‘Khotla’ is a Sesotho word denoting a traditional ‘court’ of the Basotho, indicating both a place and a social function of dispute arbitration.
For a planner the Khotla is an interesting phenomenon as it is set within a village where the most local and traditional form of organisation was centred and is tied to the function of the Chieftain.
The Khotla was and still is usually situated in the chief’s compound or at a nearby natural setting such as a large tree or formation of rocks. While hearing cases or disputes at the Khotla, the chief is surrounded by his male advisors. It was usually referred to as ‘the place of men’ simply because no women were allowed inside the ‘Khotla’ except when they had to answer something before the court. After listening to both sides, the chief would consult his advisors prior to rendering a public ruling. The ‘khotla’ also served as a centre of village life, a gathering place where important matters were discussed and communal work was conducted.
(Rosenburg and Weisfelder 2003:139 “Historical Dictionary of Lesotho” The Scarecrow Press)
#MapLesotho, in giving us reason to chart each building, has allowed us opportunities to observe and re-examine villages and their layouts. Some villages are built along the hilltops and feet of the mountains to leave the low lying fertile land for cultivation and agricultural purposes. This is because Lesotho has about 33% of its land that can be used for cultivation and agricultural practices while the rest is mountainous and rivers and water courses. Villages also have a more contemporary pattern of following roads (once they get built). But in their traditional form most villages are built in circular patterns or shapes leaving a vacant space, the ‘khotla’, in the centre; with a lot of paths coming to it from all directions. It is therefore “visibly”the centre of village life. We (that is us people using OpenStreetMap) may need to invent a landuse tag for the Basotho Khotla, and maybe one that fits over this definition of public space in Africa. It is easier to see these spaces in developed countries.
The Khotla in the diagram below shows the Chief’s house on high ground to the west overlooking the Khotla like a theatre stage.
Although ‘makhotla’ – meaning the traditional courts, remain in all parts of the country, their function is diluted since traditional times since Lesotho developed a modern Police force and judicial court system under the time of British Protection. Now makhotla are presently used to settle minor land and livestock disputes. As the legal modern day courts take care of all other civil and criminal issues, the role of the Khotla is limited by legislation. However, they still exist as physical spaces which are very important in the life of a village. They are now used largely for public gatherings, that is, they are village open spaces.
Identifying the Khotla on the map does not necessarily need local knowledge but an educated eye of someone who maps remotely can easily see it due to convergences of footpaths.