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African Praise Poetry Series: Morena e Moholo Moshoeshoe 1, Morena Oa Basotho

We recently published the African tradition of story tellers, historians and history repositories of society. I recently discovered a website that is dedicated to the history of African poems http://africanpoems.net/

In it’s Introduction to Praise-Poetry the site says:

Praise-Poems exist in many different parts of Africa. In Yoruba they are called Oriki, in Zulu lzibongo, in (seTswana Maboko, In Sesotho,  they are called Lithoko. These may be sung to praise chiefs such as Morena Moshoeshoe,  there are also, lithoko tsa makoloane, praises performed at initiation rites and lithoko tsa bafo, the praises of male commoners. The list of examples would be a very long one.

Their most common purpose is to praise the character and the achievements of chiefs and kings, and the ‘acts of kingship’ praised in these poems are many and varied. Some kings, like the Sultan of Bornu, are praised as powerful men and protectors. Ndaba is remembered as a great hunter who never wronged anybody. Seepapitso, whose ‘deeds are peaceful’, is thanked for his wisdom in improving the nation’s water supplies, and Shaka is praised, in an impressive and terrifying poem, for his military genius and restless, unbounded energy.

The Praise-Poet, however, is not just concerned with direct praise. He occupies an official position as court poet, but he stands between the ruler and the people. When the Sultan of Bornu is praised for providing his people with food and drink, part of the purpose is to make sure this powerful man does indeed remember his duties. Ndaba and Shaka belong to the same line of kings, but they are praised in completely, different terms, and it is far from clear that Shaka really is the greater man. The clearest example of the Praise-Poet as critic is The Abdication. This Praise-Poem is a contemptuous attack on King Sisi for neglecting the responsibilities of kingship and worrying only about his mistress Sini. The Praise-Poem, in short, is more accurately described as an account of a ruler’s character and of his historical importance. A series of praises makes up a national biography.

Praise-Poems do not deal only with chiefs and with kings. Any person may be praised for his skills or his personality. The ironsmith is praised by his wife (In Praise of the Ironsmith). The homecoming warrior is praised by the women of his village (The Warrior’s Homecoming). The farmer is praised as a challenge to him to work even harder (In Praise of the Farmer). In many societies it is common for individuals to praise themselves, summing up their own personality and achievements (Self-Praises for the Ozo Title Day and Women’s Self-Praises). Women are praised as girls, wives, mothers and mothers-in-law, while one of the most vividly detailed of these Praise-Poems is addressed by Bahima women to their herds of cattle (In Praise of Cattle).

The Praise-Poem, then, takes many different forms. Above all, it is concerned with character, with the huge variety of human beings and with the place of the individual in society and in history.

In our series of praise poems, today we feature Morena Morena e Moholo Moshoeshoe I

The opening lines of a long Praise-Poem from Lesotho in praise of Moshoeshoe, the founder of the Sotho nation. Today the Kingdom of Lesotho is a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa.

According to Wikipedia, Moshoeshoe was the first son of Mokhachane,[3] a minor chief of the Bamokoteli sub-clan of the Basotho people.[4] He was born at Menkhoaneng in Botha-bothe, Lesotho as Lepoqo. Moshoeshoe and his agemates went to initiation school and he got the name Letlama meaning strong bond. During his youth just after initiation, he was very brave and once organised a cattle raid against Ramonaheng and captured several herds. As was the tradition, he composed a poem praising himself where, amongst the words he used to refer to himself, said he was “like a razor which has shaved all Ramonaheng’s beards”, referring to his successful raid. In Sesotho language, a razor is said to make a “shoe…shoe…” sound, and after that he was affectionately called Moshoeshoe: “the shaver”. www.britanica.com says of him: “One of the most successful Southern African leaders of the 19th century, Moshoeshoe combined aggressive military counteraction and adroit diplomacy against colonial invasions”. The most significant role Moshoeshoe played as a diplomat was his acts of friendship towards his beaten enemies. He provided land and protection to various people and this strengthened the growing Basotho nation.

Moshoeshoe was a warrior. However, the main emphasis of the Praise-Poem is on Moshoeshoe as the benevolent nation-builder, the father of Basotho, who brought peace to warring factions. Interwoven into the poem are proverbs, said to be spoken by Moshoeshoe himself, about the art of government and stressing the need for rule by consent rather than by violence.

You who are fond of praising the ancestors,
Your praises are poor when you leave out the warrior,
When you leave out Thesele, the son of Mokhachane; (1)
For it is he who is the warrior of the wars:
Thesele is brave and strong,
That is Moshoeshoe-Moshaila.

When Moshoeshoe started to govern the Sotho,
He started at Botha-Bothe:
Thesele, the cloud, departed from the east,
It left a trail and alighted in the west
At Thaba Bosiu, at the hut that is a court. (2)

Every nation heard,
And the Pedi heard him too.
Moshoeshoe, clear the road of rubbish
That the Maaooa may travel with pleasure,
And travel with ease.
The Ndebele from Zulu’s heard too. (3)

Lay down the stick, son of Mokhachane,
Sit down:
The village of the stick is not built,
‘What can you do to me?’ does not build a village: (4)
The village that is built is the suppliant’s, Thesele,
Great ancestor, child of Napo Motlomelo,
Protective charm of the Beoana’s land.

The cave of the poor and of the chiefs,
Peete’s descendant, the brace warrior,
He is loved when the shields have been grasped,
When the young men’s sticks have been grasped. (5)

from Lithoko: Sotho Praise Poems,
Oxford University Press (1974),
ed. & trans. M. Damane & P. Saunders


Footnotes

  1. Thesele, the son of Mokhachane: Thesele was another praise-name for Moshoeshoe and means The Beater or The Thumper, Mokhachane was Moshoeshoe’s father.
  2. This paragraph describes Moshoeshoe’s historic move from his home village, Botha-Bothe, to the mountain fortress of Thaba Bosiu which he made his capital.
  3. The Pedi and Ndebele nations aligned themselves with Moshoeshoe. Maaooa is a nickname for the Pedi.
  4. These lines are said to be statements made by Moshoeshoe himself referring to the need for consent of the peoples for effective governance. They are proverbs arguing against the selfishness and violence that prevent the development of a harmonious village.
  5. The last lines again praise Moshoeshoe’s leadership by referring to him as a ‘protective charm’ and ‘cave of the poor and of the chiefs’.
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