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…