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Inside The Lives of Lesotho’s Forgotten Phuthi People

Native languages around the world are disappearing at a faster rate, today, than during any other point in history. Over the past century, almost 500 spoken languages have gone extinct (Nuwer, 2014). As globalization proliferates, cultural diffusion has also begun to occur at an equally rapid rate. Around 50% of the world’s 7,500 spoken languages are classified as endangered, and are currently on the verge of extinction (Eames, 2019). The Siphuthi language, spoken in the South of Lesotho and also the Northern-Eastern Cape of South Africa, is one such language. Estimates suggest that the language has 20,000 remaining speakers (Shah, 2020).

The danger of disappearing languages cannot merely be reduced to the disappearance of words, however. As languages become extinct, so do the unique cultural and scientific perspectives possessed by the communities in which they are spoken (Watson, 2020). In communities where languages are endangered as opposed to completely extinct, this bars the ability of younger and older generations to trade knowledge and forge fulfilling emotional connections, and as the language disappears, so do the practices and problem-solving approaches of the community (ibid).

How Does A Language Die?

An endangered language is one at risk of disappearing as its speakers die out, or shift towards speaking a lingua franca (Johnson, 2016). The shift away from a native language is usually due to a history of marginalization against native communities (ibid). The erosion of African languages, in particular, was largely set into motion by colonial forces on the continent (Wilson, 2012). It is one of the longer lasting impacts of colonial violence in Africa, and though formal colonization has been eradicated, neo-colonialism and linguistic imperialism have continued to have perverse impacts on African cultures and languages.

An important part of eradicating languages during colonial times was firstly introducing the idea that native African languages were inferior to those spoken by European colonial masters and painting the Euro-centric languages and ideals as something to which Africans were meant to aspire. and forcefully assimilate into their ways of life (Wilson, 2012). Pumla Dineo Gqola details that “all systems of violent oppressive power produce shame in those they brutalize” (Dressler, 2016), and this is consistent with the manner in which Africans during and after the colonial period developed an inferiority mentality and self-consciousness surrounding their cultures.

Important tools in this erasure of self, during the colonial times, included the media. Following the world wars, radio, television and the print media had an incumbent role to play in spreading Euro-centric doctrine, and in turn, erasing African heritage (van der Puye, 1998). In subtle and sometimes violent ways, the colonial ways of life were inculcated into the academic and religious systems of Africans, thereby forcing a stronger and stronger shift away from local values.

In Lesotho, there practices have managed to remain pervasive in learning institutions, particularly high schools, where students are corporally punished for engaging with each other using their mother-tongues (Lebeloane, 2017). Again, the culture of shame remains, even long after the physical disappearance of the colonial powers by whom it was introduced. In addition, valuable tools such as literary texts written in native languages, which could be slowly introduced into the school system, are not studied at the same level as English language and literary texts. The large majority of texts studied within learning institutions have very little connection to the histories and cultures of Basotho students. Evidently, English is being studied at the expense of the country’s native languages.

But Whom Are The Baphuthi?

The Baphuthi inhabit the Southern part of Lesotho (parts of Quthing and Qacha’s Nek, as shown in the map), as well as the Northern Eastern Cape of South Africa (Shah,2020). The Kingdom of Lesotho currently has two official languages – Sesotho and English. This is reflective of the fact that the Baphuthi were not initially members of the Basotho nation. The Baphuthi came to settle in the Southern part of the country in the 1870s when one of their chiefs, Moorosi, was given land by the founder of the Basotho nation, Moshoeshoe, for his assistance in the war with the Orange Free State (“Morosi”, 2021). In a series of the events that followed, Moorosi’s people lost the war against the Cape Colony in the above war, and Phuthiland fell into the rule of the Cape Colony (“Morosi”, 2021). During the Basotho Gun War of 1880, the Cape forces were expelled from Phuthiland, and it was in this way that the small kingdom fell back into the control of the Basotho (ibid).  

While this was a victory for the Basotho people, the Baphuthi did not get to enjoy the same benefits. They are currently one of the most disadvantaged groups in Lesotho. With their language and culture completely ignored and unrecognized, they have been relegated and removed from all visible aspects of Sesotho culture. Shah explains that “The Baphuthi are dominated culturally, politically and socio-economically by the Sesotho-speaking majority (i.e. Basotho) in the country. They have been under Basotho rule since 1879 and are fully assimilated to the Basotho culture in all respects, with the notable exception of their language, Siphuthi” (Shah, 2020). They do not get to share in the little economic progress that the country has garnered over the past couple of years. Their access to basic infrastructure is limited and most of them are situated in hard to reach areas, some of which are impossible to get to by car, and can only be reached on foot or via horseback (ibid).

While there are cases in which colonial imperialism and violence is responsible for the erasure of languages, sometimes local governments are equally to blame, due to their own predisposed biases and thirst for cultural dominance. But while this happens, the several cultures of which they are meant to be guardians, are disappearing with a wealth of knowledge which could be of benefit to native communities. Research by Shah (2020) has shown that the Siphuthi language is spoken fluently in only one valley in Lesotho’s Quthing district (The Daliwe River Valley), largely by older members of the community.

Unfortunately, the Baphuthi have been treated as ornamental to the country and have not been allowed the chance to participate in any functional manner within the society. It is, in fact, likely, that the new generation of Basotho are completely unaware that there is a whole other language spoken in Lesotho, apart from English and Sesotho. Efforts to preserve the language have begun to emerge, but many of them remain at the nascent stage, particularly due to a lack of political will and participation. Lesotho laws and policies have failed to recognize the Baphuthi as a people different from the Basotho.

What Can Be Done?

Several efforts to establish language rights for the Baphuthi in Lesotho have been executed by religious groups and international scholars. The Methodist Church of Lesotho has been working with the Baphuthi community in Lesotho to translate religious texts into the former (Pheko, 2020). Pheko (2020) reports that this is a formidable step towards establishing the rights of the Baphuthi in Lesotho, since some of the elders of this community speak neither Sesotho nor English, and that the translations of religious texts will go some distance in including them within social and cultural practices (ibid).

Additionally, Shah (2020) points us in the direction of the research conducted by Simon Donnelly, whose focus “was on the phonology of the language, especially on its tonal system. His PhD thesis also contains a 1,550 wordlist of the language, and constitutes the main source for Siphuthi to date.” (Shah, 2020). Language revitalization efforts have also been carried out by groups of Siphuthi speakers within the country. Shah makes mention of these in her paper,  “The struggle for language rights for Phuthi in Lesotho”.

It is important to note, however, that a few individuals cannot single-handedly revive a language that has been going extinct since the early 1900s. This is an effort that requires the participation of several players including artists, writers and actors from fields such as education, the media as well as international stakeholders invested in the cultural preservation of different communities.

The role of the government in bringing about the recognition of the Baphuthi is of paramount importance, since they have played a large hand in having it erased from the heritage of the country in the first place. Lesotho is a country with various traditions and cultures, and it is important to celebrate each of them in their different individual capacities, to not only preserve knowledge, but also as a way of undoing a violent injustice which has seen a group of people erased from the country’s social fabric.

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