Burnt shield to rise from the ashes

By: Sobukwe Mapefane
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Maseru - Lesotho is famous for its unique mountainous landscape, the aesthetic printed blankets that are a daily accessory for many given the country's very cold winters, the wonderfully woven Mokorotlo hats and the unique Seshoeshoe cloth patterns.

But beyond these cultural symbols, two landmark buildings have always stood out, especially for visiting tourists. These two unique buildings have always been the image of Maseru and Lesotho that linger on the mental map of visitors to the Mountain Kingdom.

The two thatched buildings, one shaped like the shield and another resembling the Mokorotlo hat have for years defined Maseru's CBD until a few years back when the "shield" was burnt to ashes, leaving the lone "Mokorotlo" to single-handedly mark the landscape.

The structures were built to reflect some of the most substantial items that are embedded into the Basotho culture which are the Mokorotlo hat and the Shield.

But like the surviving Mokorotlo which houses wares and artifacts for tourists, the Shield had utilitarian value as a marketing outlet for a variety of handmade traditional crafts that are sold mostly to tourists. Public Eye Online developed an interest to trace the history about the buildings soon after the Basotho Shield burnt down on 25 May 2011, in what is believed to have been an arson attack against the owners of the building.

According to the CEO of the Lesotho Corporative Handicrafts (LCH) "Me" Mamokhali Makhutla, it took three days for the building to burn to ashes.

The attacks started on the 23rd in the afternoon when a small fire was discovered by pedestrians on the roof who then called to alert the owners of the situation at hand. Luckily, the fire had not gotten out of hand which made it easy for them to extinguish it without struggling much.

"Sadly, the second attempt at burning the building was successful as its would seem greater effort was put into ensuring that the fire that would be started would not be stoppable. This happened in the afternoon as well but this time around the fire that was started was so big that all witnesses could do was watch from a safe distance.

"For us as the owners of the building it was one the most painful things to watch because it was a lot of hard work that had gone to ashes at the hands of someone we still can't identify till this day.

"We later discovered that whoever did this had opened the back window to put gasoline to ensure the fire would spread even faster, hence why putting out the fire became an impossible fight," Makhutla said.

According to Makhutla the building was sub-leased by Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC) and at the time the building burnt down it was under their watch.

The Shield was used by LTDC as an information Centre that had the sole purpose of providing guidance mostly for tourists about Lesotho and the kingdom's places of attraction.

"Although LTDC was using the building at the time," she said, "it did not necessarily mean that they were to be held responsible for what happened, which left LCH with nothing but a pile of ash to mourn over."

She further revealed that they tried over the years to find out who had committed such a heartless act but could not make any headway so they decided to let it go and focus on other buildings of theirs such as the Mokorotlo building and the other adjoining premises that host a restaurant as well as a salon.

"At the moment we are steadily working towards rebuilding the Basotho Shield and our plan is to rebuild it into a more modified structure yet still staying true to what it represented before.

"I can say we have made considerable progress since we started working on the plans to rebuild what we lost and I'm very happy with what we have managed to achieve so far," she added.

Public Eye Online was privileged to view the architectural designs that have already been developed as ideas that will result into the rebirth of the Basotho Shield.

One of the proposed structures has been developed in such a way that the building will be more spacious enough to be able host more activities in a way that is safer to ensure that any future attacks won't leave much damage.

According to, Makhutla the initiative to host locally made handicrafts started in the 1960s when a group of locals decided to come together to start a group that would help many Basotho to easily access potential buyers for their work.

Because the idea was very well received and caught the attention of many the initiative was registered as a corporation in 1970.

Ever since then there has been substantial growth in the work LCH is doing so much that it not only hosts Basotho produced handicrafts but also foreign work that comes from a number of countries around Africa. The Basotho Hat building also serves as one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country as it is the first stop most tourists make when entering Lesotho through the Maseru border.

The challenge of losing a building is not new for the owners as they had lost the Basotho Shield before but ultimately they still managed to rebuild it.

In 1998 The Basotho Hat building was also burnt as a result of political instability in the country which left many businesses vandalised and burnt.

"In 1998 the aftermath of having our building burnt was having to make sure that we compensate the people we were hosting in full for the work that got lost in the fire.

"But all in all we recovered from that so even as we have also lost the Basotho Shield we will recover from that too."

Preparations to rebuild the iconic Basotho monument are well underway and its coming back to reoccupy what is now a parking lot. There is no doubt the space will give way to a very spectacular building as it will be bigger, better and more influential in terms of reflecting a prominent aspect of the Basotho culture.

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