MOHALE — When news trickled in that the government was going to build a new multibillion-dollar dam in Mohale, the people were thrilled.
Finally, they thought, they were going to see real change in their routine and dull lives.
And indeed when the project roared into life in June 1998 things really began to improve for the villagers.
A new tarred road was built.
A new clinic was also built in Mohale cutting short by almost six kilometres the distance they had to walk to the nearest clinic.
Suddenly, their lives had dramatically changed.
But with the “development” came a new scourge.
It was not long before the villagers realised that the new construction gangs were slowly beginning to destabilise their usually serene lifestyle.
They say the young girls became wild as the cash-rich construction workers wreaked havoc on the community.
Almost 10 years after the workers left, the villagers are still battling to come to terms with the “wreckage” they left — broken hearts, disease and hundreds of orphans.
Thirty-five-year old ‘Matefo Rantuba from Ha-Teri in Mohale says she is battling to look after five children — four of whom are from her two late sisters.
The two sisters apparently died of Aids-related illnesses some few years ago, but Rantuba is reluctant to acknowledge this fact.
Rantuba says when construction began in 1998, women changed into virtual animals on heat.
“Young girls changed from intimidated rural women to men-searching whores,” Rantuba said.
“Men who were working at the dam lured them with money and food. They would walk from far-away villages and wait all day at the drinking bars for the men to finish work,” she said.
She said girls some of them as young as 13 became pregnant.
But the tragedy was that these young girls could not pin-point the men responsible.
“Young girls, most of who had dropped out of school, had babies out of wedlock. It has always been a disgrace in our culture for a girl to have a baby out of wedlock.
“But in a short time it became the in-thing. Most of them were not sure who had fathered their babies because they had so many different sexual partners,” she said.
Rantuba said the situation virtually veered out of control with some girls running away from home to stay with their new boyfriends.
“Girls fled from their homes to live closer to their boyfriends. The small shacks where they lived became like brothels,” she said.
Those who refused to join in the merry were looked down upon.
“They called us rural winter chickens. They said we were backward and that we needed to loosen up a bit.”
Rantuba said it was not long before joy turned into misery.
Soon one by one the women got sick.
But they claimed they had been bewitched.
“They were on each other’s throats, blaming their sickness on witchcraft. Some would say a certain woman had bewitched them because they were jealous that some man had chosen them over the other.
“There was so much hatred among the women. They never bothered to visit medical doctors for treatment,” she said.
They all died leaving behind sick children, Rantuba said.
She said when the dam construction project came to an end in 2002 the disease had almost wiped out young women leaving just old women to look after the children.
Eight years after the construction workers left, the community is still battling to come to terms with the effects of the bygone era.
Villagers who spoke to the Lesotho Times this week said there are just too many orphans in the area.
They attributed the high numbers of orphans to the “dam” and the negative implications of “development”.
Apart from the lingering results associated with the period, villagers say they are struggling to grow crops after they lost their fields to the dam.
The villagers made way for the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) and were duly compensated for their lost fields.
They were given lump sum payments as compensation. They also receive cash compensation every year.
But the villagers complained this week that the money was not only too little but always came late.
‘Mamothebesoane Makoae from Sekokoaneng in Mohale is taking care of orphans left behind by her dead relatives.
Makoae said the money the LHWP gives them as compensation for taking their fields is just too little to help them look after their families.
She said the LHWP had refused to listen to their pleas to increase the money over the years.
She said she regrets giving up her fields to make way for the project which they hoped would create jobs for them.
“There are no jobs in our area. But we have these orphans and vulnerable children who have no one to help them.
“Many of us depend on the money we receive from the LHWP. It barely sustains us through a week and it comes just once in a year. It is really tough.
“This is not how we were expecting our lives to turn out, especially after such a huge project so close to us,” Makoae said.
Another villager, Tumo Hlasa, said he wishes he had never given up his field for the project.
Hlasa said he would not be living a miserable life like this.
He said the fields might not have produced lots of food but were able to produce all sorts of food throughout the year.
“But now we have to wait until the next year to get our monies,” he said.
However the field operations manager at Mohale Dam, Richard Ramoeletsi, denied the villagers allegations that LHWP was not giving the villagers enough compensation.
Ramoeletsi said LHWP increased the cash compensation for the beneficiaries every year.
“We have had complaints from villagers that LHWP was giving them little compensations for their field.
“The Ombudsman is still dealing with their case. But every single year LHWP has increased the compensation values based on the consumer price index provided by the Bureau of Statistics,” Ramoeletsi said.
He said rate of compensation is determined by the sizes of the different fields.
He said according to the policy which was made by the governments of Lesotho and South Africa, and Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), under normal crop production standards of Lesotho, a hectare is compensated with 14 bags of maize all weighing 70kg as well as 30kg of beans.
For those whose compensations come in cash, Ramoeletsi said they receive M1 800 per hectare.
He said the problem with the villagers was that they were expecting the company to compensate them for the monies they used to generate when they grew dagga in their fields.
“They want us to compensate them even for the dagga they grew. No, we will not do that. We compensate for legal crops only,” he said.
He said it was also not true that LHWP was delaying giving out their compensation.
“The compensation which comes in the form of food is due in August and it has always been that way over the years. And so has the cash compensation which is due in June every year.
“There has never been any delay. We always strive to give people their compensation on time,” he said.