Author: Leila Hall

‘We are here’: Basotho march for LGBTI rights

There is a growing bustle of colour, sound and movement outside Maseru’s Setsoto Stadium this morning of May 16. A crowd is gathering, the majority of them dressed in brightly coloured clothing. Banners, flags and rainbow-striped umbrellas are being handed out. Shouts, whistles and laughter intermingle with the loud music blasting from the back of a truck.

Billy Molapo has dressed up for the occasion. He stands tall and proud in a long dress, stilettos, pink beret and large hoop earrings. His face breaks into a wide smile when I ask him how he feels about today.

“I’m happy,” he says simply. “I want to show everyone that I’m proud of who I am.”

In a little while, Molapo and the rest of the crowd will set off on a gay pride march through the streets of Maseru, held today to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). For the third year in a row, the event has been organised by Matrix Support Group, a local organisation working to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Lesotho.

(Pic: Meri Hyöky)
Hundreds of people took to the streets in supports of LGBTI rights. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

Since its establishment in 2008, Matrix has spearheaded the country’s emerging LGBTI rights movement. Lesotho’s laws regarding homosexuality are somewhat ambiguous. Female same-sex sexual activity has never been criminalised, but male same-sex sodomy is prohibited as a common-law offence. The anti-sodomy law, however, has never been enforced in an instance of consensual sexual activity. As is the case with many former British colonies and protectorates, the law has simply remained unchanged for decades. Lesotho’s Constitution makes no mention of offering protection to individuals against discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Moleboheng Mokotjo has been a member of Matrix for the past six years. This is her third pride march. She looks relaxed and comfortable, and shrugs off my question about whether she thinks there will be any trouble today.

“I think 2 out of 10 people will say something negative. For me, this march is a way of saying: ‘We are here. We are your brothers and sisters. Acknowledge us. Talk to us and try to understand what we are going through.’”

“My family knows that I’m a lesbian, but it’s something that we’ve never openly discussed. A lot of LGBTI people in Lesotho struggle to gain acceptance from their families. I have a friend who came out and has since been completely cut off from her family.”

“A lot of society still doesn’t accept us. You have to choose where you go, keep to your bubble, and know who to associate with. I know my space, I know where I will be accepted for who I am, and I don’t go into other spaces.”

Leshoboro Mokhameleli, an openly gay man and a volunteer with Matrix, says that there are occasionally incidents of violence towards LGBTI individuals.

“I know two friends who have been beaten up just for being gay, but this is something that rarely happens. Violence against gay people here is not as common as it is in South Africa. Name-calling happens all the time. People often shout out: ‘What are you? A man or a woman?’ I’m so used to it that I just brush it off and walk away.”

At least two hundred of us have gathered at this stage. The procession begins, led by a police van and the music-blaring truck. The people at the front break into a jog, lifting their rainbow-striped umbrellas and banners in time to the music. A giant, billowing rainbow flag is carried by about twenty people. The march goes through the very heart of the city. We walk past street vendors, pedestrians, taxis, hair saloons, butcheries, shisa nyamas and bars. It is impossible to ignore us. We are met by a whole range of facial expressions and reactions. Some onlookers simply stand and watch. Some look disapproving, some look indifferent. Many smile, laugh and begin to dance on the spot, responding in a natural, carefree way to the music.

(Pic: Meri  Hyöky)
People sang and danced during the procession. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

We walk past the taxi rank, and when we get to our first set of traffic lights the whole group stops in the middle of the road and dances on the spot. People raise their knees high, and the giant rainbow flag is furiously waved up and down. The truck is now playing a well-known gospel song. Many of the marchers sing along, lifting their hands and ululating as they walk.

We arrive on Kingsway, the city’s main street, crowded with taxis, cars and people. Traffic is again brought to a standstill as we flood the road. At this point, Angel Thoko, a Matrix Program Manager, is standing at the top of the truck, shouting into the microphone. There is a sharp change in the tone of the march as her voice screams through the speakers: ‘Amandla!’ ‘Rights!’ ‘Down, homophobia, down!’ The aim of the procession is firmly declared, loudly and boldly for all to hear.

Later, I ask Thoko how she felt in that moment, standing on the truck and confidently shouting out in the middle of the city.

“I felt wonderful,” she laughs. “I felt freedom within myself, I felt as if I owned the space.”

“This march helps LGBTI people in Lesotho to get together, to unite. But not everyone is able to join us. There are still many people who don’t want to be seen, who worry about what their parents or their friends will say. We want this march to get bigger every year. There will never be a time when we say: we have done enough.”

