The leather products she and her uncle make are good enough for the international market, but ‘Malipolelo Theko remains thirsty for knowledge to become an even better artisan.
Each day, the 27-year-old sits with her father’s brother, Fusi Khoali, in their small Maseru workstation, painstakingly stitching animal-skin to produce shoes, sandals, handbags, and wallets of outstanding quality. Some of the merchandise is for the overseas market, while Basotho can also purchase these products whose beauty is testimony to the dedication and natural talent of this artistic family from St Rodrigue village near Mafeteng district.
Theko says she became interested in the handicraft business while still a student at Makena High School. Now five years after completing high school, the business has become Theko’s life.
“Every month-end, I would come to Maseru where my father stayed and help him with the handicrafts. He is not my biological father but my uncle. I have always addressed him as father because he raised me. He taught me everything I know today,” said Theko.
According to Theko, artistic blood runs in the family.
“Ntate Fusi was taught this skill by his father, my grandfather Mahlaku Khoali, who began the business in 1972.
“He does not have much formal training, but attended the South African Leather Academy a few years ago. That training empowered him with skills to weave using his hands instead of a machine to get this fine print here,” she said, indicating a pattern at the back of one of the shoes she had just completed making.
The handiwork is breathtaking as it is distinctly colourful, evoking immense pride in the young woman. Her face beams as she talks about what her uncle’s newfound skill has since brought into the business.
“The hand gives a better impression on the shoe than a machine. We can now use light colours that complement the type of product we want to produce. Before my father went for the training, we didn’t know it was possible to make something so beautiful. My plan is to go to that same school and learn more about this business. I want to achieve more than he has because this is what I have chosen as my way of life,” she says with a smile.
During the interview, customers continue to trickle in, and most are surprised products of such quality are being made in the country and in such surroundings. A man whistles in astonishment as Theko holds-up a M1 200 suede shoe. He inspects it closely, touching the branded ‘Fusi Shoes’ label on the sole and mokorotlo emblem inside. For a moment, he takes his eyes away from the shoe and looks at Theko.
“I love this shoe; I am coming for it. Who made it?” he enquires and looks surprised when Theko tells him it is her creation.
Yet Theko says the business is presenting them with challenges.
“First, we lack resources such as leather, which we have to import from South Africa. Secondly, Basotho don’t want to pay the stipulated price, and can’t realise this compromises our business.
“They believe it’s easy and just don’t understand the costs and effort which go into producing one shoe. For instance, because of lack of equipment, it takes me about two weeks to complete one shoe which otherwise would be produced within hours with modern equipment.
“But because we don’t have it, we always improvise to get these products on the market.
“If we had the required equipment and resources, we would not only be exporting regularly but also producing enough for local demand.”
Theko also spoke of lack of support by fellow Basotho.
“What upsets me most about Basotho is they don’t support each other unless a white person comes into the picture. There is this belief among our people that ‘moriana oa Mosotho ke lekhooa’, which means ‘a Mosotho’s medicine is a white person’. If Basotho walk into your business and find a white person inside, they will immediately assume that white person is the boss and you are working for him or her. They never think it could be the other way around,” said Theko.
According to Theko, the business is hoping to explore the tourism market.
“We are hoping to expand our local market by supplying these products to accommodation establishments such as lodges and hotels so that we reach tourists who visit the country.”
Because of her age, Theko has become the business’ trend-watcher, taking note of customers’ needs and the ever-changing fashion trends.
“The plan is to impart our skills to fellow Basotho by way of launching a school. That is our long-term goal, resources permitting,” Theko said.