I often find myself having conflicting feelings about my culture – being a Mosotho woman. One thought says I should respect my culture. The other more conflicting thought wonders why it is that certain things are done to marginalise women. Writing this piece, especially as a woman, I can predict that some will take offence at the suggestion that there may be flaws in African cultures, Basotho culture in this particular instance.
I started examining cultural practices by looking at how women are treated when their husbands die. As soon as the husband is declared dead, she is expected to sit on a mattress until the day of the funeral. Other women of the family will also join her and sit and sleep by her side. I have yet to see a man on mattresses for a week after the passing of his wife. Maybe I have never questioned this so I have not received an explanation.
After about a week, the husband is buried, usually on a Saturday. On the Sunday, the wife is dressed in black clothing from head to toe. She is sometimes expected to wear this mourning attire for up to a year. A man usually wears a small black cloth which is clipped to his everyday clothing using a safety pin – in some cases, he will wear a longer piece of cloth shaped like a necklace. The man usually wears this clothing for the month with the rest of the family. While a woman is in mourning, she is shunned in the community; no men are allowed to talk to her, yet a man can marry within the month that his prescribed mourning period is complete.
Losing a husband for many women in my culture is like losing your identity and your access to assets. Sometimes, the in-laws will kick her and her children out of her home along with items which she shared with her late husband, unless she is prepared to marry the older or younger brother of her late husband.
Last year, a DA female councillor from Limpopo was ordered out of the council chambers by the speaker because she wore trousers to a council meeting.
Although this made headlines, it is still the challenge that many women face in rural areas. Women are expected to wear long dresses even to appear in court or before the chief. Short sleeves with no “doek” are an absolute no-no. In fact, women are expected even to wear a shawl or scarf on top of the long-sleeved dress to cover their shoulders. Without meeting this dress code, she is considered to be disrespecting the chief or the court.
Let us reflect on the high incidence of teenage pregnancy or pregnancy of young women out of wedlock. The woman or girl child is shunned and considered to have brought great embarrassment to her family. Usually importance is placed on getting the boy or man to admit that he is the father and a marriage is hastily arranged. The alternate is to also ensure that the boy or the man “pays damages”. If the boy or man does not accept responsibility, the girl or woman is considered to be “spoilt goods”. He – as in the boy or the man – can just move on to the next woman.
On the other hand, when a married woman is unable to have children there is a horrible term for her – “nyopa”. I have yet to hear of a similar term for men. Instead, when the man is infertile, generally the woman is encouraged to produce children with her father-in-law or her brother-in-law in order to hide her husband from the perceived shame of infertility.
I grew up knowing these different treatments of women existed – but never understanding why. As a child, my father slaughtered a sheep for Christmas celebrations. As he slaughtered, he taught us biology – he would tell me and my brothers what every part of the sheep was by name: even the horrible bile which sours meat if it spills. A parallel lesson to this biology was that he would also teach us who eats which part of the animal – kidneys were a delicacy which was left for the men (not women) who slaughtered the beast. The liver was fried and eaten by the men. Girls and women don’t eat the head either. And so on and so forth. My father would diligently teach me my culture.
Outside of Christmas, there were other foods which were forbidden, especially for girls: eggs and nuts, for example. In my father’s house, I was allowed to have these, but in the rural areas visiting my grandparents, I had to remember my place as a Mosotho girl. As I became an adult, though, I got to understand that the belief was that these particular food groups fast-track us as sexual beings faster than if we abstained from them.
Villages are run by chiefs – usually a queen will hold fort until her boy son comes of age and is old enough to take over.
My father raised me to “own my car and not be the girl in the passenger seat of her boyfriend’s car”. Looking back I realise my father wanted me to stand on my own two feet and not be dependent. For this, I’m grateful to have him as my father and wish more girls had men like him for a father. Looking at my culture, especially in rural areas, the first boy child is the one that inherits the family assets – girls are supposed to grow up and get married off to another family where they become like an asset to that family. A daughter did not need to go school and get an education – this legacy is visible throughout our beautiful continent, and beyond, where many girl children are still being denied access to an education.
In 2003, I did get married and was advised like any other Mosotho girl. My elders taught me that going to the home of my in-laws, I should “always show respect” – never wear short dresses whose length was above my knee, never wear short-sleeved dresses, always wear a “doek”. Make sure that by 05:00 when my father-in-law wakes up I have collected water from the spring and filled all the buckets, boiled his bathing water, and have a teapot boiling. While the water boiled, I would sweep the yard – as was expected of me as a “makoti”. Once he, my husband, had bathed, he would stand by the kraal inspecting his cattle, and I would take him his tea with freshly baked bread.
One day as I took my father-in-law his tea he said to me, “My daughter, make sure my grandson (my son) gets an education like your father gave you and by the way its damn hot in this house, I give you permission to wear sleeveless dresses.” He was a wise man and I loved him dearly.
Looking at my upbringing, I was raised by a modern father who understood the very traditional side of the Sesotho culture. I love being a Mosotho, yet sometimes I wonder how one balances culture with the modern world without losing my identity. I also wish that as I grew up, I would have had more explanations with regards to why women or I was expected to do things in a certain way – was there some underlying consequences or was it just that it was culture and we needed to carry on the tradition? And so therein lies my dilemma.
These are conversations we need to have, without being told that “this is how it has always been done”. DM