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Child bride flees from arranged marriage

LEKHETHO NTSUKUNYANE

BEREA – When 17-year old Ntsoaki Lenka was tricked by her parents into marrying a 72-year old South African sangoma (traditional healer) in 2014, she was perplexed.

The girl who had barely completed her secondary education had other things on her mind, and getting married to a total stranger was definitely not on her to-do list, not to mention the fact that the “eligible bachelor” was old enough to be her grandfather.

In fact Qomaphi, as the traditional healer from Limpopo in South Africa was only known, was old enough to have fathered Ntsoaki’s father, Lebohang Lenka, who is in his early 50s.

In a month the Lenka family and other villagers cannot remember in 2014, Qomaphi was a guest invited to conduct ritual cleansing at relative’s home. The relative was Lebohang’s brother, who was also a traditional healer who resides at Ha-Malepa (Khokhoba) in the Mosalemane constituency.

The several rituals Qomaphi conducted with Lebohang’s brother that month included a memorable feast that drew attendance of almost everyone at Ha-Malepa and surrounding villages.

When the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism crew visited Ha-Malepa in July 2018, people remembered the feast like it happened yesterday.

Situated in the midst of mountains, notably Mosonong and Mosonoaneng (euphemistically known as Bitso-Lebe), Ha-Malepa is one of the most secluded settlements in the Berea district, and is more than an hour’s drive on a ragged dirt road from the peri-urban Mapoteng.

Shortly after the impressive Qomaphi feast, both Ntsoaki’s parents, Lebohang and ’Makeneuoe, approached the 17-year old teen to tell her that the now-renowned village sangoma needed a wife.

“I was with her mother when we approached her about the news. She was really puzzled when we first

told her that Qomaphi needed a wife and that I and her mother thought she would make a good wife for that man,” Lebohang opened up to our crew while harvesting his corn crop on crutches, with his amputated leg exposed during the visit.

Lebohang told the Centre how they had to convince Ntsoaki, who was resistant to the idea.

“She seemed to disapprove of our advice. She was not happy at all. But we insisted that she should at least meet Qomaphi and decide if she liked him. We asked her to go and meet with the man the next day. We said if she didn’t like him after their meeting she was free not to marry him,” Lebohang said.

The big question is: why would the sober parents want their underage daughter to marry a man so much older than even them?

This is what Lebohang said when our team asked this question: “We were made to believe the man could bring fortune to our family. We heard where he came from he had built himself a big house and that he owned a huge flock of livestock. We wanted our child to marry a successful, well-established and financially stable man.”

From conversations that the Centre had with other villagers, it turned out Qomaphi had an eye for young girls in the village, and not necessarily Ntsoaki in particular.

’Malijeng Mohola told the Centre several other village girls had turned down Qomaphi’s advances.

“Qomaphi must have proposed tens of girls here. They just didn’t give in to his advances. He seemed desperate to marry a rural girl. When finally, we heard he had successfully married Ntsoaki, it wasn’t that much of a surprise,” Mohola said, admitting that Ntsoaki was still too young.

Following her parents’ persuasion, Ntsoaki had met Qomaphi in the following days and the young girl later told the couple she had been impressed because the old man had told her about his riches back in Limpopo, South Africa.

“She (Ntsoaki) told us Qomaphi told her about all the riches that he had in Limpopo. He (Qomaphi) promised our daughter a good life and said he would be a good husband to her. We were happy for her,” Lebohang said.

But were Lebohang and ’Makeneuoe really happy for Ntsoaki or were they just excited at the prospect of imminent wealth?

As an initial price token, because definitely this was not Bohali (bride wealth), Qomaphi left a plastic bag-full of grocery for the Lenka family before ending his one-month sojourn in Ha-Malepa.

Items in the plastic bag included bathing and washing soaps, toothpaste and brushes plus other small toiletries and foodstuffs.

The sangoma had also offered M200 to Lebohang and ’Makeneuoe on top of the grocery before he left with Ntsoaki to the promised land.

“He said we should still expect the family fortune beyond the gifts and the M200 note he gave us before he left, but we waited in vain,” Lebohang said.

But only a few months later Ntsoaki was back home for good. She firmly told her parents life was better in Ha-Malepa than in Limpopo.

“Ntsoaki came home. There was no fortune. All the promises that Qomaphi had made to our daughter were a mirage. Ntsoaki told us the man lived in a shack in Limpopo. He was actually a charlatan traditional doctor,” Lebohang said.

At the time of the Centre’s visit to Ha-Malepa, Ntsoaki lived a new life; she was working in Rustenburg, South Africa. Efforts to contact her were unsuccessful.

When Ntsoaki’s case came to the attention of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service’s Child and Gender Protection Unit (CGPU) in 2014, the police sought to charge her parents but the most central witness in the matter could not testify.

“The police took up the matter and we wanted to charge Ntsoaki’s parents for forcing her into early child marriage, but we couldn’t go far with the case because Ntsoaki told us she had forgiven her parents. She could not testify against them. This killed the whole case,” the CGPU head at Police Headquarters, Senior Inspector Beleme Moerane, told the Centre in an interview.

S/Insp Moerane added they couldn’t go after Qomaphi either “because he was already back home in Limpopo in the foreign South Africa where we don’t have jurisdiction as Lesotho police to pursue a case.”

However, there was exchange of intelligence about the matter between the Lesotho police and their South African counterparts leading to the arrest and charging of Qomaphi by the Limpopo authorities, S/Insp Moerane said.

At the time of publishing this story, the Centre had established Qomaphi’s statutory rape related case before the Limpopo courts was yet to be finalised.

According to S/Insp Moerane, Ntsoaki’s case was just a tip of an iceberg. “There are numerous cases of early child marriage in which parents are complicit. Most of them are not even reported to police. In most cases parents play a pivotal role of forcing or encouraging the girl child to get married.”

One of the major factors that cause parents to “sell off” daughters was poverty, according to S/Insp Moerane.

Meanwhile, Lebohang told the Centre they were thankful Ntsoaki had found it in her heart to forgive them as her parents.

“… we didn’t know what we were doing. It only came to our attention through experts that what we did was not only wrong but unlawful and liable to punishment by the courts of law,” Lebohang said.

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