The deadly accordion wars of Lesotho

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Gang leader Ntei Tsehlana, who was shot in April
Image caption,
Shepherd and gang leader Ntei Tsehlana was shot at a Democratic Congress (DC) party concert and later died from his injuries

Rivalry between stars of a unique accordion-based style of music in the southern African kingdom of Lesotho has sparked years of deadly gang warfare that has turned the tiny country into the murder capital of the continent.

"Maybe I've survived because I'm a woman," Puseletso Seema says quietly, her whisper a shadow of the powerful voice that once entranced thousands of fans in beer-halls and stadiums across southern Africa and beyond.

Acclaimed as the Queen of Famo, the popular national music of Lesotho, she sits on a scuffed sofa in her tiny, bare, cement-block home, with little to show for her years of success.

"Everyone wants to show off their manhood by owning a gun," she says.

Image caption,
In spite of her success, veteran Famo star Puseletso Seema says she struggles to make ends meet

Famo has the gentlest of origins. It developed when traditional "wayfarers' hymns" - a form of spontaneous oral poetry, or rap, composed by herders or travellers to while away long hours guarding cattle or journeying on foot through Lesotho's mountains - began to be accompanied first on the concertina, and later the accordion.

But in 2004, after one Famo musician allegedly shot another, a cycle of revenge developed, fuelled by poisonous lyrics in songs. And over the last two decades scores of Famo artists and hundreds of other people connected with the music - producers, fans, DJs, musicians' family members - have been gunned down.

"They come to a house looking for you - and you are not there. And they kill the wife, they kill the children, eliminate everybody in the family. Villages and villages are orphanages, because of Famo music," says one of its original promoters, Sebonomoea Ramainoane.

Image caption,
Not all Famo musicians are embroiled in the disputes - accordionist Lempe Leteketa says he has never been involved in gang fights

Many have been forced to flee their homes. The Famo wars are perhaps the main reason the overwhelmingly rural, stunningly beautiful country of just two million people - entirely surrounded by South Africa - recorded the sixth-highest homicide rate in the world last year.

"Jealousy, nothing but jealousy," Seema says to explain how the carnage began. "When artists start making a name for themselves, they record songs that are full of insults."

Seema, like most Famo stars, had a difficult, impoverished upbringing. "I started singing from a very young age," she says. "I used to herd cattle. That is not the work of young girls, but I would fight with boys in the cattle fields."

She left home to seek her fortune entertaining some of the thousands of men from Lesotho working away from home in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa, where Famo was born in the mid-20th century. The name is thought to come from "wafamola", a word in Lesotho's language, Sesotho, meaning "flaring" or "flicking up" of a skirt, a reference to the exuberant way women danced to the music.

Listen to The Accordion Wars of Lesotho on Crossing Continents on 28 April 2022 at 1100 on BBC Radio 4 - or download the podcast.

Seema excelled at dancing, swinging her hips in a grass skirt as she waved a traditional fighting stick. "They got a lot of excitement," she says of the hard-bitten miners in the audience. "But they were scared of me. They thought I would beat them. And when I left the stage I kept a very straight, serious face. No-one would come near me."

Seema encouraged the musical career of a young fellow countryman and former herder called Bereng Majoro. His stage name was Lekase, meaning "coffin".

"To sing is a competition," he tells me as we sit on his smallholding on the outskirts of Lesotho's capital, Maseru, where he's now retired. "Everyone wants to be the winner."

Media caption,

Watch Famo legend, Lekase, perform with an accordionist and drummer

Famo artists and their fans, both in South Africa and Lesotho, have divided into warring groups, distinguished by wearing traditional blankets in a particular colour. Yellow is the colour of Terene, one of the largest groups; blue and black the mark of another, Seakhi, that Lekase belonged to.

When a fellow musician was threatened, Lekase, still living in South Africa, would go into hiding. He always carried a gun.

He refuses to say whether or not he killed people, laughing off the question. But he says: "I fought back, because when I see someone buried, knowing that he was killed by other groups, I was angry. So I have to take revenge."

Back in Lesotho, one victim of a revenge attack was Famo artist Salope Mohlobuti, gunned down at his isolated home in the mountainous district of Matelile in 2010. In his last song, he'd taunted the killers of another musician, his cousin, calling them "little boys."

Goaded by those lyrics, the killers came for him too.

Image caption,
Matankeso Mohlobuti holds a portrait of her musician son, Salope, killed in the Famo wars

Today, Salope's son, Malefetsane, now 17, keeps the song on his phone in memory of his father. But he says he'd rather stay a cattle herder than become a musician himself.

"I'm no longer listening to this music that much, because the words are so provocative. It's all about killings and I don't want to be involved in that. That music killed my father."

