. An imposter, “hoja
metlakana”, who falsely claimed and took upon himself this
exceptional privilege which did not lawfully belong to him, would
be condemned by the ancestral gods. Invariably such a man became
stupid, dull or even insane. The pan that bore the seeds in the
grave was placed above the grave.

Embryos

Embryos are buried in old broken earthen pots. The smallest may
even be placed in an old horn of an ox and then buried. Only women,
who have acted as midwives during the confinement may perform the
burial. The burial takes place in the early hours of the morning or
about nightfall. Graves or holes are dug by the woman on an ash
hill outside the premises. A man, if needed, may help dig out the
hole, but cannot attend the burial.

Common Beliefs

  • A house spider should not be disturbed, it being the pillar
    that sustains the “back-bones” of the family.
  • A whirlwind whirling into a house, foretells the coming of a
    stranger. A whirlwind whirling one about should be spat upon to
    quell the misfortune it brings.

    > A dog howling ominously, “moola ke seotsa”, brings evil. It
    must at once be stopped or chased away.
  • A dog should not sit in front of people. especially in front of
    men with it’s back turned towards them. This portends sure evil.
    At once it must be chased away with contempt.
  • A visitor going on a long journey, when passing a certain
    place, (generally between two hills) where there is a heap of small
    stones piled together, should pick up another stone alongside of
    the road, spit on it and throw it on the heap. This is omen for
    good luck and good eating along the journey and at his destination.
    The common mountains of Sefikeng and Sefikaneng derived their names
    from such big heaps made there in olden times.
  • A person stooping to drink water at a spouting spring of water
    should before drinking appease the master below by generously
    throwing on the surface of the agitating water a tuft of green
    herbs, otherwise the restless water will erupt onto his face.
  • A cock clucking like a hen brings evil to the owner – it should
    be destroyed at once The same applies to a hen crowing like a
    cock.
  • Pottery women should cease to mix up their clay, to form pots,
    or to bake pots after a death in the village has been announced.
    After this time all pot work cracks and spoils.
  • Men should not eat bread-scraps from the pot because doing so
    would cause their drawers, “tseha” to burst asunder.

The Infant Child

The birth announcement of the first-born child to its father is
formal. A male neighbour goes to the place where the father of the
child happens to be and by standing behind him unnoticed strikes
him with a stick in his hand saying: “We are given a son!” In the
case of a female child, a woman in the same way pours a calabash of
water over his head saying: “The birth of a girl!” This shock and
excitement changes into joy itself.

The first-born boy is the property of the grandparents. It has
to be weaned by a ceremony performed by the grandfather, generally
after two or even three years suckling, during which period there
are no sexual relations between the young couples. Such actions
spoil the child, who at that time continues to suckle congealed
milk, caused by pregnancy. The senofu” or “spoiled child” suffers
from chronic constipation and very often dies.

To prevent an infant from becoming a rogue or a thief, it is
protected against raindrops for the space of two or three months
after birth. Then on one fine day, when there will be a nice shower
of rain, the infant is taken out and gently laid down on the ground
in the reed closure in front of the house. Here pouring rain will
freely spatter over it for a few moments. The frightened infant
will scream bitterly. The family all shout out as if mocking at it,
saying: “Ah! Behold the thief, the thief, the thief!” Suddenly it
is picked up, wiped, caressed and taken to the house.

A young child ready to be given solid food, should be given it
by a chosen man known to be of a good temper and morals. He gives
it a slice of meat, which the child sucks eagerly as if it were
sucking into itself the good qualities of the man. In the olden
times, it was customary that a good respectable herd boy should
exclusively do the milking of the cows for the infants.

All adults, men and women, with the exception of the aged and
younger boys and girls are forbidden, for the space of two or three
months after the confinement of a woman, to enter into her
premises, since their “bad conduct and trampling everywhere”, they
are apt to cause evil to the infant, “ho hata ngoana”.

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