Health care, government support

Sheriff Mothopeng, also a Matrix Program Manager, explains that a major focus of the organisation is campaigning for equal access to health services.

“Lesotho has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in Africa, and men who have sex with men (MSM) are especially at risk. We have projects where we sensitise health care workers at private and public health institutions, so that LGBTI people can easily access health services, without questions or discrimination.”

“In the future, we want to encourage parents and older people to come out and support this march. At the moment, it is mostly young people who are marching, so I’m afraid that some onlookers think to themselves that we are just ‘crazy children’, not to be taken seriously.”

Tampose Mothopeng, director of Matrix, laughs as he tells me about the slight hitch that the organisation experienced with the police on the eve of the march.

“I received a call from the police, asking me if this march was promoting homosexuality. If that had been the case, they would not have offered us any protection. I explained that this is an international commemoration against homophobia and transphobia, and luckily, in the end, they agreed to help, as they have done in the past two years.”

“We need more support from our government. We need leaders who recognise the diverse needs of their followers. We need government bodies to say to us: ‘We understand that you need health services, we understand that your rights must be protected. We are standing up with you to provide that.’”

“Matrix is working country-wide, in communities and in villages. We want to change the laws of this country, but first we need to make sure that people understand what we are talking about, so that when we come up, we come up with our parents and our supporters. We want the people, the gatekeepers, the leaders, to push this movement up.”

Leila Hall is a freelance writer living and working in Lesotho. 

Lunch hour at a Lesotho textile factory: A snapshot

People shop at a market in Maseru on August 31 2014. (Pic: AFP)
People shop at a market in Maseru on August 31 2014. (Pic: AFP)

I am standing outside the gates of a textile factory in the Industrial Area of Maseru West. The midday sun is blaring, and the air is heavy with waiting. In ten or so minutes, at precisely 11.45am, the factory workers inside the gates will get their one-hour lunch break. Outside the gates, preparations are underway. On the concrete ground, in between puddles of dirty water, several street vendors are setting up. A woman has laid out a blanket and is arranging piles of peaches onto it. A man is heaping stacks of processed meat onto a small cooker. Somebody has botched an attempt to light a fire inside a cardboard box. The flames consume the cardboard, sending thick smoke rising into the air. Next to a wall lined with barbed wire, groups of women are seated on the only patch of grass in sight. Some have brought umbrellas to shield themselves from the harsh sun. They too are waiting, hoping to find work inside the gates.

Lesotho’s apparel and textile industry is one of the largest in Africa. This particular factory employs approximately 4 000 people, the majority of whom are women. In a country with an overall unemployment rate of 26%, the industry employs close to 40 000 people in 40 factories, providing more than 80% of Lesotho’s manufacturing employment. The majority of the garments produced in the country are for major US brands such as Gap Inc., Levi Strauss and Wal-Mart.

Since 2008, Lesotho’s government and apparel manufacturers have worked hard to market Lesotho as a ‘responsible sourcing destination’ for ‘ethical consumers’. In a nutshell, this means that textile factories in the country have to adhere to Lesotho’s labour legislation, which enshrines the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) core conventions. These include no child or forced labour, payment of minimum wages, regulated maximum working hours and ensuring that basic requirements for health and safety are met. The major brands that source their products from Lesotho also monitor factories to ensure that working conditions meet their codes of conduct.

I am standing with ‘Mareitumetse Mokhoro, who works for the Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers’ Union (Lecawu), a trade union that advocates for better wages and working conditions for factory workers in Lesotho. In cases of mistreatment, Lecawu offers legal assistance by representing workers in court. Mokhoro is also waiting. Lunchtime is the only time she can meet with workers.

‘Oppressed and underpaid’
“Factory workers in Lesotho are oppressed and underpaid,” Mokhoro tells me. “They receive the minimum wage, but this isn’t enough. They are often insulted or treated badly. Most of the cases that we deal with are unfair dismissals or underpayments.”

The workers in this factory receive a monthly salary of R1 212, for nine hours of work a day, five days a week. This amounts to less than R7 an hour. I find it hard to imagine how anyone survives on such a salary, especially people who have a family to support.

'Mareitumetse Mokhoro addresses workers outside a textile factory in Maseru. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)
‘Mareitumetse Mokhoro addresses workers outside a textile factory in Maseru. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

“Half a loaf is better than no loaf,” says Mokhoro wryly. “You know, women in Lesotho are very strong. Most factory workers do not have husbands, and they earn very little money. But still, they are able to build houses and send their children to school. Even if they are poor, they don’t give up.”

