Basotho- The Book




Basotho People at Work


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Basotho: people at work

Images by René Paul Gosselin

A BOOK containing rare and beautiful photographs of people in the secluded mountain kingdom of Lesotho has been released in Johannesburg.

The images are by René Paul Gosselin, businessman turned photographer who has been increasingly fascinated by Lesotho and has spent years recording the lives of its people, mostly in remote rural areas.

This media release contains all the text which appears in the book.
Images in various resolutions are available from:


Riaan de Villiers
The Highveld Press
tel 011 482 1361


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FOR THE best part of a decade, businessman turned photographer René Paul Gosselin has been increasingly drawn to the remote mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Gradually, he has learnt that, rather than chasing people and scenes, he should ‘wait quietly by the roadside’, and his subjects will eventually arrive by themselves.

This approach has resulted in a stunning set of photographs depicting the lives of a people who, while fundamentally at peace with themselves and their environment, are constantly at work: ploughing, reaping, threshing, winnowing, milling, weaving, and tending their livestock.

They include images of a gathering of hundreds of Basotho horsemen in the remote central highlands, held under the auspices of their paramount chief, to discuss grazing rights and other vital land use issues – the first ever taken of this spectacular annual event.

About René Paul Gosselin

AFTER WORKING in international commerce for nearly 30 years, René Paul Gosselin returned to his childhood love of photography, kindled by the headmaster of St Luke’s Preparatory School on the Channel Island of Jersey, where he was born. His other great love is Lesotho, which he has photographed intensively in recent years. He divides his time between homes in Johannesburg and Fouriesburg in the eastern Free State, the latter a ten-minute drive from the Lesotho border.


David Ambrose

THE NAME Gosselin is known to every school child who learns Lesotho history. Constant Gosselin was one of the first three pioneer missionaries who came to the Kingdom of Moshoeshoe in 1833, and the one who built the first mission stations at Morija and Thaba-Bosiu. While eager to learn about their adopted country, the other two, Eugéne Casalis and Thomas Arbousset, were young and inexperienced intellectuals, and it was Gosselin who raised the buildings without which little could have been accomplished.

After a few years, Gosselin’s colleagues travelled to Cape Town to meet and marry wives, and in due course raised families. The missionary society in Paris was concerned that Gosselin should be given a similar chance to marry. A young lady, Clarisse Delatte, was sent out from France, together with two other intended missionary wives, and their husbands to be were expected to travel to Port Elizabeth (then known as Algoa Bay) to meet them.

Two of them did, but Constant Gosselin was a workaholic, so busy with building the Thaba-Bosiu Mission that he could not spare the six months needed for the return journey to the coast by ox-wagon to meet Clarisse. She eventually married another missionary, Francois Maeder, who had travelled on the same ship. Gosselin remained a bachelor until his death in 1872 at Bethesda Mission in southern Lesotho.

René Paul Gosselin, the photographer who has created this book, can hardly be a descendant of the missionary pioneer. His family does, however, come from Picardy, the same region of France as Constant Gosselin, and one can therefore regard him as a distant relative of the missionary pioneer.

Like his namesake, once embarked on a task, René Paul Gosselin pursues it with great skill and single-minded determination. In this book he presents a marvellous portfolio of photographs which, while depicting scenes commonplace to the rural Basotho, are nevertheless a testimony to their hard work and skill at surviving in a harsh landscape, where little is achieved without major effort. Some of these skills are ancient, such as gathering wood, cooking, washing, making pots, thatching, and herding animals.

Cultivating the land remains central to rural life, but the traditional mill with its two-handed quern stone has now largely been superseded by mechanical mills where villagers bring their crops to be turned into flour, with a proportion withheld as payment.

Besides their haunting beauty, these photographs are hugely valuable because they depict a society which is still relatively unaffected by the forces of globalisation that are steadily penetrating the most remote corners of the world, and the accompanying homogenisation of local culture.

Visitors to Lesotho enjoy very warm hospitality, particularly in the remote rural areas. We also hope this book will encourage more people to travel to that country, and experience the lives of the Basotho in their harsh but beautiful landscape at first hand.


Dr David Ambrose, MBE, is a retired professor of the National University of Lesotho. He is also a respected authority on many subjects concerning Lesotho and the Basotho, notably their history, language, geography, geology, cartography, and toponomy.


