Visual Symbols of Self: South Sotho Arts and Initiation

by David M. M. Riep
Colorado State University, Fort Collins

Female initiates, now known as dithöjane, divert their gazes to demonstrate the complex rules of social interaction and respect (hlonipha) that they were taught throughout the initiation process. Free State, South Africa, January 2010. Photo by David M. M. Riep.


Just as young South Sotho men rely on the visual arts as expressions of social status and identity, young women likewise maintain specific visual symbols throughout the initiation process. Historically, the primary purpose of initiation for young women was to instruct them in proper South Sotho female roles, including domestic and agricultural activities, sex, behavior towards their male counterparts, and to prepare them for marriage and motherhood. While lebollô is no longer viewed as a compulsory activity in contemporary Sesotho society, it formerly placed great social pressure upon South Sotho female youth, as it was believed that the uninitiated would become barren and unattractive. Thus, a young woman would emerge from this process not only with a new adult identity, but as a fertile, eligible adult woman in South Sotho society.