I went up to Lesotho a couple of weeks back on a research trip and visited the Morija Museum and Archive. It is located about an hour from Maseru, in a charming little village, and well worth a visit.
More on the Museum and its place in Lesotho’s cultural landscape:
The Morija Museum & Archives was formally constituted in 1956, as a result of the discovery of important dinosaur remains. These fossilised dinosaur bones, about 180 million years old, open up to us a whole new understanding of the earth and the vast transformations that have taken place over the ages: continental drift, the evolution of plant and animal species, human kind’s rather recent but dramatic entrance upon the scene and its growing impact on the ecosystem. This ecological impact has been far-reaching in Lesotho, where fragile soils and intensive pressure on the land during the last 125 years have led to extensive land degradation.
By contrast, the early human communities that lived a purely nomadic hunter-gatherer existence (until about 8 000 years ago) made little long-term impact on the environment. But these communities, however, gradually learned to plant crops, domesticate animals, forge iron and build more complex societies, which did eventually make significant impacts on the environment.
The museum displays samples of hunter-gatherer cultural material including early stone tools, weapons and San rock art. The beauty and vitality of the paintings and their rich symbolism and imagery help us to understand hunter-gatherers as fellow human beings, striving for wholeness although under circumstances very different from our own.
Visitors to the museum will also find a girdle of eggshell beads, called ‘moletsa’, made by the San, This girdle demonstrates the changing fauna in the country; ostriches are now extinct in Lesotho, yet when Moshoeshoe and the French missionary Casalis rode south from Morija to Boleke in 1833, they encountered herds of antelope and ostrich so thick that they had difficulty in passing. The girdle also reveals the sophisticated technology of the San and the fact that there was some peaceful interaction between the San and the Sotho speaking peoples.
This interaction is well illustrated by Chief Moletsane of the Bataung (People of the Lion), who became an important ally of Moshoeshoe. Moletsane was raised at the end of the 18th century by San herdsmen at the outlying cattle post of his father in order to escape the fate of his two elder siblings. Both had died young – their deaths being attributed to the malevolent work of the ancestors. His original name, Makhothi, became Moletsane, after the eggshell girdle that he was given by the San. Moletsane and other important leaders, such as Moorosi of the Baphuthi, maintained close relations with the San well into the latter half of the 19th century.
It was during the turbulent times of the 19th century – the incursion of whole chiefdoms onto the highveld and the domination of Shaka (this period is known as the Lifaqane), marauding bands of Griqua and other mixed peoples who fled the Cape, followed by hunters, missionaries, traders, Boer settlers and the British – that Moshoeshoe emerged as a unifying force. He was a minor chief of little standing, yet rose to unite many disparate and desperate people into what is now known as the Basotho nation.
Moshoeshoe, fluent in both Sotho and Nguni languages, was well placed to unite large numbers of Nguni into the new Basotho nation after 1820. Beautiful examples of Nguni beadwork, still made in Lesotho, can be found in the museum’s exhibits. There is also an exquisite clay sculpture, made by a more recent descendent of Moshoeshoe’s famous general, Makoanyane, who was also of Nguni origin.
When marauders from the West appeared in Lesotho, in the dying days of the Lifaqane, Moshoeshoe invited the missionaries to assist him in his nation building. The Morija Archives possess rare and valuable records from this period, including hand-written letters transcribed by Casalis and signed by Moshoeshoe. When the Regent, Chieftainess ‘Mantsebo’ (who reigned in Basutoland from 1941-1960) visited the Archives in the Fifties, her hands literally shook when she held this correspondence. And well they should have, for Lesotho would probably not exist had it not been for Moshoeshoe’s bold and imaginative leadership.
Website: Morija Museum & Archives