Visual Symbols of Self: South Sotho Arts and Initiation

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

South Sotho initiates returning from the initiation lodge (mophatô). Free State, South Africa, January 2010. Photo by David M. M. Riep.

For example, on the day preceding their return from the mophatô, the young men are smeared with a mixture of ochre and fat (letsöku), which provides a visual cue indicating a change in one’s social status. While all of the newly initiated men are prepared in this manner, additional visual indicators are worn in order to assert one’s sebôkô. One can see variety in the breechcloth (tseha) worn by each initiate, with some being ochred sheepskin, others being undyed sheepskin, and still others being created of ochred or undyed cloth. This visual differentiation is directly linked to one’s sebôkô, and allows onlookers to identify one’s cultural affiliation on sight. For example, the Bakwëna tseha, which typically consists of sheepskin cut into a triangular shape that is passed through the legs and fastened in the rear with a knot, is visually different from the tseha worn by members of the Makgolokwe sebôkô, which is called leqapa, and is generally larger, and worn in the manner of a cloth diaper. Another variation of the tseha is the keletsa, which is simply a smaller version of the garment, and is said to have been adopted from other South Sotho cultures, such as the Batlôkwa.