This is a guest post by Homestead: Theatre of Words.
In the early years of the 20thC, two French missionaries published this account of a performance they witnessed in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, isolated in the heart of South Africa:
In a large gathering, sitting round waiting to hear a royal message, a man seems suddenly seized by an irresistible devil. He leaps forward, parades in front of his friends, his head held high, his eyes large and staring, his face contorted, his voice raised in pitch, making violent gestures; he declaims his phrases but without varying the intonation of his voice, and with such a stream of words that it is difficult to understand all the words. He goes on and on as if deluded, possessed and mad, and when he reaches the end of his long poem, he engages in several wild capers, his feet kicking up the dust around him, sketching with his hand the gesture of a warrior hitting his enemy or stabbing him with a spear. Then his features relax, a contented smile takes the place of the ferocious expression of a moment ago and he goes calmly back to his place by his friends, to listen to and admire the grimaces of him who has replaced him in this strange exercise. The white man laughs, finding this infantile, ridiculous and grotesque. As for the black man, he admires, he exults at this spectacle which for him is worthy of heroes and which responds to his most intimate ideas and to all that is virile in him.
The poem was a Lithoko, a Sotho example of a genre of considerable spread and importance throughout the sub-Sahara. Sometimes considered a cross between an ode and an epic, it is a substantial genre in its own right, comparable in many regards to poems composed throughout the world.
The Basotho (pl. for ‘Sotho’) is a nation of the Nguni, which includes the Tswana and the Zulu, indigenous to Northern South Africa at the time of the trekboers. Unlike the other nations that the Boers and the English encountered, the Basotho were not conquered (despite their homeland being annexed on two separate occasions), and they remain as an independent nation – a Kingdom in its own right, a Commonwealth member, and a people who remain very much in control of their own historical narrative. Lithoko are not only composed by the Basotho, but have been collected, recorded and studied by native hands as well, and so offer a valuable window into an African culture without substantial colonial corruption.
Sesotho, the language of the Basotho, (Southern Sotho) contains a number of stems which, when given appropriate prefixes and suffixes, become nouns and verbs. There are eighteen different classes of noun, each distinguished by its particular suffix. Each class of noun has a particular concord which attaches to it throughout the sentence and indicates the relationship of other words to it. The concords behave in many regards as tense markers, as particles (that is, a case markers), and as conjunctions. Stems do not, as a general rule, exist as words in their own right, but must be fixed within a sentence in order to be meaningful. The poetry draws extensively upon this characteristic.
Lithoko are ‘heroic poems,’ praises for chiefs, warriors, people of all types, animals, the landscape, and so on. Every one is expected to have their own Lithoko, and it is part of the initiation rite for boys that they compose their poems during sequestration – on return to their villages, they would perform their poems for their families. The chiefs, too, composed their own Lithoko, the most important of which followed and completed a military adventure. Cassalis, a missionary of a much more compassionate stamp of mind than those that I first quoted, wrote in 1861:
The hero of the piece is almost always the author of it. On his return from war he cleanses himself in the neighbouring river, and then places his lance and his shield in safety in his hut. His friends surround him, and beg him to relate his exploits. He recounts them in a high-blown manner. He is carried away by the ardour of his feelings, and his expressions become poetical. The memory of the young takes hold of the most striking points: they are repeated to the delighted author, who ponders over them, and then connects them in his mind during his leisure hours.
The origin of the great military Lithoko is in reminiscence and narration, and this is important when considering the history of any given Lithoko.
Although the chiefs were each likely to compose their own Lithoko, the more wealthy and noble chiefs – and particularly the paramount chiefs (from whom the present King of Lesotho, Letsie III, has descended) – had trained poets amongst their court (kraal) to add glamour to the productions, and in some cases to compose on their own behalf. Each seroki (pl. liroki) was a specialist in praise, both in its composition and its performance. Traditionally, a seroki would announce his presence by commencing a performance of his chief’s lithoko at some distance from the village as he approached it, and as he came closer the villagers would surrender their tasks and gather to listen. Such performances could last from early morning into the night. Otherwise, the performances were incidental parts of more regular gatherings – and this is the norm today.
