Visual Symbols of Self: South Sotho Arts and Initiation

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

 A South Sotho initiate participates in the thöjane, the culminating event of her initiation into adulthood. Free State, South Africa, January 2010. Photo by David M. M. Riep.

Toward the end of the initiation process, the young women return to the village where they are reintroduced to the community as adults. The culminating event occurs later that night when the feast of lelingwana is held to mark the official closing of the school, and during which the ceremony of thöjane is performed. This ceremony varies according to one's sebôkô, and is regarded as a final test of strength and obedience for the initiates, who are now known as dithöjane. Generally speaking, the ceremony requires the young women to stay in fixed positions from sun down to sun up, during which time members of the community encourage them and guard against any malevolent attack. As they remain fixed throughout the night, members of certain sebôkô are treated with a thick black substance about their elbows, knees, and torso. These dark bands are examined in the morning and reveal whether the young woman broke her stance by relaxing any of her joints. If the dark substance shows any cracks—indicating that the joint was bent—then the initiate must repeat the entire process the following year. This ceremony spiritually strengthens the initiates and draws in the community to show support for the new adults. Typically former graduates and community members will perform dances and songs for the dithöjane, which helps prevent the young women from falling asleep.