If you have read the past several posts, then you know how close I have gotten to my host family and how much I adore my new family members. When I leave home for a few days for a Peace Corps workshop or to visit another PCV, we have our rounds of hugging and saying goodbyes (even though it’s only for a few days).
This last time we went through our same routine just before I left to visit Durban, South Africa. I typically stay in touch with them via text messages to let them know what I’m up to. At the end of my trip, I told my sister, Tume (TOO-mee), we were on our way back to Lesotho and she told me that I wouldn’t see her because she was with her husband. I thought nothing of it as she sometimes refers to her boyfriend as “hubby” and I figured she was just visiting him. I got home only to find out from the younger sister that she had packed a bag for herself and her 5-month-old baby, and her “hubby” had taken them to his grandparents place (about a 6-hour drive south of here), and that they would not be coming back. I just stared at her and could see the pain I felt mirrored in her eyes. Their mother lives in South Africa, they lost their father, and their grandmother, with whom they live, spends a lot of time working, so they heavily rely on one another while both raising the baby; a heavy load for a very young mother – essentially still a kid herself – and her younger sister.
“What do you mean Tume won’t be coming back,” I asked my younger sister.
“She said she was going shopping at 10am and at 2pm she came back in a rush. She started packing a bag and said she had to go. She took her bag and the baby and left. Later in the day we got a call from the boyfriend’s grandparents saying, ‘We have a new daughter and we accept her.’ That’s just the way marriage is done in Lesotho.”
She, my M’e (mother), and I sat down at the living room table and they explained to me how marriage works here in Lesotho. Historically, a man would show up to a village with his cows as a lebola (bride price), and the men in the village would go out and look for him a woman. After they have identified a mate, the two families will negotiate the lebola, a sheep would be slaughtered, and they are now Man and Woman. Becoming more common is the western-style of marriage that I’m more familiar with. But then, there is what is called chobeliso. This is the style of marriage where a girl is kidnapped and compromises to marry the guy. There are many cultural factors that I cannot even begin to understand that causes the girl to agree to marry the guy and will choose to never divorce him. This is technically illegal in Lesotho, but so is smoking marijuana, drinking and driving, and peeing in public, but it has become the norm to see these activities in public – often in combination. What happened in my family is a mix between the traditional way of marriage and chobeliso. It was accepted in my family that Tume had given birth before marriage and that she and the boy were still in a relationship. However, my M’e was taken aback when she received the phone-call from the boy’s grandparents telling her that Tume was now their daughter. Incomprehensible questions flowed back-to-back in utter confusion. Are you really going to allow this? Won’t you miss her? She’s not a part of our family anymore? She gets a new name and you can’t even call her Tume anymore?! WHAT?
I still can’t wrap my brain around this.
Just days before I left for Durban, it happened to another friend of mine; a very smart and hard-working girl. She is in Form C (10th grade), and has such a brilliant and resonant voice. She loves to sing more than anything, like many Basotho, but she is different in that she loves to sing opera. Just under a month ago, I visited her and she was watching an opera on television. She actually knew these songs, and I could envision her one day on stage with these people. We had a long talk about why she loves opera, a possible future for her in it, and the few formal lessons she’s had and enjoyed very much. Quite simply, she had a bright future ahead of her. Last week, she found out she is two months pregnant. Within a few days, the two families met and decided she would drop out of school and marry the boy. This enraged me and I couldn’t understand how the future of two very bright young girls had been condemned by pregnancy in such a small amount of time. This just made me think of a new initiative that Michelle Obama has specifically teamed up with Peace Corps with: Let Girls Learn.
My girlfriend, Hannah, studied issues directly related to issues like this and I’ve learned a lot about it, but nothing except personal experiences like these can make one truly understand the impacts poverty, sexual and gender-based violence, and especially culture can have in a heavily patriarchal society. In my small community in the world, in only a few days, there are now two young girls (17 and 20) who are/will soon be mothers, forced to live with their in-laws, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of an entire household. They will wake up early to start their daily chores and fall asleep just after they finish them. Neither of them will have the chance to further their education (unless by pure miracle they swim completely back upstream from their culture– highly unlikely!). I love learning about different cultures and in no way think my own culture is better or more correct than any other. However, I do believe that when the preservation of culture outweighs girls’ rights for education, exacerbates the spread of HIV, and does not nurture and develop its future generations, then certain aspects of said culture should be called out for its deleterious flaws.