In southern Africa, shweshwe is a well-known fabric with a very complex and interesting history; just one of the reasons why this fabric can be found in so many of our pieces. Lesser known is the fact that the name itself comes from the much revered Sotho warrior, Moshoeshoe I, so named due to the swiftness with which he would engage his enemies. Like shweshwe, the Basotho blankets traditionally worn in Lesotho identify a people tied to this great legacy. These fabrics are woven into a large part of daily life and are also embraced as a symbol of status because of him. Now, before we get into the story of the Basotho blankets themselves, it’s necessary to look at the origin story of Moshoeshoe I, which is as important now, as ever.
While Moshoeshoe was still a young boy he was known by his friends and family as Lepoqo or Latlama. One story tells us that, as Lepoqo began to grow into a young man, his grandfather, Peete, took special note of his fiery personality and propensity for danger. Hoping that an equally strong personality could help to mentor Lepoqo as he transitioned from a young boy into a man, Peete took him to see one of the most well-respected philosophical leaders of the time, Chief Mohlomi. Mohlomi was known throughout the land for his steady hand, message of unification amongst various factions and tribes and a belief that such unification could be realized only through peace and diplomacy. We are told that Mohlomi immediately recognized Lepoqo's innate leadership qualities. He embraced the boy as would a father, and gave Lepoqo an earring, a shield and a spear as symbols of the great power he would one day come to wield. It was during this time that Lepoqo asked him a question, the answer to which formed the foundation of Lepoqo's future leadership style: Lepoqo asked, “setlhare sa ho haha motse ke se fe?", which translates to "what is the medicine to building a powerful empire?” Chief Mohlomi responded with his characteristic wisdom, “the only true medicine is the heart.” And with that, he provided Lepoqo with a list of commandments that the boy, who would one day rule, would go on to practice throughout his life:
- “O ba rate” – Love them: Love breeds compassion and generosity. “Further, love promotes peace. Even the act of fighting, when governed by love, is not just a mere fight; it is a means of seeking understanding. ”
- “O ba tsebe” – Know them: In knowing the people, this wise man was alluding to the importance of appreciating that every individual is different and needs to be treated as such. As far as Mohlomi was concerned, this appreciation was fundamental in establishing true justice. (For example, fining a rich man six cows might seem like a slap on the wrist, while to a poor man, this would be a devastating blow!)
- “O ba nyalle” – Marry for them: Keeping in mind that Chief Mohlomi’s advice to Lepoqo was the promotion of peace and love, this advice underscored that even the most intimate and private actions -- here, marriage -- should be undertaken with the kingdom’s wellbeing in mind.
- “Balimo ba hao u ba hopole kamehla” – Remember your ancestors, always: The idea embodied in this statement is that one has to believe in a power greater than ourselves as human beings. Acknowledging those who lived and died before us also enables us to constantly be grateful for our own existence.
With these, Lepoqo became Moshoeshoe I, the legendary leader we have come to know today.
Next: On Peace, Rain and Plenty -- King Moshoeshoe and the Founding of a Nation