Ditema Tsa Basotho Writing System

By Zulumathabo Zulu © 2015

The Basotho people in the Eastern Free State have had a greatest impact on my philosophical thinking and worldview. These venerated people possess an amazing and unique knowledge of Ditema glyphs which was used as a writing system long before the advent of the Euro-Christian colonization. Elsewhere in this blog I discuss this concept in the articles Nahanotsebo – African Theory of Knowledge – Part I and Nahanotsebo – African Theory of Knowledge – Part II.

In this article, we introduce Ditema Tsa Basotho.


Ditema Tsa Basotho Sunrise artwork by Zulumathabo Zulu © 2015

When my mother died at a tender age of 12, I was forced to return to Naledi where I had been previously tended by the incredible Mangena family. I was assisted by the great Mannuku to reconnect with the Mangenas. In my book A Woman in the Bush I pay deserved tribute to the heroine Mannuku in the literary piece Mannuku wa Naledi. Manneheng was married to Mr. Mangena but at this time he had passed away. Manneheng then decided that I needed to be taken to Matamong in the Eastern Free State to start a new life.

I landed at Matamong in the Eastern Free State in 1973 where Abram Mlangeni and his wife Mmaketsa led a traditional African lifestyle. As the great matriarch of the house, Mmaketsa governed the affairs of the extended family assisted by other matriarchs and Mr. Mlangeni gave her an unqualified support. In my scholarly paper The Design Theory of Letanta I recall the following:

” In one of the hunting trips, Mr. Mlangeni dedicated the expedition to her (Mmaketsa). Whenever a game like nogwaja was caught, he skinned and cut the animal with a meticulous precision of a master craftsman. He peppered the meat with nice seasoning and roasted it on a naked fire. He watched the sizzling meat like a hawk while baile (the family dog) looked on with great anticipation. He always gave a piece of meat to baile whom he loved so dearly. Once the meat was ready, the fresh roast was delivered on a platter to both Nkgono and Mmangwane. In a matrilineal society such as Matamong, Nkgono, Mmangwane and Rakgadi are part of a ruling triumvirate. It’s these kinds of values and maxims that motivate and guide the behaviour of the design artisans. “

The Matamong village is a collectivist society. In another unpublished analysis paper The Cozumist we read the following:

“Matamong organizes its members around the concept of the collective. This makes Matamong a society that maximizes the survival experience of its members through an economic model that requires a collective cooperation of its members. The cultural artifact of this collective is confirmed through a system of letsema. Letsema is an economic solidarity whereby members of the collective rally around a particular family in order to bolster its survival efforts. Letsema is structurally matrilineal and governed by a triumvirate of Rakgadi, Mmangwane and Nkgono. The purpose of Letsema is to achieve osmotic balance, mitochondrial survival and economic prosperity within the collective organism of the village.”

Now that you have a good picture of the kind of the village we are dealing with, now let’s get to the heart of the matter.

For the first time I came across what was known as ditema. This was a system of visual symbols used to capture and record the feelings, the views and stories as expressed by the scribe of ditema. Usually, the scribe is a woman. The Basotho have always considered a woman to be the custodian of this writing system. Even though, the system is now practically dead but the tradition continues whereby females are still the scribes of the Basotho traditional systems.

When we attended the Makholokoe traditional council meeting at Tshiame near Harrismith under the leadership of Morena Paulos Moloi, the scribe was a woman. It was heart-warming to see that the tradition of females as scribes among the Basotho was still alive.

After my training as a software engineer in Canada, I designed a computer font that takes as an input the normal alphabet but transforms that into the ditema writing system. The artistic work earlier in this article models the sunrise surrounded by Ditema Tsa Basotho axiomatic statement which says the following:

Hongwatha thaba hanyane which translates into “To reduce a mountain in small scoops”. Essentially this is saying that if your path is beset by some mountainous adversity, you must not try to tackle it all at once. You must reduce the mountain by infinitesimal changes and eventually the mountain will disappear.

The ditema writing system is the work of art like many other African indigenous writing scripts.

To be continued…

Published by Zulumathabo

Research Scientist and Director: Madisebo University Research Institute. Metaphysical Scientist; African Philosopher; Software Engineer, Published Author, Inventor, Lexicographer, Intellectual Historian and Contextual Poet.

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