19 November 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Roadside Encounter: Litema Houseproud

Everyone knows about the beautiful decorations done on the walls of Ndebele houses. But the BaSotho tribe do the same thing.

Their patterns aren’t quite as intricate, but in odd places, you’ll find a traditional Sotho homestead decorated with subtle, flowing geometric patterns in earth colours.

Unfortunately Litema (pronounced dee-teh-mah - l’s and d’s are often switched in SeSotho) is a vanishing tradition. We come across just such a homestead just outside the tiny town of Memel (probably the most easternmost of Eastern Free State towns) and turn in, seeking the artist.

At the first house, a shyly confident youth, Tulani Mbuli, answers our questions. He says his mother wasn’t there, but that it is always the women who paint the patterns on the wall. His grandmother, he says, taught his mother. Incidentally, Zulu and Sotho traditions pool together here, a border area between the two tribes.

We look at the black, tan, and blue patterns, repeated like a frieze.

What did they paint with?

“The black is from when we burn a tyre. The brown is from the earth. And the blue is from ‘iStolo’, the shop.”

The women, he says, use their hands to make the big patterns. But for the fine detail, they use a ‘iKwasi’ - a paintbrush.

Mostly they repaint before Christmas and sometimes again around Good Friday, he adds.

We wander on to the next house, and friendly Minah Mloi invites us to enter. Inside is an extremely tidy and beautifully styled lounge, with a lounge suite, and table and largish television. Minah is justifiably proud of her place, and is delighted that we just dropped in.

What did she use to paint the walls?

“The yellow comes from a kind of sand with that colour. But you need to mix it with milk and salt to fix it, otherwise it comes off on people’s clothes,” she told us, via our translator.

And the black in the neatly painted patterned corners?


“That’s from crushing PM9 and PM10 transistor batteries when they’re finished and finding the black inside there.”

We blanche. On emerging from this immaculate little house, we encounter a woman with laughing, dancing eyes. This is Beauty Ngubeni, the woman who paints the outside walls.

She creates fairly elaborate geometric shield patterns that are picked out in black, red and white on clay. But her favourite shapes are ‘iBlomo’ - flowers.

We ask to see her brushes and she comes out with a toothbrush, the only brush she can find, and poses with it against her wall. For some reason we all fall about laughing.

Category: Culture & History

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