Lithoko are praise poems from Lesotho, which is today a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa. These may be sung to praise chiefs such as Moshoeshoe the founder of the Sotho kingdom, there are also, lithoko tsa makoloane, praises performed at initiation rites and lithoko tsa bafo, the praises of male commoners.

The following self-praises of one commoner, Kola Khoali, was documented by Hugh Tracey in 1959 during his recording tour in 1959.

Be quiet and listen to celebration,
Mixed with cries of weeping.
Young men, you should give yourselves names,
When you harvest lustily in the way of young men:
Mine, I have already named myself.
I am Kola Khoali, the boy from Kubung,
Kola, when I am working hard.
I burst and entered through applauding crowds.
I can withstand difficulties.
I am the sticker,
I am from Joalesoetsa.
I am the messenger, the black and white ox of the Buffalo regiment. (1)
My native home is there at Rantolo’s.
The cattle are slaughtered as the red of dawn appears.
When Spring and Summer embrace.
There is sorghum scattered on bending stalks.
Men that can truly name it, those of Mohale’s
They can give a child the wrong names.
They can say: Lemonade, the European water, ginger beer.
Do not beat the people, Chief; they are not animals. (2)
They are not supposed to be killed.
When I see blood, I grind my teeth.
I never say, “Ouch, I have broken a bone”
I just say, “Beat me up my young companions”
I am the white people’s goat.
I cry about a pulled tendon.
I saw when I was crying, you litjotjela regiment.
Among the cattle of my home, you do not play around. (3)
I do not even let a gathering to be held there.
They will stop the dark-faced one from fighting.
That one called Bataung.
I hit a person on the spine with a stick.
Blood of a person from the vein in his head.
Nephew, bring the key,
The one of Rantolo’s village.
Because I am the son-in-law of the chief’s residence,
The chief of Griffith’s and Letsie,
Of Api and Makhaola,
Of Nkoebe and Lerotholi,
Of Peete and Mahkobane,
Of Mafa and Ramabilikoa,
Chapo and Ramachalea. (4)
Uninitiated boy in Maama’s village,
Age-mate of Maseqobela’s child,
I feel very sad – why?
I am the soldier here, Ntolo’s brother.
I am not the one who was discilpined.
In the fashion of women who drink weak sorghum beer,
Of the hold-the-bottle-for-me types,
I am staggering drunk
I was reprimanded only by the prominent men. (5)
They gave me meat on the end of the spear.
They told me, bite it and spit it on the ground.
The meat slimy with spittle doesn’t kill me. (6)
Here it is; it is settled on my heart.
I am the snatcher, I snatch! (7)
The persons of Rantolo’s.
You should snatch a man while his body still smells.
While he still smells his wife’s body odor.
My native home is a Mako’s, I the unemployed person.
At the village of Karobo and Lepolesa,
At the village of Mafosa and Ratiltsepe.
Amen! (8)

Here is the original in Sotho.

Tholang lerata le utloe mokhosi,
O kopaneng le seboko.
Bahlankana, le ithehe mabitso,
Ha le chaha sehlankana:
La ka, ke sentse ke ithehile.
Ke Kola Khoali, moshemane oa Kubung,
Kola, e ka re ke tsoere hantle.
Ea qhoma ea kena lihala-haleng.
Ke matiisetsa oa ntho tse thata.
Ke sema-marela, ke tsoa Joalesoeta.
Ke moromelloa, ke phatso a ae Linare.
Haeso ke koana ha Rantolo.
Khomo li hlajoa ha mafube a hlaha.
Selemo se akana le lehlabula.
Pele-pele li le teng lithupeng.
Banna ba ea reha, ba ha Mohale,
Ba ka reha ngoana lebitso le sele.
Ba re: Namoneiti, metsi ea Sekhooa, chenche biri
Se otle batho mali, kea khabutlella.
Ha nke ke re, “Ichu, ke robehile.”
Ke re, “Nkotlelleng, bahlankana ba heso.”
Ke poli ea makhooa.
Ke lla mesifa.
Ke bone ha kelle, litjotjela.
Khomong tsa heso, ha o bapalloe.
Ke hana ho etsoa mokhatlo teng.
Ho tla thijoa ntsonyane,
E bitsoang Bataung.
Ke otla motho ka lere lehetleng,
Mali a motho a mothapo ao hlooho.
Mochana, tlolho le senotlolo,
Sa motse oa ha Rantolo.
Hobane ke mokhoenyana oa moreneng,
Morena oa Kerefisi le Letsie.
Oa Api le Makhaola,
Oa Nkoebe le Lerotholi,
Oa Peete le Makhobane,
Oa Mafa le Ramabilikoa,
Chapo le Ramachalea.
Leqai ka hara Maama,
Thaka ngoana Maseqobela,
Ke utloa bohloko – hobane?
Ke lesole le mona, la bo-Ntolo.
Ha senna oa ho laoa.
Melaolo ea basali, ea methamahane.
Ea ntsoareleng-botlolo,
Ke ea thekesela.
Ke ne ke laoa ke banna ba baholo feela.
Ba bea nama ka theko ea lerumo.
Ba re ke, e lome ke tsoele fatse.
Nama ea likhohlela hase ho mpolaea.
Ke ena; e ntutse pelong.
Ke phamolane, phamola!
Motho oa ha Rantolo.
O phamole motho a sa nkha letsuka,
A sa nkha ‘tsuka la mosali oa hae.
Haeso ha Mako, mahlalela.
Haabo Karabo le Lepolesa,
Haabo Mafosa le Ralitsepe.
Amen!

from In the Time of Cannibals,
The University of Chicago Press (1994),
David B. Coplan


Footnotes

  1. the black and white ox: The white speckled black ox (khoali) is a revered animal often used as a praise name of great chiefs.
  2. A criticism of the cruelty of the local chief. A common saying in Lesotho praises is “The village of the stick is not built”, meaning a chief can only govern with consent (see verse four of Moshoeshoe’s praises).
  3. The poet is boasting of how he will defend his family’s cattle.
  4. The poet claims kinship with various lines of Basotho royalty
  5. Having proclaimed his nobility the poet then injects self-deprecating humour into his self-praises, disdaining those who drink in moderation in contrast to his rowdy drunkeness that leads to elders scolding him.
  6. Here Kola reveals “secrets” of the initiation rites he has performed. During these rites initiates are made to stand with their hands behind their backs and to snatch a piece of roasted meat off the point of a spear with their teeth. The meat has been spat on by his teachers and comrades after it was placed on the spear, the ritual presumably to teach the initiate to overcome disgust and revulsion when violence is necessary.
  7. He has taken the lessons of his initiation to heart, “snatching” his enemies when they are unprepared.
  8. Praising his village and his neighbours and friends, the poet ends with the Christian “so be it”, a common way to close praises in Lesotho.