Mike Feldman

LESOTHO, FORMERLY Basutoland, is a small mountain kingdom completely surrounded by South Africa, and inhabited by some 1,9 million people.

Initially, the region was inhabited by southern Africa’s ancentral people, the San, who left a priceless record of their presence in the form of rock paintings in the Drakensberg and elsewhere.

During the early 19th century, African tribes took refuge in the mountains and formed the Basotho nation under the leadership of King Moshoeshoe. In the late 19th century, the Basotho people asked Queen Victoria to grant them protection, and they were made British territory. In 1966 they gained full independence.

The mountain landscape is extremely scenic. While some areas are very remote, much of Lesotho can be traversed on tarred roads. The country presents a picture of rural Africa, combined with elements of modernity.

There are many activities for the tourist including dance festivals, craft markets, horse riding, hiking and bird watching. The gigantic Katse and Mohale Dams are spectacular. There are very good hotels and lodges, and tourists are made to feel very welcome.

The people are proudly independent, but also very friendly. Their colourful blankets and conical straw hats, worn by almost everyone in the rural areas and many in the urban areas, are distinctive and unique.

As these images attest, René Paul Gosselin is a highly accomplished photographer. He has spent a lot of time in Lesotho, and his empathy with and love of this country and its people are reflected in his photographs.

Mike Feldman is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, and a Fellow of the Photographic Society of South Africa.


René Paul Gosselin

KNOWLEDGE OF the Basotho culture is not restricted to the Kingdom itself. Since the early 19th century, people from all walks of life and all parts of the world have visited this country that was first inhabited by the San, before the arrival of the Baphuti, the Basotho themselves, the Nguni, the Griqua, the Kora and Barolong, the Asians, and the Europeans.

Many of those visitors became greatly attached to this mountainous domain and even if they did not stay, took with them some vivid memories at least.

Sekonyela, the son of ’Manthatisi, a Batlokoa group from the region, formed a rival kingdom nearby. The Amahlubi of Chief ’Mpangazitha, the Amangwane of Chief Matiwane, and the Amandebele of Mzilikazi were all competitors or visitors at one stage or another; some came and some left, but none were left indifferent.

Except perhaps for some impetuous Boer commandos; Commandant Louw Wepener, for one, was an aspiring visitor to Thaba-Bosiu, hoping to unseat King Moshoeshoe. He was left not only indifferent but quite dead when he attempted to walk up to the King’s front door with impunity.

The culture of the region permeated these and other travellers, and most took elements with them which remained alive in their minds. Today, Sesotho is spoken in countries far from Lesotho, because the Basotho themselves sought employment and travelled widely.

The first French missionaries came upon Lesotho almost by accident. They were originally heading for stations further north and west to bring the Christian gospel and peace to the Batswana, who were being oppressed by Mzilikazi’s Amandebele warriors. The appeal to the Frenchmen to come to Lesotho instead, from King Moshoeshoe in the year 1833, changed their lives, and those of many others.

The exchange of cultures between local people and the new visitors to Lesotho was beneficial to both sides of the divide. The missionaries brought modern ideas to the newly forming Basotho nation. In regular reports from the mission stations at Morija and later Thaba-Bosiu, they told the world about the Great King Moshoeshoe and his peaceful but invincible people. Today, these reports in the Journal des Missions Evangéliques, are a vital resource for historians and other researchers, and are housed at the Parisian missionary headquarters and in other private collections, archives, and libraries.

The British began their visits full of hope and promise, but for them this was not to be a ‘land of hope and glory’. Early relationships with the Basotho were cordial, and exchanges were warm and generally fruitful.

In 1843, the British authorities at the Cape of Good Hope recognised King Moshoeshoe as the legitimate ruler of his territories. To define the relationship with the colonial authorities and draw the borders of his land, more visitors, some successful, other less so and less respectable, came to Lesotho. They also collected their share of Basotho culture; Governor Sir George Thomas Napier, Sir Peregrine Maitland and Sir Harry Smith were early visitors, in body or in mind, and full of promises.

Major Henry Douglas Warden and Lieutenant-General Sir George Cathcart lost their battles but left more enlightened and probably feeling indebted to their Basotho adversary. British emissaries came and went over the next 98 years – and the Basotho, after the loss of much of their lands, came under the protection of Britain. From 1868 to 1966 Lesotho was a British Territory. The consular and ministerial records bear witness to this period. The memories of Lesotho must be the most plentiful in the Albion.

