The Basotho Culture

by Dr. David Riep

The ministry is focused on the Basotho culture and Qwa Qwa is located in the cultural
heartland of the Basotho (pronounced “ba-soo-too”) people in South Africa.
To learn more about the people, the culture, and their history, Dr. David Riep has provided
an overview from his research, for which he was awarded a Fulbright grant.

You will find the following information to be focused on South Sotho populations in South
Africa and Lesotho, and the majority of his fieldwork took place in Qwa Qwa between 2007
and 2011. In addition to his written work, Dr. Riep produced several documentary films on
southern Sotho culture and has worked as a writer and consultant for various
multidisciplinary projects in southern Africa.

Village Life
Traditionally, each village is run by a chief, who is almost always a male (except under
unusual circumstances), and a group of elders. The chief rules over all decisions pertaining
to the area and the people who live there. The village chiefs collectively report to, and fall
under the rule of, the paramount chief of the entire culture. Today, much of the authority of
the chiefs has been stripped and given to local government leaders. These government
officials now handle most of the decisions pertaining to life in the villages.

Traditional Basotho homes are round or rectangular-shaped structures made of mud and
dung with roofs made of thatch (grass). While these homes are still in use today, many
Basotho have changed their style of housing with the changing times and trends. Typically,
whole extended families live together, with four or five generations living in one small home.
Some families live in shacks made of tin and other scraps of metal. Often hundreds of people
will erect tin shacks in one area. In the past, these informal settlements, called squatter
camps, lacked electricity and plumbing. However, the government has started recognizing
these squatter camps as legitimate settlements, and is now supplying them with electricity
and community water taps.

The government’s rural development project includes the construction of low-income housing
for the masses (called RDP houses). These basic brick homes are usually built in identical
looking rows and are provided at no or minimal cost on a first-come, first-serve waiting list
basis, with water and electricity being supplied for free.

A typical Basotho diet consists mainly of mealie pap (corn meal–an African staple),
vegetables, beans, and meat. Many people adhere to the local custom of eating their meals
with either a spoon or their hand.

Marriage and Family
A Basotho man must typically pay bohali to the family of the girl he wishes to marry. The
original custom of bohali was set in place as a way for the bride’s family to receive
compensation for their investment in raising their daughter. The amount of bohali, which
typically consisted of cattle, was determined by many factors, including the status of the
bride’s family. This amount was negotiated in a series of meetings between the bride and
groom’s parents. They would speak to each other in poetic, symbolic terms, using metaphors
to negotiate the bohali price. The bohali was distributed amongst the members of the bride’s
family, including her father, mother, and maternal uncle. The payment of bohali showed the
bride’s parents that the man was serious about his love for their daughter and was financially
secure to provide well for her. The symbolism of the man’s seriousness and ability to provide
is similar to the Western tradition of purchasing an engagement ring.

Basotho culture has been Westernized and urbanized over the years, and much of the
original intention and meaning for bohali has been forgotten. Today, bohali is often paid in
cash to the father of the bride. Even though much of the rich tradition of bohali has
diminished, its importance in Basotho culture is still very high.

The Basotho worldview maintains that the community is responsible for raising a child, not
just the immediate family. For this reason, there is a deep respect for elders in the
community. Many people will refer to family friends and neighbors as aunts, uncles, or grandparents, even though there is no blood relation.