Visual Symbols of Self: South Sotho Arts and Initiation

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

South Sotho female initiates covered in a white chalk (phêpa) to indicate their liminal status. Leribe District (Lesotho), November 2009. Photo by David M. M. Riep.

As the initiation process continues, female participants use the body as a visual indicator of one's progression toward adulthood. This is marked by colored substances that are applied to the body, and serve to highlight the current phase of the training process. For example, many South Sotho female initiates begin with the so-called "black phase," where the body is covered with a dark substance called pilo, and indicates their transitional and liminal state, while also serving to hide their individual identity within the group. This initial phase is typically followed by the so-called "white phase," where the initiate's bodies are smeared in a white chalky substance called phêpa, which represents the end of silence on the part of the initiates and the beginning of more interaction with members of the community. As the initiation process comes to an end, initiates enter the so-called "red phase," during which their bodies are covered with a mixture of fat and ochre called letsöku, which is a visual indicator of a change in one's social status in Sesotho society.