The Basotho women’s art of house decoration: Litema
“The word Litema (pronounced as “di-the-ma”) is derived from the word “ho lema” which means to cultivate, and “tema”, which denotes a ploughed field. The geometric patterns appeared initially on the inside of dwellings and it was only in the 19th century that it appeared on the outside of homes. In contemporary times the practice of Litema appears to be a seasonal phenomenon associated with special events such as celebrations and religious ceremonies. It not only announces births, deaths, weddings or the arrival of Christmas and Easter, but also serves as a reminder of the passage of time.
It is a tradition where women decorate a house after the men have finished building the house. These highly decorative designs are soft and flowing geometric patterns that are applied with fingers, forks and sticks on the walls of houses.The patterns are sometimes coloured with natural pigments or commercial paint and stains. Stones, embedded in mud and relief designs are sometimes used as a more permanent effect.
Before important events, an entire village might be decorated. Traditionally a chief artist or advisor was called upon to direct and advise the women of the village on the types of design or methods of application. The special occasion became a social event in itself. Whilst squatting and drinking tea, the most skilled Litema artist would sketch her intentions in the dust. Once consensus on a design had been reached, women set out to work. Nowadays, it appears, each woman (possibly joined by members of her household and daughters) prefers her individual design and house decoration. The start of decorating times are greeted with much excitement from friends and neighbours who generously participate in terms of giving advice and moral support. Thus it is still an opportunity for a social get-together. The tradition of mural art in Southern Africa, and in particular the tradition of Litema, is not of recent origins.
Like flowers, Litema blooms with the arrival of spring and wilts with the approach of winter. It dies with the temporary surface of mud it adorns. As the suns dries and cracks the design, the rains come to wash away the ‘dead’ design, making way for new decorative opportunities.”
Author: Rudi de Lange; Photos by Carina Mylene Beyer & unknown photographer