Before becoming a full-time employee of Lecawu, Mokhoro spent eight years working in a textile factory.

“As a factory worker, I was treated badly by my employers because I spoke out about the problems that workers face,” she explains. “So I decided to fight outside of the company, so that management has no control over me. Now I have a voice. I can openly say: workers are mistreated.”

“Some employers are willing to work with Lecawu, but others are hostile, and they don’t allow us to come into the factories and solve problems. We always refer cases to the courts, but these cases take a long time to be resolved. That discourages the workers.”

At 11.45, a bell rings from inside the factory and the gates open. The workers stream out, walking fast. The quiet, waiting atmosphere has instantaneously transformed into a hurrying, crowded bustle of noise and activity. Mokhoro is standing a few metres from the gates, shouting out to the workers, appealing to them to listen to what she has to say. For a good 20 minutes she receives very little response. The vendors who have been setting up are inundated. I watch as the workers walk back towards the gates, some of them clutching plastic bags of greasy chips, fat cakes and cheap, processed meat sausages. Some have brought lunch boxes with them and are hungrily tucking in. Gradually, 50 or so workers gather in a circle around Mokhoro.

I look at the weary expressions on their faces as they listen to her. Mokhoro punches her fist into the air regularly and shouts out several call-and-response slogans that are answered by a few of the onlookers. Many of them simply stand still and silent.

“What kinds of troubles do you face as workers?” she asks the group.

“We don’t earn enough money.”

“We’re hungry.”

“We have to rent small rooms.”

“We have to walk. We don’t have the money for transport.”

“Sometimes we are mistreated if we don’t understand instructions.”

“I eat only papa and cabbage!” says one woman standing close to me, pushing her plastic lunch box forward to display its contents.

For 30 minutes, Mokhoro speaks to the workers, listening to their complaints and concerns, and encouraging them to convince others to join Lecawu. With 3 800 members in 21 factories, the union has a strong presence, but in many factories it does not yet have enough members to legally bargain and negotiate with employers.

At 12.45, the bell sounds again, and the gates to the factory begin to close. The factory workers move swiftly, rushing inside, clearly frightened of the possible repercussions of being late. The ground is now littered with small plastic bags. A few of the vendors are packing up to leave. The women seated on the grass remain where they are, waiting.

Leila Hall is a freelance writer living and working in Lesotho.

‘Mathabiso Mosala: 50 years of activism in Lesotho

'Mathabile Mosala. (Pic: Meri Hyöky.)
‘Mathabiso Mosala has championed Basotho women’s rights since 1963. (Pic: Meri Hyöky.)

Eighty-three-year-old ‘Mathabiso Mosala lives in a bustling, chaotic part of Maseru. Her house is located on one of the city’s main roads, crowded with shops, pedestrians and heavy traffic. Street vendors line the pavement outside her gate, their shouts mingling with the incessant hooting of taxis driving past.

Mosala, or nkhono, as many fondly call her, is quiet and dignified in her appearance. The interior of her home is cool, silent and immaculately tidy, in sharp contrast to the noisy street outside. Polished ornaments sit still on shelves, and the smiling faces of her grandchildren and great grandchildren peek out of picture frames in the living room.

Despite her age, Mosala speaks with clarity and strength, and holds her listener in a steady gaze. She has many stories to tell. For the past five decades, she has been at the forefront of the Lesotho National Council of Women (LNCW), a coalition of women’s organisations that has worked tirelessly over the years to advocate for the rights of women in Lesotho, and to provide them with meaningful skills, opportunities and training.

The story of the LNCW begins in 1963, three years before Lesotho gained its independence, when Mosala and three other Basotho women boarded a flight to Israel. As the presidents of four separate women’s associations, they had been sent by King Moshoeshoe II on a study tour to observe some of the work being done by Israeli women’s organisations.

After six weeks, they returned to Lesotho feeling energised and inspired. Amongst the many things they had seen, they had been particularly impressed by the existence of an umbrella body that co-ordinated the efforts of a number of different organisations. The four associations joined forces, and the LNCW was born.

The women set to work, and steadily the LNCW grew. They began by establishing nursery schools, and then shifted their focus to opening vocational training centres. Four of these are still in operation, providing young people from poor backgrounds with training in a range of skills, including sewing, carpentry and business management.

Women’s money, women’s rights
“We’ve successfully trained more than 5 000 people,” says Mosala proudly, her face breaking into a wide smile. “We’ve made it possible for women to make money for themselves, thanks to the skills that we have given them. Our centres are not expensive, and we’re not concerned with academic qualifications. If people have hands, they can be taught to use them.”

