Lesotho’s remembering of itself

24 Dec 2020 - 09:30
Morija Museum and Archives logo and banner. Image courtesy of the Morija Museum and Archives.
Morija Museum and Archives logo and banner. Image courtesy of the Morija Museum and Archives.


In this issue of the Gazette, we feature the Morija Museum & Archives in Lesotho, an important actor in the history of — and history-writing about — large parts of Southern Africa. Stephen GIll, the director, gives here his insight on the meaning and mission of this institution.

Morija Museum & Archives (MMA) is situated at the base of Makhoarane Mountain and within the heart of historic Morija, a small town 45km south of Lesotho’s capital city Maseru. Formally established in 1956, MMA has roots going back to the 19th century, when the first Christian missionaries were placed here by Morena Moshoeshoe the Great as part of his nation-building enterprise, together with his two eldest sons and their maternal uncle and cohorts.

These French Protestant missionaries, imbued with a strong sense of the historical importance of their partnership with the Basotho monarch, wrote extensively, collected cultural and scientific artefacts, carried out research, and built up various religious and educational institutions as well as a vibrant tradition in printing and publishing, especially of Sesotho literature. These developments eventually had an impact across Lesotho as well as parts of the Free State, the old Transvaal, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique.

It is no surprise therefore that Morija, as the historic centre for this larger network of affiliated churches and educational institutions, should become the site, first of an archive and then a museum. These are testimony to the long and intimate “entanglement” of the French (and then Swiss) missionaries with this region and its peoples. Were it not for the fact that they were European, not British, their work and that of their Basotho and other African colleagues might be better known today.

MMA, like most institutions of its kind, blends collections management, research and publications with public programming and community engagement. From the beginning, ever since the archives and museum were united in 1989 thanks to generous support from three private partners and the Lesotho government, we have been mindful of the guidance of our Chairperson Emeritus, Mr AB Thoahlane, that (i) MMA should help to connect deep exploration of the past with the present, and help guide thinking with regard to the future; and (ii) should go beyond the usual museum programmes to engage fully with living culture and the arts. These two emphases were united when, in 1999, MMA was asked by community members to help coordinate efforts to bring healing to Lesotho after the 1998 political upheaval, by means of the Morija Arts & Cultural Festival. This was an experiment of sorts: it sought to reclaim a larger sense of unity while celebrating diversity, using culture and art to mitigate the polarisation and toxic partisanship of the time. The festival, through an outpouring of goodwill, volunteerism and partnerships, went on to become an annual event — and ran for 15 years. It grew to include a nation-wide Schools Cultural Competition, featuring traditional dance, instruments, games, poetry, drama and finally art.

This process was transformative, and led to further initiatives – the founding of the Morija Arts Centre in 2011, and a digital creativity lab called The Hub in 2015. Both are run by volunteers, and contribute to the community through arts education, skills training, the provision of spaces for productivity, the promotion of creativity and entrepreneurship, as well as public events and a strong social consciousness.

Morija Museum, in the meantime, has become immersed in the Seriti sa Makhoarane Heritage & Tourism Network (SSM), in concert with the Royal Archives & Museum (Matsieng) and our surrounding communities. It aims to better understand, preserve, restore and present both historical structures and sites as well as living culture in this region, home to not just “mission” history and African Christianity but also to some of Lesotho’s greatest icons: Thomas Mofolo, arguably the father of the African novel, and JP Mohapeloa, one of Africa’s greatest composers. Moreover, Makhoarane is home to three royal villages where the successors to Morena Moshoeshoe the Great have reigned, each unique and compelling in its own right, with narratives of great courage and integrity as well as those of human frailty and complex institutional transformations. As such, SSM hopes through research, publications, social media, dynamic community-based heritage management and living culture to contribute to Lesotho’s “remembering of itself” as it enters the period of its bicentenary celebrations, which reach a climax in 2024, while at the same time building sustainable and responsible tourism enterprises, encouraging new investments, and promoting inclusive economic and social growth in our region.

Throughout the past 30 years, MMA has continued to host scholars from Lesotho, the broader sub-region and the international community, using our rich archival and museum collections to assist wherever possible, as well as directing researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and fields of interest to key informants or sites that could contribute significantly to their research. MMA staff members have also carried out various heritage consultancies around the country, especially in relation to large-scale infrastructure projects, building their expertise and capacity in this regard, while contributing to the management of heritage resources nationally. A good deal of unpublished research by MMA staff members is in the process of being prepared for publication over the coming few years so that it can contribute to various conversations now taking place.

Several projects have been carried out as well over the past seven years with the aim of ensuring that some of the most significant collections in the archives are preserved and made more accessible by means of digitisation. Further work is required, including the completion of a comprehensive catalogue of the archive’s and museum’s holdings. Indexes and other user aids will follow. As we look to the future, MMA seeks to expand its facilities. Originally intended for the archive alone, the main building has housed both archival and museum collections since 1989, becoming rather too congested in the process, with no room for expansion and no reading room or proper space for researchers.

As resources become available, MMA will also create a meaningful online archive, greater digital content production, and an ever-stronger interface with the Morija Arts Centre and The Hub. As we move through and beyond a world shaken by the Covid-19 pandemic, MMA will continue, in concert with its host of volunteers, “apprentices”, partners, friends and supporters, to build upon the foundation of previous generations while giving scope to different voices and forms of expression that help us as a nation and a people to navigate our way into the future in a more sustainable and inclusive manner. Khotso!

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Khau is a medal of honour which was awarded to the bravest soldiers of Moshoeshoe the Great. It was also used by his emissaries when on diplomatic missions to other African kingdoms. The khau was made of copper and worn on the upper chest by such warriors