Today many visitors come from overseas, and most of them carry home some tangible evidence of their sojourn. The eager never cease to lecture their peers on the beauty and culture of the country. Young people from many countries travel to Lesotho to help with development programmes, working for aid agencies and non-governmental organisations. They return home with artworks, artefacts, and vivid memories of their time spent with the Basotho. Dozens of websites, hosted in numerous other countries, showcase these experiences and tell the world how to get there and what to do. Hundreds of snapshots are passed around and loaded onto websites by almost every visitor who cannot wait to share his or her record of Lesotho scenes and events.

Great stores of knowledge have been built up in great repositories of the world; The Library of Congress, The North Western University Library, the libraries of other great universities, history museums in London, Paris, New York and Geneva, and in private collections around the world. Lesotho is loved and studied from all angles and from all distances, near and far.

Who is throwing stones?

I am often sad to hear South Africans talking badly about Lesotho. Few have visited the country, fewer have read anything serious about the country and its people, and many do not have a well-nourished opinion. The past is perhaps to blame for this. They know little, and enquire less. But none had access to D F Ellenberger, Eugène Casalis or Robert C Germond when studying Southern African sociology or politics. Many have never read Basutoland Records of G M Theal, The History of South Africa by Eric A Walker, or the work of Ntate M Lelimo on the lost territories, or the praise poetry and local folklore, or the beautiful accounts of the life of a herdboy.

So when any local moderate adventurer crosses the Caledon River (actually the Mohokare), they may have some surprisingly preconceived ideas. They see herd boys on the roadside with stones to hand and they fear the worst. If they understood the reason for roadside grazing, and the methods of herd control employed by the balisana, there would be no fear. A good herd boy can turn his bull away from the road at fifty paces with a well-placed stone – precisely to safeguard the passing tourist. So, in places where many head of cattle cross the road every day, the road may be littered with small stones. They are not weapons of assault, my friends – go in peace. The most popular greeting in Lesotho – Khotso!

Those who have open minds and hearts return from their adventure both transformed and enlightened. You can see who they are, because their faces light up when you mention the country. Little by little, this cultural alluvium deposits itself in the most barren valleys and from this grows new crops of understanding.

Rich minds, busy people

The lives of the Basotho are intimately linked to their land and their livestock. Most of their activity happens outdoors, and is very visible to the tourist and the photographer.

In fact, I have never encountered more industrious people than the Basotho. Perhaps it is the proximity of the mountains, whose influence makes the climate so unpredictable, and the chores more urgent. Perhaps it’s just the way of the Basotho, who find that their close and constant connection with the world of the spirit informs their daily activities – as should perhaps be the case for all of us.

Methods of farming and animal husbandry appear to be out of date; one could say they resemble those found in history books relating to the 19th century and earlier. Much other ancillary work is of a similar nature. Stone is chiselled by hand; large rocks are split with wedges and hammers. Trees are cut down by hand with axes and crosscut saws. Even relatively modern equipment and machinery is repaired at the roadside or next to the fields, with rudimentary hand tools. Rural people partly live on the simple produce of their fields and their stock; any surplus is traded for tools or items produced elsewhere. Barter is common and a natural activity.

The Eurocentric observer may look at this in different ways – perhaps as quaint and picturesque, or as a sign of dire poverty. Lesotho is indeed one of the poorest nations on earth, and yet the people do not consider themselves poor. They live a simple life. And yet, who are we to judge or classify the lifestyle of others? The images themselves make no judgement. However, I have always felt that the subjects are making a positive statement about their condition – or perhaps no statement at all.

The Basotho very rarely give one reason for pity. On the contrary, every town, village, or homestead is a hive of activity and positive energy. Everyone seems to be going about their business with a smile, a laugh, and endless chatter. Among others, this is a quality I have tried to capture in my images.

Who is watching whom?

When any enthusiastic observer, writer, photographer, or inquisitive tourist discovers Lesotho, this will inevitably lead to extensive travel. Days are spent rattling along the gravel roads in the mountains, and tearing along the fine tarmac roads of the lowlands looking for that special image – the Basotho cavalier with his morokotlo hat, and wrapped in his black and yellow Seana Marena blanket, astride a fine bay pony – or hours of driving along on remote mountain roads to witness the vast herds and herdboys heading out on their annual transhumance towards the summer grazing valleys in the Maloti.

