The cultural question
The Basotho people must have a stake in the production and distribution of their culture.
Blankets are a cultural emblem to Basotho people. Our blankets, much like the cow, are central to every rite of passage in our culture; from childbirth to marriage to burial ceremonies and everything else in between. Originally, we made our blankets out of animal hide and furs, adapting them according to the season. In the early 19th century, European wool blankets were introduced in our lands by traders and missionaries and notably to founding father of the Basotho nation King Moshoeshoe in 1860. These new blankets were infused into our communities and gained relevance as part of our unique heritage.
For generations the love affair we have with blankets has endured. With an elevation of 1400 meters and higher in our tiny Kingdom now known as Lesotho, our blankets are the signature capes we ensconce ourselves in during unforgiving winters and they hang loosely over our shoulders during summer’s tormenting heat. An aesthetic of the people, our politicians and musicians are often seen wrapped in them as they tour our country, seeking to win the hearts of the masses. Blankets for us are a warm blend of style, function and tradition.
But thanks to the capitalist hunger of Europeans in Southern Africa and the rise of industrial technology, people have ascended our mountains to profit from our prized possession. Blanket manufacturer Aranda, producing blankets near Johannesburg, South Africa since 1951, was appointed as the exclusive manufacturer of our heritage blankets in the 1990s. This gives Aranda a near monopoly on the blanket market in Lesotho. Lesotho on the other hand, despite having a relatively large textile industry, has never been able to produce a successful blanket manufacturer locally and yet the blanket is one of our most treasured symbols.
In the fine Western tradition of profiting from other cultures, Sean Shuter, a fashion entrepreneur between New York and Cape Town and a new admirer of the Basotho heritage blankets, recently struck up a deal with the Aranda company to sell their blankets in high-end boutiques around the world. Using photographs of Basotho in their communities — happily donning their prized capes — he will now be the one to tell our blanketed history globally with our people as props in order to market his product and grow his brand. He recently celebrated himself and his discovery on Style.com, boasting enthusiastically about how he learned of the importance of Basotho blankets not from Basotho people, but from the marketing director at Aranda. This is just the latest exoticizing and repackaging of culture by outsiders. It has happened before with Ethiopian, Maasai and Native American styles and it will undoubtedly happen again if we continue to sleep on our cultural wealth.
Forward-thinking fashion designers such as Thabo Makhetha have adapted the Seanamarena style (loosely translated as “worn by kings” in Sesotho) blanket for example, into signature coats and other fashionable creations owing to the high quality and intricate patterns of the blankets. Many African designers have embraced Ankara fabric as well. But we as the diviners of culture need to manage more than its relevance, we need a stake in its production. We can choose to recognize the value of our heritage and take control over the distribution of our culture, or we can let the hunters tell the story of how they slayed the beastly lions. When I see someone like Sean Shuter cashing in on my people’s image I’m tempted to cry “cultural appropriation”, but then again, it’s just business I suppose.