Visual Symbols of Self: South Sotho Arts and Initiation

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

Two South Sotho men spar with molamu while escorting the initiates back to the village. Free State, South Africa, January 2010. Photo by David M. M. Riep.

The molamu and koto are additional indicators of one's adult male status, and each are visual expressions of both practical and esoteric Sesotho ideals. The molamu is a stick that was formerly made from the mohlware tree (Olea africana), and is often adorned with wirework, the art of which is viewed as a male activity. Molamu are viewed as a sign of manhood, and all male initiates carry one upon their return from the mophatô. The molamu is used to teach initiates the methods of ho ya ka lanwa, which is a historical Sesotho martial art. At present date molamu are typically made using the branches of a tree called lepere, which bears fruit similar to the pear. The sticks are cut and left to dry for one year, during which time they shrink and harden, making them formidable weapons and walking sticks, and allowing the decorative wirework to remain in place. Although this ornamentation is visually stunning, it is also used to bind empowering medicines, or moriana, to the staff, which affects the seriti of the owner. As a symbol of one's social status, one informant put it best by stating that "no one would mess with this guy (holding a molamu). They know he's from the mountains. They know he knows how to handle himself."