Lithoko, like most sub-Saharan praises, are constructed upon a backbone of names (Oriki the Yoruba form, and izibongo, the Zulu form, both make this very clear – each term is the plural for ‘name’), the names being baroque and grandiose. Each name initiates (or in some cases, concludes) a ‘paragraph’ which might also contain a fragment of narrative information. The relationship of narrative to names is dynamic, and alters as the poem ages.
Initially, the poem is drawn from a narrative entire. No poem offers a full biography or genealogy, but rather draws upon a single event – one encounter in a campaign, one victory, one hunt, and so on. The narratives are historical – although they may take on the colours of legend within the lifetimes of their heroes – and the events we shared by many people from the community. The narrative is not intended, however, to be a record of the event, or to preserve historical data for the use of future generations – Lesotho has been literate in Sesotho, Afrikaans and English for nearly two hundred years, and has an extensive archive of records relating to the political and military history of the nation – but rather as a source of the names that may attach to the hero. The narrative element remains dominant only during the first stage of composition, during which the most interesting, striking and exciting anecdotes are isolated. Each anecdote then supplies a name, and in the second stage of composition the names are given, each supported by the anecdotal material that gave rise to them.
As an example, here is a purely narrative paragraph from the praise for Letsika Matela (trans. Kunene):
The owners of the cattle were left crying;
They called on one another, letters were exchanged,
The white men called one another, called even those beyond the sea;
It happened, when they came to Kotoane’s at Lekorana,
They trembled at the sight of the tracks of the hyena,
For it had just walked in that place
And an example of a paragraph giving a name and then supporting narrative material, this drawn from the praise for Seeiso Letsie (trans. Kunene):
Mmalere, Conquering One of the house of Makhabane,
Conquering One of the house of Sekhobe and Makharabane!
Seeiso, the War-song left the Royal Palace, from him of the Mekesi
And the young braves beat their chests,
Among them being Hou and Motseki:
One said that he would be the first to kill,
And another – he too said he would be the first to kill.
Early in its career after the second stage of composition, a Lithoko is arranged according to the order of the narrative, even though the narrative has now been elided into a series of impressionistic moments. During the third stage of composition, the names take precedence and the paragraphs are ordered according to the dramatic thrust of their accumulation rather than the dramatic needs of the narrative. In contemporary Western terms, the narrative becomes non-linear. By now, the names have taken the dominant role. Following this, after the hero’s death, the collective Lithoko of the hero become amalgamated, paragraphs moving freely from one poem to another, each without forming a settled order, until a new poem is created that preserves the most exciting of all the paragraphs. This is the official Lithoko of the ancestor. This is the fourth stage of composition. Over time, more and more of the paragraphs are abraded away, and more and more of the supporting narrative detail is abandoned, until at last only a string of names remain. This is the final stage of composition. Thereafter, the Lithoko is completely abandoned, having been replaced by poems about more recent heroes. This entire process takes about two hundred years for as long as the art of the seroki is purely oral; the intervention of literacy has ensured the preservation of Lithoko in arrested forms, but these remain academic to the kraal and its poetic life.
As an illustration, this is all that remains of the Lithoko for Peete (1734-1824), collected nearly a century ago. Peete was the paramount chief of the Basotho, and is the great ancestor of Letsie III (and the origin of that royal house):(trans. Damane & Sanders)
The hare’s one which lives in a tough spot, Motsoane,
It belongs to the school of ‘Mate:
It’s the hare which the Little Feet are always surrounding,
Dancing for its benefit the dance of men!
Military Lithoko comprise a dying tradition in modern Lesotho, and although there are still liroki practising in the country side, their role in the court has been supplanted by poets trained in Western languages who, although they incorporate the traditional poetics, create poems intended to remain stable once they have been completed. The skills of the liroki are now nearly extinct.
(Note: In the standard orthography of Sesotho, the letters are pronounced much as they are in English with these exceptions:
L is pronounced /d/ before i and u. (Hence Lithoko pron.: dithoko)
‘m is pronounced M-m
‘n is pronounced N-n
ng is a distinct syllable, so Bereng is Be-re-ng.
q is the retroflex click; the tip of the tongue clicks against the roof of the mouth.
h is an independent aspirate, not a modifier.
When placed before another vowel, e becomes y; that is, it palatalises the vowel.)