Cleaning the ‘passage’ to adulthood

Cleaning the ‘passage’ to adulthood

MOHALE’S HOEK – STAY long enough in any village in Lesotho and you might hear a story or two of horrible accidents and other mishaps that have left many a boy or girl badly maimed or even dead during initiation, the secretive traditional rite of passage of boys and girls into adulthood.
But it is doubtful that whatever you might get told can illustrate in quite the same way as the story of ’Mamvulani Monatho.
Monatho’s ordeal tells the story of the horror of traditional surgery botch-ups, ancient superstitions, claims of witchcraft and sheer ignorance that have combined to turn this noble tradition into a dangerous gamble that has left many young people with damaged bodies and souls.
Quite an old matter that happened more than two decades ago, the story of how Monatho ended up being murdered because of events at an initiation school for boys – that as a woman she had nothing to do with – remains a compelling example of why the government and society in general need to do more to ensure that observance of a beloved tradition does not needlessly endanger the safety of young boys and girls or anybody else.

During the initiation season in 1994 when Motheo Matjene’s three boys died at an initiation school he was certain their tragic deaths were the work of a witch.
Rather than having a pathologist conduct a postmortem to establish the cause of death – which to this day has never been disclosed – Matjene, with the blessings of the local chief and police, opted to consult a local seer to tell him what caused the death of his boys and more important, who was behind it all.
The seer ’Ma-Elia Morale was reputed to have immense powers to see what is hidden and to foretell what is to come. Soon enough Morale had pinpointed the ‘witches’ behind the deaths of Matjene’s sons naming them as Monatho, two other women, the elderly ’Mantsane Monatho and ’Mantsolo Lepheane Mantsane, and one man, Popotana Mqolombeni.
As is always the case with this kind of thing, no evidence whatsoever was produce nor any cogent explanation given as to how the unfortunate Monatho and her fellow accused had carried out the evil deed. But that mattered little to Matjene and the large crowd of villagers he was with.

After sjamboking the four ‘witches’ Morale handed them over to Matjene and his crowd, and that’s when their ordeal began in earnest.
Monatho and her colleagues were whipped and beaten up with all sorts of weapons and objects. They were chased on horseback, being beaten as they ran barefoot on the rocky and rough ground. They had been forced to take off their shoes to make sure the running would hurt the more.
The torture continued overnight and on the next day, the four were driven to the initiation school so Monatho could identify the corpse of each boy.
Monatho had, probably in bid to mollify the anger of her assailants and escape more punishment, admitted to causing the deaths of the three boys. She had told the mob that she would be able to point out the corpses. But on being brought to the school she couldn’t tell which corpse was for which boy, enraging her attackers even more.

The beatings carried on until Monatho dropped dead to bring the total body count to four all because a group of three boys had wanted, and rightly so, to perform a rite their culture prescribes they should.
An utterly needless loss of life. But that isn’t the most infuriating thing about it all. What is more galling is the fact that even today, many young men and women continue to get seriously injured with some even dying at initiation schools – injuries and deaths that can and should be prevented.
Thanks to the thick cloak of secrecy shrouding nearly everything to do with initiation, there is no reliable information or statistics on the number of initiates that have fallen sick or died while in the mountains performing the rite.

However, the Ministry of Health has for years expressed concern about initiation schools’ failure to ensure their charges can access health services, which it says has seen boys dying of injuries mostly sustained during bungled circumcision procedures.
The ministry is concerned because it is very easy for a boy to die from bleeding from a simple wound just because initiation masters usually do not permit initiates to leave camp to seek treatment at clinics or hospitals. Neither do they allow doctors and nurses into their camps to take care of the wounded and sick.
But the Ministry of Health need not look further than the districts of Quthing and Mohale’s Hoek if they want to know how to build cooperation between the public health service and initiation schools.
Eager to preserve the tradition of initiation while at the same time protecting the health of initiates, community leaders from Mohale’s Hoek have established initiation committees that coordinate the boys’ access to health services without compromising the code of secrecy and other requirements critical to the integrity of the initiation ceremony.
The committee also work to prevent initiates dropping from school or engaging in early marriages among other negatives that have over the years become increasingly associated with practice of initiation.
The committee working with World Vision and Ntšekhe Hospital has put together a written code of conduct binding to all initiation schools in the district, a first in the country, according to committee chairperson Martin Semanama.

Initiation school masters, the police’s Child and Gender Protection Unit (CGPU), representatives from the ministries of education and health, principal traditional chiefs and officials from the courts all took part in the workshops held to discuss what to put in the code of conduct.
“We consulted initiation school masters …they gave helpful insight,” said he Semanama.
A key requirement under the code is that all initiates have their health checked at a hospital or clinic before joining an initiation school, said Semanama.
Speaking to thepost separately, officials at Ntšekhe Hospital confirmed that initiation masters were to bring initiates to the institution for check-ups before dispatching them to their schools.
They said cooperation between health institutions and initiation schools fostered by the initiation committee has seen initiates living with HIV able to receive their medication while away in the mountains.
Relatives are asked to fetch ARVs for HIV positive initiates or the initiation master himself can come collect the medication from the hospital.
The initiation committee was also praised for helping trace HIV positive initiates who otherwise would have had to abscond on their treatment while out in the mountains.

‘Mampe Makhabane, public health nurse for the Mohale’s Hoek district, said the initiation committee has also made it possible for initiates who fall seriously ill to be brought to hospital to receive treatment in a ward where only the master, a doctor and a nurse attending the initiate patient would have access.
“Only those attending to the initiate will know of his presence at the hospital,” Makhabane says.
Semanama said much more could be achieved through use of the code of conduct only if it could be upgraded from a voluntary charter that cannot be imposed on the unwilling to a legal document enforceable on all initiation schools.
He called on parliament to adopt the code and draft it into legislation that could be used to ensure best practice at initiation schools countrywide.
It might not be Semanama’s code that will be written into Lesotho’s statute books but all the same his call for a legal provision requiring initiation schools to ensure the health of those under their care might not be far off from becoming reality.

According to Fako Moshoeshoe, the Chairperson of the Parliament Social Cluster Committee, there is legislation being drafted that will seek to protect the health of boys and girls at initiation schools.
“Access to health services is a basic human right that needs to be adhered to and those at initiation school deserve health service just like everyone,” Moshoeshoe said.
“The initiation Bill that is being drawn up right now will address these issues fully,” he added.
Maybe had such a law been in existence it would have forced the initiation school to send Matjene’s boys to hospital and who knows, they might have lived and saved all concerned the tragedy that was their deaths and the brutal murder of Monatho.

Rose Moremoholo


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