By Tsitsi Matope
MAFETENG — Paile Semoko, 80, has never married and the pain of her spinsterhood is clearly engraved in her clouded eyes.
After her traumatic experience at the hands of a man who had tried to force her hand in marriage under the Basotho tradition of chobeliso, remaining single was the only way that made Semoko feel safe following an abduction that took place when she was just 15 years of age.
Although chobeliso — Basotho’s longstanding tradition in which a man abducts and then flees with a girl of his choice to marry her without her consent — was common in her village, Ha Ramohapi, and in other communities around Mafeteng, the abduction ruined her opinion of marriage.
A mere child who still needed parental guidance when her life turned upside-down, Semoko recalls events of those “painful” years with such clarity they appear as if they only happened yesterday, not 65 years ago.
Like many girls her age, she also had dreams that one day, her “Prince Charming” would come along, sweep her off her feet, marry her and the two would live happily ever after.
But as it turned out, it was a “Prince of Darkness” who turned up at Paile’s doorstep, and what followed was a nightmare the now-elderly Semoko says she would never forget.
“The nasty experience killed my trust in men and my dream to ever become a wife. I felt by remaining single, I would be safe from all the abuse I had suffered for the three months my abductor had tried to force me into submission,” Semoko says in an interview at her Ha Ramohapi home in Mafeteng.
“I remember the face of this man like it was yesterday. He worked in South Africa and saw me when he visited his relatives staying in a neighbouring village of Ha Kuili.
“On many occasions, he had visited me and expressed strong feelings for me but I had always turned him down.”
Then one late afternoon the then young Paile met the man, who she says was 25 years old, while on her way to fetch water from a nearby spring.
“We greeted briefly and when I tried to walk away, he just grabbed me by my hand and started dragging me towards a bush. He was holding a stick and threatened to beat me with it if I resisted or screamed for help.”
A car waiting for them on the main road nearby then took the pair to the border, and subsequently, the two illegally crossed into the Free State, South Africa.
“We walked to Wepener, in the Free State, for the better part of the night,” Semoko recalls. “I cried all the way, begging the man to let me go but he would not listen. It was like talking to a statue because he kept on pushing ahead as we went deeper into South Africa, a country I was not familiar with at all.”
Semoko claims for two weeks she was locked-up in the bedroom and, each day her abductor would try to convince her to marry him.
However, after the man realised she was not likely to change her mind, he became both sexually and physically abusive, Semoko says.
“I lost my pregnancy during one of the beatings and thereafter, vowed never to submit to his demands again. He then decided to call his cousin to stay with us and keep an eye on me, while he was away at work.”
One day, when the cousin left to accompany a friend who had visited, Semoko says she escaped and returned to Lesotho.
“I had a bit of money on me, which was enough to take me back home. Those were very strange times because although my family had been looking for me, they never reported me missing to the police.”
It took her seven years before she started an affair with the man who later fathered her four children, Semoko says.
“We had grown up together, so I had a bit of trust in him but not enough to make him my husband. He is now late and at times, I feel I was very unfair to him and in a way, judged him based on the wrongs of another man,” Semoko remembers.
Today, Semoko stays with her two grandchildren and has remained distant to the family of the man she now believes she treated unjustly.
“I don’t understand how this so-called tradition of chobeliso could be allowed in the first place because it is the worst form of violence against women. The tragic thing is there were so many girls who were going through the same treatment that I went through, and remain in those marriages to this day, even though they never consented to the marriage. Even to this day, the practice is happening, yet no-body is making noise about it,” Semoko says, her milky eyes seeming to look far away.
However, the Director for Culture in the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture, Maneo Ntene, while admitting chobeliso is still happening in some parts of the country, says the practice does not epitomise Basotho customs and marriage values.
“A marriage has to result from an agreement between a man and a woman and the two families involved,” Ntene says. “The traditional marriage rites are clear and do not include force. Our customs do not interpret marriage as something that can be forced or be imposed on any person but that which is born out of mutual agreement.”
Ntene further emphasises that although there are still reported cases of chobeliso in the country, this does not mean the government supports the practice.
“This does not fall under our institution of Basotho cultural principles and values; actually, chobeliso is another form of gender-based violence. The practice robs the woman of her dignity, pride and essential life elements that fulfil and make her a wholesome human being.”
