The king AND HIS BLAN­KETS

Lit­tle did Gar­reth van Niek­erk know a trip to meet the monarch of Le­sotho would end with a woolly ob­ses­sion to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing about the Ba­sotho blan­ket and all the cul­ture and history warmly wrapped up in it

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It was on the back of an op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­view King Letsie III at his 51st birth­day cel­e­bra­tion last year – held at the royal palace in Maseru, the ur­ban cap­i­tal of the King­dom of Le­sotho – that I be­gan an un­ex­pected ob­ses­sion with un­der­stand­ing the Ba­sotho blan­ket.

There was no way to pre­dict the path my pre­oc­cu­pa­tion would take me on. Trav­el­ling from the “high­est low­est point” of all the coun­tries on the planet to the high­est point in South Africa/Le­sotho, I dis­cov­ered the im­mense story of war and pas­sion, her­itage and moder­nity that is wo­ven into the fi­bres of ev­ery au­then­tic Ba­sotho blan­ket.

The in­vi­ta­tion to the king’s palace came through Tom Kritzinger, the pas­sion­ate mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor of Aranda Blan­kets – which has been man­u­fac­tur­ing Ba­sotho blan­kets since 1835 and is now housed in a fac­tory the size of four soc­cer fields in the south of Johannesburg. I had been in con­ver­sa­tion with Tom about an ex­hi­bi­tion he was closely in­volved with at the time called Seana­marena: Kobo Tsa Morena. It was the first full-scale blan­ket show, on dis­play at Oliewen­huis Art Mu­seum in Bloem­fontein. The ex­hi­bi­tion dis­played more than 40 unique blan­kets, some dat­ing back to 1934, mounted and fully stretched out on the walls.

It was the first time I had seen them that way. By fram­ing them on a wall, the ex­hi­bi­tion un­folded the Ba­sotho blan­ket from the bed and un­wrapped it from the body to elo­quently mount it for me to ad­mire as an ob­ject in its own right. In that new con­text, the blan­kets were able to speak for them­selves and tell the story of how in­tri­cately they were wo­ven to­gether with the history of Le­sotho and its strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence.

The ex­hi­bi­tion be­gan with a graphic leop­ard-print blan­ket named Nkoe (leop­ard), in 90%-wool pan­elled with the five red stripes, called wear­ing stripes, that mark an au­then­tic Ba­sotho blan­ket. The con­ser­va­tor at Oliewen­huis, El­mar du Plessis, told me Nkoe’s pat­tern was placed as the first ob­ject on dis­play in or­der to re­call the leop­ard skin karosses worn by King Moshoeshoe, the first monarch of Le­sotho. The stripes started as a fault at the English looms and be­came a trade­mark from then on.

Oliewen­huis cu­ra­tor Es­ter le Roux told the crowd gath­ered at the ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing: “The begin­nings of the blan­ket cul­ture can be traced back to 1823, when a French mis­sion­ary pre­sented a blan­ket to King Moshoeshoe I.”

Some of those in the au­di­ence are from Bloem­fontein but many have crossed the bor­der from neigh­bour­ing Le­sotho to at­tend.

“He ac­cepted this gift and draped it over his shoul­ders ‘a la pon­cho’, and so started a cloth­ing revo­lu­tion among the Ba­sotho peo­ple. From that day on­wards, an­i­mal-skin karosses started los­ing their sta­tus as the nor­mal cloth­ing to keep out the bit­ter cold of the moun­tains, and blan­kets soon be­came the stock in trade for the Ba­sotho,” she said.

Le Roux ex­plained that the name of the ex­hi­bi­tion came from what was known as the “chief” of the blan­kets, Seana­marena.

“At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, Charles Stephens, who was known as Seana­marena, owned a trad­ing store in Hlotse [Leribe], which was known lo­cally by the same name as its owner. Later, Charles Hendry Robert­son bought the store and re­tained the name Seana­marena. He started im­port­ing Ba­sotho blan­kets in his own spe­cial de­signs and colours. As the years passed, Robert­son’s de­signs be­came known as Seana­marena, af­ter the name of the trad­ing store, which was the only place where the blan­kets could be pur­chased.”

Since then, the range of blan­ket de­signs has evolved and they can be bought widely through­out Le­sotho and South Africa – each of them form­ing part of a his­tor­i­cal archive of the time they were made. Sig­nif­i­cant among them is a Badges of the Brave blan­ket hon­our­ing those who fought dur­ing World War 2, given as a gift to the Bri­tish royal fam­ily on a visit to Le­sotho, as well as a cu­ri­ous Batho ba Roma blan­ket made to com­mem­o­rate Pope John Paul II’s visit to Le­sotho in 1988.

Walk­ing be­tween the mas­sive looms and spin­ning ma­chines at the Aranda fac­tory, Tom ex­plained the process of de­sign­ing a blan­ket. “Most of the time, peo­ple ap­proach us. For the tra­di­tional blan­kets, peo­ple will come to us with rudi­men­tary, sim­ple de­signs and our in-house de­sign team trans­fers those de­signs into our com­puter-aided de­sign soft­ware, which then be­comes a graphic im­age pro­cessed by the ma­chines that weave the blan­kets. What a lot of peo­ple don’t know is that the blan­kets are a Jac­quard weave, mean­ing the de­signs are wo­ven into the blan­kets and not printed.”