For the past fifty years, the LNCW has also played a key role in pressuring the government of Lesotho to pass a number of laws that protect women’s rights. Among these is the Legal Capacity of Married Person’s Act, passed in 2006, which gave Basotho women the right to own and manage property. Another milestone was Lesotho’s 1995 ratification, albeit with reservations, of the Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw).

Mosala speaks about these achievements with a hint of pride, but mostly with a firm and realistic view of how much still needs to be done.

“In the past, a woman used to be her husband’s wife, her father’s daughter, and even her son’s daughter, because by law the eldest son was the head of the family,” she says. “Now, a woman can go to the bank or buy a site without being accompanied by a man. Many things have changed for the better, but we still won’t be satisfied until Cedaw is ratified without reservations.”

“Women who live in rural areas need to be educated. Rural women still bring their husbands with them when they want to open a bank account, because they don’t realise they have the right to do it on their own. Another issue is that many legal documents are written in English, and especially in jargon. Just this morning I was reading the constitution; there are laws in it that even I don’t understand.”

Over the years, the LNCW has expanded, and it now serves as an umbrella body for 13 member organisations who work with diverse sectors of society on a range of issues, including HIV awareness, women’s rights and caring for orphans and the elderly.

Mosala’s experiences and achievements are just as varied. Her work with the LNCW has seen her deal with a long list of foreign donors, and she has travelled widely, representing the LNCW at seminars and conferences around the world. In 1993, she was nominated by King Letsie III to serve as a member of Lesotho’s Senate, a position she held for five years. She has also received many awards in recognition of her work, including the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Lesotho African Women’s Awards ceremony in 2012.

“I am proud because I have helped many people put bread on the table,” Mosala says with a quiet humility. “I know that I have done something to make a difference in the lives of others, and I think that is something that people should aim for.”

Modern-day Lesotho
However, despite her hard work and long list of achievements, Mosala’s voice often sounds tired, and her forehead creases into a frown at many points in our conversation. Her commentary on modern-day Lesotho is harsh, and paints a bleak, unforgiving picture of many aspects of the country.

“I have lived in this house since 1976,” she says. “Back then, this street was nice and clean. I used to be able to plant flowers outside my yard. It’s terrible now. I want to move. I am too old to live in such a dirty place. Our environment has degraded horribly. There are plastic bags everywhere, and there is no recycling of waste.”

Mosala outside her home in Maseru. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)
Mosala outside her home in Maseru. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

“We are a country with many resources, and yet the majority of Basotho don’t benefit from these. We produce wool and mohair, but there is no processing plant in Lesotho. Our blankets are made across the river and sold back to us. The same thing happens with our water. I don’t have a vegetable garden because I can’t afford to pay for water, and yet we sell water to South Africa. We don’t even know how much we’re getting for the sale of that water, and what it is doing, for who?”

Mosala’s commentary comes at a pertinent time: Lesotho is about to hold its national elections, brought forward by two years after a politically turbulent 2014 saw an attempted coup and the dissolution of parliament. Her advice to voters is sharp and straight to the point.

“This country is in dire poverty, so why vote for somebody who is not going to take you out of poverty? Our politicians spend years in office and they do nothing. People complain that they have no food and no water, and yet they elect the same politicians back to power. Are we stupid? Are we brainwashed? Basotho need to be aware of their rights. They should elect people who will ensure their long-term empowerment, and they should hold those people accountable.”

“If the government is doing nothing, it doesn’t mean that you should sit around, complain and not take action. It took 30 years for our vocational schools to be officially accredited by the Ministry of Education, but we never tired in our efforts, and we continued with our work. Some things have changed for the better in this country, but many things haven’t. The next generation of young Basotho activists have a lot to do for the next 50 years.”

Leila Hall is a freelance writer living and working in Lesotho.

Ba re e ne re: Reigniting Lesotho’s literary culture

A storytelling performance at the 2014 Ba re e ne re Literature Festival. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

Lesotho is an interesting place to be in at the moment. At the end of August, we made headlines worldwide, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. The news had nothing to do with the country’s many unique and positive qualities. There was no mention of natural beauty, of Basotho culture, or of the many exciting initiatives that a host of organisations and individuals in the country are working hard on.

Instead, it focused on the country’s current political mess. An apparent attempted military ‘coup’ took place, and the Prime Minister fled to South Africa. Tom Thabane is back in the country now, but political tensions remain high, with no clear resolutions in sight. Everyday life continues, but people are tense, confused, and many fear a repeat of the political violence that the country experienced in 1998.