According to Ntene, the laws of Lesotho recognise the need to safeguard the rights of every citizen, including women and girls.
“This is why any person who forces a girl into marriage, sexually abuses her, or abducts or kidnaps her for such a purpose, commits a serious criminal offence that warrants a jail sentence,” Ntene warns, adding it is a major concern certain cases of such sexual abuse go unreported, which implies some women continue to suffer in silence.
“In the olden days, some of these marriages would last because women were silent partners in their own marriages. I don’t believe these women were happy to be treated in such an inhumane manner.
“In places where this practice continues to happen, it is still a socialisation issue but perpetuating chobeliso in the false name of custom and tradition is the worst form of dictatorship.”
Another victim, ‘Mabonang Sethunya, 75, of Khubetsoana, says she was only 16 years of age when her late husband abducted her.
She was on her way home from church and was not surprised when she suddenly came across the man who was to become her husband.
“He had been trying to win my heart for weeks but I was always turning him down because I was in love with someone else.
“When I saw him on the day of the abduction, I had no idea he was up to no good. After we exchanged greetings, I was about to walk away when he pulled my hand and because he was so big, he easily carried me on his shoulder and took me to his family.
“I cried for help but people we met ignored me and just laughed about it, as if it was a joke.”
When she arrived at the man’s family home, young ‘Mabonang was made to sleep in the same room with the man’s mother, she said.
“When a sheep was slaughtered the following day as a way to introduce me to the family, I understood I was getting married. It was a painful experience because I missed my boyfriend whom I had promised to wed in church.”
After the introductions, the family declared them man and wife. “I don’t think how I felt mattered because those days chobeliso was a common practice, although many girls were against it. I attempted suicide once, and when I failed to take my life, I started refusing to eat and kept to myself. But my situation became worse when I became pregnant. I was very depressed.”
After three months, her husband’s family went and paid 10 cattle for her lobola, Sethunya said.
“Although my family had sympathised with me, they accepted the marriage. They told me love was a like a seed, once planted it would grow.
“My problem was that the seed had been planted in unfavourable soil, and no matter how much it was watered and cared for, it would never grow but would eventually rot.”
The “loveless marriage”, as she calls it, produced three children but Sethunya said until the day her husband died a few years ago, she had always wondered how her life would have turned out if she had married for love.
Yet another woman who was forced to marry under chobeliso, ‘Marelebohile Mokheme who also lives in Khubetsoana and is neighbours with Sethunya, says she has never forgiven her father for “ruining” her life.
At 15, while in Quthing, she was forced to marry a man eight years her senior and love never “germinated” as expected, and she eventually ran away from her “husband”.
“Chobeliso is a terrible practice. I don’t think my husband also understood what he got himself into when he agreed with my father to force me to marry him. We were not happy and during the last days of the marriage, he treated me so badly that I had to run away. He never followed me and later married another woman,” she said.
Before she turned 15, Mokheme said she had witnessed her two elder sisters being sold “like horses”, through chobeliso.
“My father made it his responsibility to choose suitors for us. He eyed men from rich families or sons of chiefs whom he knew could afford to pay the lobola he would have demanded,” Mokheme said.
And true to form, one day when she had just turned 15, a man riding a horse visited their home.
She had never seen him before.
“It appeared my father had been expecting him because, unlike the other days, he had not gone to the fields on that particular day.”
According to Mokheme, after some time, the man came out of the house where he had been discussing with her father, preparing to leave.
“That was when my father called me and my mother and introduced us to the stranger. He broke the news that he was my husband and that the man had come to take me to his home in Mohale’s Hoek.
“All women in my family were conditioned to obey my father, so none of us could argue with his decisions.
“I rode with the man, my new husband, without a clue of who he really was and what lay ahead for me.”
However, Ntene said her office is conducting awareness campaigns in various districts and she hopes such programmes would help root out social ills usually disguised as Basotho traditions, morals and values.
“We now have cultural officers in all districts of the country and their mandate, among others, is to promote and educate communities about our beautiful customs and traditions. These do not include bad practices such as chobeliso and wife-inheritance, among other bad practices” Ntene said.