AS a young girl attending Makoaneng Roman Catholic Primary School in Ha Hlalele in Rothe, Manthabiseng Phohleli, often imagined herself as a powerful lawyer, taking on big cases and fighting tough legal battles with male colleagues.
But today at the age of 47, Lesotho’s deputy minister of health acknowledges the dictum that a human being proposes and only God disposes. Life has its own way of placing people where it wants them to be instead of where they envision themselves.
And hers is an inspirational story of a woman who refused to let an early marriage kill her dream of becoming somebody who would impact positively on the lives of fellow Basotho.
While she did not become a lawyer after getting married at the age of 18, Mrs Phohleli refused to stay at home even when her husband had promised she would not lack anything. Her life, she thought at the time, was worth more than spending many hours barefoot in the kitchen as a mere housewife.
“I had always wanted to become a top lawyer but could not because I was married,” awistful Mrs Phohleli says.
“My husband would not allow me to go to university and be away from home. In the old days, people used to say that if you send your wife to the university, an educated man will snatch her away from you. It was difficult for me to get the education I finally received.
“That’s why I would like to encourage all young girls to delay marriage until they have completed their university studies. I will also be there for my lovely granddaughter who has just turned 18 months old. She is my joy and my best friend.”
Back in the day Mrs Phohleli was known as Nthoateng Arcylia Sehlaba.
She attended Lesotho and Maseru High Schools before she matriculated at a private college.
Following her marriage, she enrolled for a two-year business studies course at Horizon Commercial College.
But each day, she would mourn her lost dream of becoming a lawyer. She eventually made peace with her new reality, telling herself that a career in business was an equally noble cause. It would enable her to create employment for her compatriots.
Little did she know then that life had more surprises in store for her.
After running a successful logistics business with her husband of 30 years, Lebohang Phohleli, her passion for law resurfaced when she began to frequent political meetings.
She did not realise that the meetings would be the beginning of her destiny- to one day work as a lawmaker and in a way, fulfil her original dream.
“I think life throws a lot of things at us, directs our paths and at times we make a sudden diversion, only to come back much prepared for the challenges on the first path we were initially.”
As a member of the Basotho Congress Party (BCP) and later the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), then the Democratic Congress (DC) and now the Alliance for Democrats (AD), Mrs Phohleli says politics helped her view life differently.
“When I started with the BCP, I was young and just wanted to belong to a party. When I joined the LCD, I realised how serious my active participation was because life borders on politics. It is therefore important to participate and contribute to the decisions that affect you.”
As an LCD member, she was transformed back to that young girl who had always wanted to one day interpret the law.
“As one matures, you see life differently at various stages of your life. Some things that seemed important 20 years ago become less important. In my late 30s, I began to understand that as people we want the same things; a good, healthy and productive life. However, there are no similar conditions to ensure that all people have all they need to enjoy life to the fullest.”
The DC nominated her as the party candidate for the Rothe Constituency in the 2012 election soon after she left the LCD.
She won the constituency and went on to win it again in 2015 before losing the seat to the All Basotho Convention (ABC) last June. But she remains a legislator courtesy of the proportional representation system.
Mrs Phohleli says she will always be grateful for the honour her former constituency gave her to represent them in parliament for two terms.
“I am passionate about the empowerment of communities, particularly of girls and women because of my own experience. I am outspoken when it comes to highlighting areas we need to improve as a country. But as women, we also need to demonstrate that we can deliver even more than men. We cannot have women in parliament just for the sake of it but we need to have women who can bring significant changes into people’s lives.
“I don’t believe that women don’t have the capacity to change the world. What I see is a reflection of our mistakes. We are the ones who raised men to see themselves as better than us. We need to change the way we teach our children for our daughters to grow up confident and our sons understanding that they are nothing without women. We complement each other for sustainable development.”
She says women also need to get their act together and refuse to be bulldozed by some men, particularly in parliament. They need to form a strong collaborative force to push for the enactment of laws to effectively tackle child marriages and gender-based violence.
“We need to do justice to issues that affect women and one area is to ensure that no woman is discriminated against when it comes to maternity leave. We do not expect, in this 21st century, to have women who are given two weeks maternity leave as is the case with some women working in the factories. As women, we can’t have an opportunity to be in parliament and then not use it to improve the lives of fellow women and our communities.”
She says her appointment as deputy minister of health came as a surprise as she had thought the ministry was a preserve of health professionals.
But almost a year later, she has realised there is a lot she can contribute.
As a manager with a business background, Mrs Phohleli is a woman who wants results and spends much time trying to identify threats and challenges and how best to tackle them.
Last week, together with the Minister of Health, Nkaku Kabi, they visited Mafeteng and Quthing district hospitals to follow-up on recommendations made to improve service-delivery at Mafeteng hospital and encourage the establishment of structures that would help improve management of the facilities.
“I want the ministry to prioritise the monitoring of all health centres for our findings to inform our programmes which should be responsive to the challenges that the patients and health workers face. There are worrying reports of the neglect of patients. Continued visits will help us to identify the gaps and best practices which can be replicated in other districts.”
She says ensuring universal access to health services remained critical, and while the government through support from the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) had managed to construct many health centres around the country, their locations were uneven.
“This has necessitated the need to establish health posts where health professionals such as doctors can visit and provide services from time to time. We want to ensure that universal access to health is a reality in Lesotho. No person should die because of the issue of distance.”
She also says Lesotho needs robust primary health services to manage the burden of scourges such as HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and non-communicable diseases.
Her ministry is working towards addressing the shortage of nurses which was partly caused by the lengthy recruitment process by the ministry of public service.
“We will soon have discussions with the public service to see if we can have our own recruitment commission to help us reduce the waiting period. The government has also invested in the training of more than 30 doctors, some of whom are currently on internship at various health centres in the country. Upon graduation, the condition of providing scholarships is that they will be required to return and work in Lesotho for a specific period,” she says.