In the midst of this uncertainty and political instability, the weekend of 5 – 7 September saw the return of Ba re e ne re Literature Festival, the only event of its kind in Lesotho, founded in 2011 by the late Liepollo Rantekoa, a young Mosotho literary enthusiast who passed away in a tragic car accident in 2012.

Inspired by Rantekoa’s vision of a movement that would reignite a culture of reading and writing in Lesotho, and especially an appreciation of Sesotho language and literature, a group of her friends and family have come together and are continuing with the work she began.

This year, a number of writers from outside Lesotho were invited to take part in the festival. These included South African novelist Niq Mhlongo, Nigerian/Barbadian writer Yewande Omotoso, and Namibian poet Keamogetsi Molapong. Cape Town-based Chimurenga Magazine jumped on board as the event’s official partner. International authors were joined by a number of writers from Lesotho, including Mpho Makara, Teboho Rantsoabe and Patrick Bereng.

The festival’s opening ceremony took place at the same time that a political march was held through the centre of Maseru. Night-time events were cancelled in the face of potential security threats. But despite these challenges, people of all ages came out to enjoy the day-time events, which featured a vibrant combination of live music, poetry readings, storytelling performances and discussions with authors.

Nobody ignored the political situation in the country. On the contrary, the challenges that Lesotho currently faces became a crucial talking point, as guests and participants spoke of the role that artists, writers and literature can play in times such as these. The final event of the second day of the festival saw people of all ages sitting in a tight circle around a small computer screen, laughing together at jokes told by renowned South African author Zakes Mda (addressed by the audience as ‘Ntate Zakes’) who, although unable to be present in person, joined the festival via Skype.

Mda spoke with strength and encouragement to the professional and aspirant writers in the room: “You writers will always play a critical role in the country. Artists can be catalysts for change.”

Audience members enthusiastically join in with the chorus of a live music performance at the festival. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)
Audience members enthusiastically join in with the chorus of a live music performance at the festival. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

Later, Mhlongo commented: “The festival happened at the right time to bring people together, to give them the chance to express themselves, to express their frustrations, and to interact with others. Writers can go beyond the boundaries of political and cultural divisions. Writers can liberate, especially in times of turmoil like this.”

Teboho Moekoa, a local artist, performed a poem that spoke blatantly and scathingly about Lesotho’s current politics: “My people seem mentally possessed / by the same system that keeps them suppressed / And every time they protest / It’s the voter that the voted cannot respect…”

“We are black youth trying to find our position in the system, trying to find definitions that have already been defined for us,” said Moekoa. “It’s very important that something like this is happening in Lesotho. We don’t have a platform here, and this festival provides that platform.”

Intelligent and outspoken writing, however, can only be truly powerful if it is widely read. In a country with one of Africa’s highest literacy rates (over 90% amongst women, according to Unesco), the serious lack of a reading culture in Lesotho was a prominent topic of discussion. Festival director Lineo Segoete addressed the issue directly: “People in Lesotho have developed an attitude that reading is only important for school, without realising that successful people are avid readers. We want people to learn the importance of reading for pleasure, of reading to self-educate. We are challenging everyone to get back to reading.”

Questions surrounding identity, language and culture permeated the weekend. Mosotho author Mpho Makara spoke of her decision to only write in Sesotho, but nonetheless encouraged young writers to abandon false notions of ‘pure’ Sesotho: “Language cannot afford to stand still. English borrows words from other languages. In the same way, we can steal from English and make Sesotho grow. Write in the Sesotho you know, in the Sesotho you speak every day.”

Mhlongo offered a different take on the language debate. Mhlongo chooses to write his novels in English, and argued that writers should be allowed to write in whatever language they feel comfortable in: “Storytelling doesn’t have a language. It’s like music. The message is the most important thing. Whatever the language, the important thing is to preserve culture. I believe that you can write about your culture in English.”

The focus of day three of the festival shifted to more practical issues, with the authors discussing writing techniques, and sharing tips and advice with the audience.

“The hunger here is evident,” remarked Mhlongo when I chatted with him later. “There’s an obvious interest in writing. School kids filled the hall. A filled hall is a rare thing in literary events!”

Addressing the audience directly, he urged the young writers in the room: “You in Lesotho need to write about your challenges. I hope that after this we are going to see novels and short stories coming from Lesotho.”

Ba re e ne re boomed with engagement, enthusiasm and positivity. The energy was palpable. Soon, we hope, the eyes of the world will turn to Lesotho for the right reasons.

Leila Hall is a freelance writer living and working in Lesotho.