Image caption,
The son of slain Famo musician, Salope Mohlobuti, Malefetsane

Some singers, such as Puseletso Seema, stayed clear of the violence. She says she never insulted anyone in a song.

"I sang about everything in my life... about my married life, and when my marriage failed, I also sang about the failures in my marriage."

But anyone involved with Famo is at risk. Even DJs have been killed, says Tsepang Makakole, presenter at MoAfrika FM.

"When you are on the radio, you have to make sure that every day you play all the groups. If you leave one out, they say: 'You don't like us.' Then they shoot you."

Now, though, the murders are not just over accordion music. Rival Famo groups also battle for control of the lucrative illegal gold mines in South Africa where many of their followers work. Last Christmas, one miner, Sello Ntaote, came home for the first time in three years to visit his wife and two small sons in Lesotho. Days later he was shot dead at a New Years Eve feast - along with three other guests.

His friends believe he was killed for alleged "treachery", because he'd just moved from a mine controlled by one Famo gang, to another, taking his earnings with him.

Image caption,
Mantolo Semano's cottage was the scene of the New Year's Eve carnage - four of her guests were gunned down

The same week, three other men died in what are thought to have been Famo-related killings.

Outraged and terrified by the attacks, which are causing many people to flee their homes, villagers later organised a public protest meeting. One local chief said she received death threats just for talking about the violence. Many accused the police of failing to protect them, and even of being in league with the gangsters.

Image caption,
People flocked to meetings to protest about the Famo violence

Last November, 75 guns disappeared from a police station in the district centre, Mafeteng. Deputy Home Affairs minister Maimane Maphathe told the BBC officers had sold the arms to Famo groups. Senior police ministry official Tanki Mothae said an investigation of allegations against some serving officers was continuing.

"The government has a zero tolerance on police involvement in criminal activities" he said.

But ties between politicians and Famo music have long been close. Ntei Tsehlana, leader of one of the largest and most-feared Famo gangs, Terene, worked until his death this month as a driver for the Home Affairs Ministry.

Image caption,
Ntei Tsehlana, wearing a ceremonial blanket, was murdered earlier this month

Though he was the chosen successor to Terene's founder, one of the greatest Famo stars, Mosotho Chakela, Tsehlana was not a musician himself. When I met him earlier this year he denied the group was a gang. He said it was just a burial society whose members contribute to a fund for funerals.

Tsehlana also denied that he had ever ordered a murder. "As leaders of the group, we try to stop these killings… Only, sometimes, I'm not able to manage it, because our members say: 'We can't just look away when we are getting attacked,'" he said.

Mr Maphathe, the deputy Home Affairs minister, told me his ministry employed Tsehlana in the hope of improving the situation, because "maybe when some of these people [in Famo groups] are employed, others will realise the importance of being employed, and they will work hard to help the government in the fight against these killings."

But Tsehlana became a victim of the violence. He was shot on 2 April 2022 by an unknown gunman, thought to come from a rival faction of Terene, while attending a concert organised by a political party. He died later in hospital.

His followers caught several men they claimed were the attackers, and handed them over to the police. But the police released the suspects without charge, though they say they're still investigating.

Meanwhile, Lekase, the Famo star who once wanted retaliation for every killing, recently gave up recording - disgusted, he says, by all the violence.

"I feel very sad, very angry, about the people who drove me to be a singer. I was not fighting before, no-one was fighting me. But now after I got into singing, I've got so many enemies."

He now lives modestly on his smallholding with a patch of maize, some chickens, and a giant tortoise.

Live Famo concerts are now rare - they're considered too dangerous to stage.

"They have destroyed our business, because of the infighting," the Queen of Famo, Puseletso Seema, now 73, says.

Image caption,
Puseletso Seema recorded more than 30 albums in a career that spanned decades

Despite her success, she's had a tragic life. All three of her children died - one in childbirth, one of illness, one killed by a partner. And, because of her fame, she's been a target for robbers who have stolen many of her possessions, including her beloved accordion - and most of her CDs of her own songs.

Some of her old animation returns when she asks three of her grandchildren to show me the dance moves that made her so famous - she's too arthritic now to perform them herself.

"It's about twitching your bum," she says. "And moving your shoulders. I'm the inventor of those moves, but no-one else can do them exactly like me."

She struggles to brings up her grandchildren - and several local orphans - alone. Without her accordion, she says, she can no longer earn money to feed them properly.

"If I still had my music equipment, we wouldn't have run out of gas, we wouldn't have run out of maize meal, they would have everything they need in life."

Like her one-time protégé and fellow star, Lekase, she regrets ever having gone into Famo music.

"I feel pain. Some of us used to make a living out of this music, but now we are struggling to make ends meet," she says.

"I'm a celebrated musician, but I'm a beggar. Famo music has broken my heart."