The Basotho have been selling their labour to South Africa first on the railways, then in the diamond mines of Kimberley and the gold mines of Johannesburg since the days when Moshoeshoe successfully repulsed attempts to absorb his mountain kingdom. Today, labour migration is the pervasive reality of Basotho life, involving 80 per cent of men and an unknown number of women for long periods of their working lives. Sefela, or to use the full name, sefela sa setsamaea-naha le separloa-thota, “songs of the inveterate travellers” (or as one singer put it, “songs of those who have seen the places and the spaces in between the places”), are the poetic autobiographies of these adventurers.

The trains that take the migrant labourers to the mines become a key theme of sefela poetry with poets competing to re-create evermore vivid metaphors for the “hundred-wheeled centipede of the plains”. The trains have been described as a manifestation of the mythical snake diety, Khanyapa. The shaking, writhing movements of the carriages compared to the dances of possessed spirit mediums.

The following poem was recited by thirty-four year old migrant poet Majara Majara aka Ngoana Rakhali and collected by David Coplan.

We came to the railway magistrate;
We came and asked him where our deserters’ train was. (1)
He said it was still in the stable,
The favourite cow.
Its herders are still polishing it.
Instantly it came down from
Bloemfontein, short-cutting hyena.
You know, I said, sons of my father,
You enter it thrrough the sides here;
It’s the horse of our distant forefathers;
It was tamed by the Boers,
In times of old.
You know, there when young men feared to ride.
I rode it, I, Child of Rakhali,
When that train moved, it performed miracles.
It began to do amazing feats:
Rail spikes popped, joints jumped up and down.
You know at the sidings it passed in a hurry.
Well, it took notice of no one…
…When it leaves here, it will run fast -yes, the train.
It showed it was ridden by a wandering man.
When it left it went wandering as if it had stolen something away.
It coughed as if it might spit;
It murmured as if it would speak.
The train rattled like the dying Chief Makhaola. (2)
You know when it entered Bloemfontein Sengae.
That’s when it began to knock at the door.
The managers in charge at Bloemfontein
Opened all the crossings.
The train showed it was ridden by a true wandering man.
Up spoke the Madam, wife of the whiteman,
“What’s wrong with this train?”
“Haecka! It runs Number 17.” (3)
You know, a poor Boer was running,
His cap twisted sideways.
A lion was running, its colours turned inside out, (4)
You know, when it came to the other side,
To Tikoe, the European place, (5)
I was saying these whitehorn trees would spear it.
Whitehorns, the train pierced the spear-sharp whitehorns.
A Bushman’s ghost jumped from ther culvert
With our own eyes we saw it;
The ghost of the Bushman was dreadful.
Girls herding there headed for the train to stop it;
It did not even wait.
They insulted it, saying “You asshole Boers train”
Do you know where you are filing to?
A madman with iron legs,
Hyena, it rocked side to side.
You listen, my fathers,
My friends, I feel I want to praise a train.
You say a train does not appreciate it?
You come to me, Rakhali’s Child;
I may reveal for you things about the train…
…It saw Francolins hopping quickly; (6)
It saw sheep grazing;
It took fright at a hyena and lost the rails.
Its whitemen, you will see they put these iron blinkers on its cheeks;
It’s so that it gets used to looking down the road.
Why should I speak this way?
My fathers, my parents,
My heart is in pain.

Here is the original in Sotho.

Re kene ho ’masetrata oa reilooa;
Re fihla re ’motsa ea rona ea machepa e kae.
A re e sa eme ka setaleng, phala-fala –
Balisa ba eona ba sentse ba e policha.
Ka ’ma pele-pele, le thoehile
Bolomo, le khaotse lekanyane.
Oa tseba, ka re, bashanyana ba ntate,
Le e kene le maphakong mona;
Ke pere ea bo-ntate ea khale-khale;
E ne e thapisoe ke Maburu mehleng ea khale.
Oa tseba, ke moo bahlankana ba neng ba tsaba ho palama,
E palangoe, ke, ’na Ngoana Rakali.
Terene ha e tloha joale, e ne e entse mehlolo;
E ne e qala ho etsa makhobonthithi:
Letokisi e tloha; e le o tla morao.
Oa tseba, masaeteng mona e fetile feela,
Che, e ne entse monyenyetsi e patetse…
…Ha e tloha mona, e tla khaola –- che, terene.
E ipaka e kalangoe ke molele oa motho.
Ha e tloha joale, eaba ea nyonyoba,
E nyonyoba e ka tsoa utsoa.
Ea khohlela eaka e tla tsoela;
Ea tsetsela eaka e tla bua.
Terene ea tsetsela se ka Mofu Makhaola.
Oa tseba joale teng ha e kena Bolomo Sengae,
Ke moo e neng e qala kokota.
Batsoari ba tsoereng ka Bolomo
Liponcho ba li bule tsohle.
Terene ho ipaka ekalangoe ke molele oa motho.
Ho no buoa ’Misisi, mosali oa lekhooa,
“Terene ena e entse joang?”
“Kaeka! E matha nomoro sebentine.”
Oa tseba, leqaqa le matha,
Le soaile katiba ea kepe.
Tau e matha, e hlanotse ‘mala,
Oa tseba, ha e ne e fihla ka mose,
Tikoe, Sekhooeng,
Ke ne ke re maoka a na a tla e hlaba.
Makoa, terene ea phunya maoka bohlasoa.
Sethotsela sa moroa se be se tlole kotopong –
Le ka mahlo re kile ra se bona;
Sethotsela sa moroa ha se ho tsabeha.
Bana ba lisang teng ba ne ba e topile;
Le ho ema ea seke be ea ema.
Ba e roaka, ba re, “jo moru terene ea Maburu.”
Oa tseba o kolokile o ea kae?
Lehlanya le maoto a litsepe,
Lekanyane, la sekamaqa.
Ha leea, mamela bo-ntate,
Metsoalle ea me, ke utloa le rata ho roka terene.
Le buao ka terene le sa e tsebe?
Le tle ho ’na, Ngoana Rakhali;
Ke tlo le utsoetsa tsa terene…
…E ne e bone e likhoale li ntse li thoena;
Ea bona linku li ntse li fula;
La tsoha lekanyane la lahla seporo.
Ke makhooa, o tla bona a e kentse litsepe tse marameng tsena;
Ke hore e tloale ho talima tsela.
Ho reng ke buoe ka mokhoa ona?
Bo-ntate, batsoali ba me,
Pelo ea ka e utloa bohloko.

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


Footnotes

  1. deserters’ train: The passengers of the train are migrant labourers who have “deserted” Lesotho to work in the mines.
  2. Chief Makhaola: Chief Theko Makhaola became ruler of Ratsolei and Mashai in 1931. He also acted as an advisor, judge and representative for other powerful Paramount Chiefs. As part of the African Pioneer Corps, Chief Makhaola rose to the position of sergeant major during World War 1, supervising Basotho troops in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The “rattling” is a conventional adjective for a chief, signifying he’s a warrior (see Praises of Mswati II, etc)
  3. Number 17: Lion beer is a popular brand of lager in South Africa, when drained and held upside down the label appears to read “No17”. In local slang, “No. 17” can refer to anything speeding out of control.
  4. its colours turned inside out: Refers to the hide of a Lion which is black on the inside, the colour of the train.
  5. the European place: The mines
  6. Francolins: Birds