Last year, for the king’s birth­day, a young artist, Mot­samai Moloko from Le­sotho, de­signed the Ra­bosotho blan­ket. It was a plush burnt or­ange and yel­low, with kalei­do­scopic graphic de­pic­tions of tra­di­tional Le­sotho hats. Af­ter see­ing Moloko’s mag­nif­i­cent blan­ket, I had to see the fes­tiv­i­ties at­tached to its wear­ing. Tom ar­ranged an in­vi­ta­tion for me to the king’s party and I was left to se­lect my first blan­ket. I went for a pink-and-brown Badges of the Brave blan­ket to pro­tect me from the chill of the Moun­tain King­dom where, in

the mid­dle of win­ter, tem­per­a­tures can sink to be­low 20 de­grees Cel­sius.

But it was not to be. Faced with lines out of the door at pass­port con­trol and cus­toms, a press reg­is­tra­tion that pretty much re­quired my first-born child and the im­mense se­cu­rity pro­to­col sur­round­ing such monar­chal meet­ings, my win­dow of op­por­tu­nity closed. I was left on a chair in the mid­dle of the town square watch­ing the royal cav­al­cade drive past, glim­mers of blan­ket peek­ing out of the black­ened Mercedes win­dows. All around me, crowds waved as the king passed, all of them wrapped in their blan­kets.

De­feated but ready to con­tinue, I got back in my car and be­gan the next leg of my blan­ket ad­ven­ture – a five-hour jour­ney to a lit­tle-known place in the mid­dle of the Le­sotho high­lands called Se­monkong. Once you get your breath back af­ter tak­ing in the sight of the wind­ing heights on the brand-new over­pass from Maseru, you come to a lit­tle vil­lage set in the val­ley of the low­est point in Le­sotho (which is higher than the low­est point of any other coun­try, mak­ing it the high­est low­est point in the world). It’s the Malet­sun­yane Falls, from where Se­monkong gets its name. It means place of smoke and de­scribes the mist from the crash­ing wa­ter­fall. Se­monkong is the only place in Le­sotho to have its own re­gional blan­ket. Dec­o­rated with a graphic of the Malet­sun­yane Falls, it is the end point for any­one look­ing to un­der­take a blan­ket pil­grim­age, and the peo­ple there know it. From the mo­ment you en­ter the rugged coun­try roads, you weave be­tween tow­er­ing horse riders, their blan­kets cov­er­ing them en­tirely. They ap­pear as sen­tinels, guards in blan­ket ar­mour. Two of the horse­men took me on a horse­back trip down to the wa­ter­fall, frozen seem­ingly in the mid­dle of its fall. For an hour into the hills and val­leys, I en­coun­tered vil­lages built around enor­mous flocks of sheep.

It was their pre­cious moun­tain wool, col­lected by a so­phis­ti­cated com­mu­nity of lo­cal farm­ers and dis­trib­u­tors, that had ended up in Joburg to fi­nally make the blan­kets we were wrapped in. The walk through this re­gion was al­most con­stantly on the edge of a cliff, our horses sway­ing and trip­ping with the howl­ing force of the wind. The icy climes were not play-around Joburg or Cape Town cold ... they were proper Le­sotho freez­ing. There was no es­cap­ing it with­out our blan­kets wrapped around us. The cold was an ob­ject les­son of why the Ba­sotho trea­sure their blan­kets for much more than just the way they look – they are a very real, func­tional pro­tec­tion against the gla­cial bite of the wind.

Back at the lodge, I was again re­minded of another rea­son why there was so much to the blan­ket.

Atop a hill near the lodge, a mother was ty­ing a blan­ket around her child’s shoul­ders. It wasn’t sim­ply a smaller blan­ket but ac­tu­ally a piece of her own blan­ket she had cut and passed on to him. Next to his mother, wear­ing a piece of her blan­ket, this young man wore the history of his coun­try. It was passed on, from one gen­er­a­tion to the next, in some­thing as sim­ple as cloth.

BA­SOTHO AR­MOUR The tiny vil­lage of Se­monkong, 120km from Maseru, fea­tures a colour­ful blan­ket cul­ture born of need more than dec­o­ra­tion

PHOTOS: GAR­RETH VAN NIEK­ERK PHOTO: ELLE DEC­O­RA­TION PHOTO: LOUIS VUIT­TON

BLAN­KET RULE The king’s sec­re­taries at the Royal Palace in Maseru, Le­sotho, don their of­fi­cial blan­kets to celebrate King Letsie III’s 51st birth­day RE­VAMP Thabo Makhetha up­dates the Ba­sotho blan­ket in a range of dresses and jack­ets SMOK­ING HOT Louis Vuit­ton puts its prized LV stamp on these Ba­sothoin­spired prints

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