Eventually the traveller seasons – or, like a good wine, aerates once the cork is out and the oxygen brings sense to his thoughts. You learn to slow down, and eventually stop. This is Lesotho, not the city. The events you are looking for will happen. The pictures you are looking for will appear. But they will only come to you if you are patient. Find a spot on the side of a small road, and wait there with your coffee flask, a book, and a few rolls of film, or a few memory cards. The images will walk past.

When foreign visitors came to Thaba-Bosiu to seek an audience with King Moshoeshoe, they were given a seat and asked to wait for their moment with the great man. The King was not being impolite – on the contrary, he wanted to be completely prepared to receive his honoured guest. He would have had the delegate observed, spoken to, and somehow analysed by his trusted advisors or family members. At the right time, he would say, ‘I see you’. Meaning not that he could now accept or receive the person in his presence, but that he could understand them.

As I sit there, on that spot on the roadside, sipping my coffee and fiddling with my camera, I am ready for that passing event, that special moment, or that special angle of light over a village or shimmering river. I constantly calculate the composition of a possible shot, or check the essential elements of an image which is still in my head. I notice that the herdboys are now more evident than a few moments ago, and the youngsters have come out of school and are sitting on a knoll looking down at this lekhooa-who-thinks-he-sees-us. Wherever you are, there are friendly eyes watching you, and I ask: who is observing whom? Then I understand that I am finally reaping the rewards of being patient, and waiting for the right time.

The Basotho are seeing me.

The great Pitsò at Baboon’s Pass

AT THE end of the Gregorian calendar year, Morena Masupha holds two great Pitsòs (gatherings) in the Central Lesotho Highlands to consider communal agricultural issues.

They occur somewhere between November and February, not when it might suit my or any other outsider’s diary, but when it suits the people, the land, and the animals.

The first meeting will be held at the saddle above a place we know as Baboon’s Pass, and the second at Mansonyane, some 150 kilometres away, the next day. They will be attended by some 600 to 800 men, mostly chiefs and headmen, who will travel there on horseback.

To the best of my knowledge, this event has never been photographed, and I hope to become the first person to do so. I am waiting at the Lodge and Pony Trekking Centre at Semonkong (Place of Smoke), some 15 kilometres away from Baboon’s Pass, in the company of owners Armelle and Jonathan Halse as well as my friend Ashley Thorn, a local trader.

Jonathan is a close friend of the Paramount Chief of Semonkong, and Ashley is well known to the Paramount Chief and the Master of Ceremonies of the impending event, the Morena himself. They are all virtual Mphato brothers, having known each other for many years. It is this connection that has yielded my prior permission to attend. I have been here for five days, waiting.

Given my impeccable connections, I would have thought that I was in the best possible place to find out when the meeting would take place. However, it turns out that there is a deeper, rather mysterious, level of community communications to which we are not privy. We are informed of the meeting a few hours before it begins. By then, men have been travelling on horseback from far-flung locations for several days.

We arrive at the meeting place in the nick of time. Trusty old Matubatuba, my 20-year-old Land Rover, can still cover the distance more quickly than a Morena on the fastest trippler. Hundreds of horsemen are setting up their camping sites, and their mounts are grazing over about 100 hectares across the Nek and halfway up the pass. It’s a spectacular sight.

Two very large men in grey suits approach, take me by the hand, and lead me to pay my respects to the Morena. I arrive with trilby in hand, bow, and say my lumelisa to this very important person. He kindly allows me to point my trembling camera at the gathering.

Almost a year later, he telephones me while I’m lying in a warm bath at 6 on a winter’s morning. Dripping and shivering, I am informed that I may publish my pictures, ‘but only those that show the Morena with his people – not those showing him only’. Touchant.

The Great Pitsò has a profound purpose. Every year, cattle herds are brought up to the highlands to graze there, thus alleviating pressure on the lowlands. The Pitsò is aimed at ensuring that grazing land is apportioned fairly among the various cattle-owning communities. It also serves as an important forum for airing problems, and showing solidarity with Lesotho’s unique chiefdom system.

The Pitsò ends after about four hours with a mock stick fight in which Morena Masupha participates with relish and panache. The trek back to the villages and towns is almost as striking as the event itself. Horsemen ride off in all directions along roads, tracks, and bridle paths, exuding a sense of obvious contentment. I share this feeling; I somehow feel the Basotho adopted me on that day.




Published by:

The Highveld Press

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Johannesburg, South Africa

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Last updated:  13 November 2011