‘“Our heritage” is being exploited’: This Lesotho fashion collective is fighting back

Bonono Merchants are a Lesotho-based fashion collective started by Chere Mongangane and Lemohang Mpobane.

‘We came together on one mission, which is to put fashion on some other level in this country,’ says Chere. I’m seated with both partners at a restaurant in Maseru. It’s a day before we hit the streets to do a photoshoot featuring a cross-section of the merchandise in stock – from fitted caps courtesy of Babatunde; leather bags manufactured by Tumane Thabane, another Mosotho entrepreneur; and decor from House of Thethana, a Lesotho-based textile design business.

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Bonono, which roughly translates to ‘excellent craftsmanship’ in Sesotho, isn’t only an exercise in flexing good looks; it’s also an experiment in decolonisation.

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‘We want to bring a revolution in Lesotho. It has many faces but currently it’s focused on fashion. A lot of what is deemed “our heritage” is being exploited by people who don’t even reside in this country,’ explains Chere, indirectly referencing companies such as Aranda blankets who profit off of the Basotho symbol of nationhood, yet don’t have empowerment programmes for communities from which they reap benefits.

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For Bonono, and for other entrepreneurial outlets being spearheaded by young Basotho, ‘owning something’ translates directly to ridding the self of a past drenched in colonial-era attitudes. The psychological damage of constantly being othered in your own country has become innate.

The belief that Lesotho doesn’t have infrastructure to speak of, has now been rendered a myth.

In Lesotho, it permeates the clergy, the government, the public sector, and just about every inch of our national make-up. The effects are debilitating: mass skills drainage due to few opportunities, especially in the creative arts; zero demonstrated faith in young people’s abilities; a dire, depressing economic outlook… we can go on.

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The collective currently operates off of Facebook and Instagram. ‘It makes it much easier than before. We can basically grow from anywhere. The belief that Lesotho doesn’t have infrastructure to speak of, has now been rendered a myth,’ says Lemohang, who until now has been playing attentive co-pilot to Chere’s insights.

The way that we will catch the interest of the youth is to give them designs that they’re comfortable with.

His partner chips in: ‘We want to revolutionise Seshoeshoe. In this country we don’t have a factory which produces the fabric, but we import it in large quantities.’

Seshoeshoe, a print fabric widely used in dressmaking, has transcended its roots and become the subject of chic collections on fashion catwalks.

‘Bonono Merchants has a plan to have a firm which will produce [Seshoeshoe] in this country. We want to create employment for Basotho and contribute towards building the economy of the country,’ says Chere.

‘The way that we will catch the interest of the youth is to give them designs that they’re comfortable with. The next step would be to design the patterns from scratch. That’s basically our misson,’ he says in conclusion.

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We hit up streets uptown where there’s usually a buzz and traffic from vehicles heading into and out of Maseru. Crowds stroll past as the day draws lazily to an end. The taxis hoot endlessly, though the effect lacks the intensity of mass activity during mid-week traffic.

Some passers-by cast glances; a few ask where they could buy the items from. It feels weird saying ‘place your order on Facebook’ or some such, but that’s how it is for now. Perhaps, in good time, Bonono’s dreams shall materialise. These are just the seeds.

Check out Bonono Merchants on Facebook here

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