Oct. 11, 2021


14 min read

Sehlabo shows young Sesotho writers the cue

Sehlabo shows young Sesotho writers the cue

Top Sesotho writer, ’Mamothibeli Mpeako Sehlabo

Story highlights

  • On September, 24, SA awarded Sehlabo an accolade for her writing proficiency
  • The 72-year-old author has published several interesting Sesotho books

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AMERICAN fiction writer, Madeleine L’Engle Camp once said: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then write it for children”.

These are the same sentiments that long-standing Sesotho cultural activist-cum-wordsmith,’Mamothibeli Mpeako Sehlabo of Bloemfontein in the Free State Province has about her own writing.

On September, 24, this phenomenal woman was awarded an accolade ‘‘for her excellence in writing and preservation of Sesotho language and culture.’’  

The august occasion was the Sesotho Literature Museum’s Dialogue 10 that was organised by the Sesotho Literary Museum (SLM) under the auspice of the Free State Provincial Department of Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation at museum’s court yard.

‘‘In line with our theme ‘Women in the Development and Excellence of Sesotho Language and Literature’ we deemed it fit to honour some of these women. We chose Mme ’Mamothibeli Sehlabo for her outstanding work in preservation of Sesotho language and well known radio presenter and script translator Mami Majola,’’ the Curator of Sesotho Literary Museum, Tseliso Masolane said.  

Sehlabo was born on March 2, 1949 on a South African farm called, Driefontein. She, however, grew up in Tabola, a rural village in Peka in the district of Leribe in the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.

The highly-esteemed author is a permanent South African citizen stationed in Bloemfontein. She is the daughter of the late Ntate Marobela Francis Masasa and Mme Makhonzaka Angelina Masasa of Kolonyama, Leribe.

She was briefly brought up by her paternal grandparents as is the Basotho tradition. A sudden twist of events changed her life as her paternal grandmother passed away when she was only two years old. As a result, her grandfather decided to take her to her maternal grandparents.

Her maternal grandparents, Phera Gilbert Mokebe and ’Mamokebe Blandina Mokebe were from Tabola.

Although they were semi-illiterate, they however, strongly believed in the power of formal education, hence they sent their granddaughter to school.

When she completed Form C (Junior Certificate) at the age of 17, she was offered a job as a Hansard typist for the now defunct newspaper called Nketu Publications, which belonged to the then Canadian missionary-supported political organisation, the Basotholand National Party (BNP) now called Basotho National Party.

According to Sehlabo, working for the newspaper offered her a good platform to ignite her reading and writing passion as well as skill.

This was so because she dealt with the verbatim typing of newspaper articles on a daily basis.

But her love was for creative writing and not journalism.

In February 1968, she joined the Ministry of Telecommunications where she worked as the Copy Typist to the Director until September of the same year.

She had previously studied typing at school, both in primary and high school.

In 1970, the Lesotho Government phased out white personal secretaries as it wanted to empower skilled Basotho secretaries.

The then Director’s personal secretary at the Aliens Control Head Office returned to her native country and Sehlabo became the first Mosotho stenographer.

Asked about how she met her late husband, Colonel Sehlabo Martin Sehlabo of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), she explained, that she first laid her eyes on the “Adonis” at a ballroom dance class in 1969.

“We were both passionate about dancing and were adept dancers who were always keen to learn new moves,” she recalled with a smile.

“Our dance school invited two highly revered dancers to come and teach us some new variations. One of them was Martin (Sehlabo) better known as Thanda, then a Sergeant in the Police Mobile Unit (PMU) as the police military wing was called in those days and the other gentleman was a Mr Mokhantšo from the Lesotho Prisons Department.

“At one point, I saw them whisper something to each other and thereafter, they took turns dancing with me alone and not the other ladies.

“They both oozed confidence, especially the young handsome army Sergeant with stately but with swift steps. But ‘Ntja e ne e ntuma (he was head over heels) It was love at first sight for him,” she said.  

The two got married the following year in March and their marriage was solemnised in Maseru by Reverend Father Gravel OMI at Our Lady of Victories Cathedral with the wedding ceremony held in Tabola.

But some 16 years later, their holy union was cut short in March 1986 when her husband died a mysterious death in what she describes as a ‘terrible blow’ to her family.

“He died in detention,” she recalls, with great sadness written all over her face.

She still madly in love with her late Thanda and still habours fond memories of their happy marriage which she says was one of the best things that ever happened to her.

“My late husband was indeed a gallant soldier and a loyal subject to His Majesty’s nation. Nothing to me can surpass being a wife to such a person,” she says, her face beaming with evident delight.

Owing to her proficiency as a secretary, Sehlabo was later transferred to the Police Headquarters in the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) although she continued working as Mr Garner’s secretary too. More often, she typed important document for the then Commissioner of Lesotho Police, Mr Frederick Roach, who was also the Commander of the Police Mobile Unit (PMU).

In July 1975, she resigned from public service and two days later, she was offered another job at the Thaba Bosiu project.

At the time, she was heavily pregnant with her first son. A fortnight later, on August 13, 1975, she gave birth to a baby boy named Mothibeli.

She has two daughters older than Mothibeli, ’Manthateng, affectionately known as “Nthatuoa” was born on July 27, 1971, and Sethalala “Fabia” was born on October 29, 1973. Her other children are Remaketse and Thabo.

Sehlabo indeed became a household name as a professional secretary, and she later landed a job as a Typist at the National Assembly of Lesotho. Her mind was (and still is) razor sharp.

When she joined the National Assembly in September 1967, she was tasked among others with the duty of typing the daily Hansard, an official report of parliamentary debates. 

Her dexterity in typing became legendary and was discussed in the high echelons of the Lesotho Government. Eventually, she was head-hunted by the then Prime Minister, the late Dr Leabua Jonathan, who had been in power since 1965.

She started working for Dr Jonathan as his Senior Personal Secretary from September 17, 1975 until the military coup d’e’tat led by the late Major-General Justin Metsing Lekhanya that toppled him on January 20, 1986. Coup did not only end Dr Jonathan’s 20-year rule, but it also put Sehlabo’s family in great danger.

Soldiers placed Dr Jonathan under house-arrest in August 1986 and it affected him badly. He eventually passed on from heart attack at the age of 72 the following year.

“It was evident that the military wanted to eliminate both my husband and I. They tried on August 15, 1986 but were unsuccessful. They made several other attempts but the Almighty God was on my side,” she says with a sneer.

Sehlabo had already relocated to QwaQwa, South Africa when Jonathan died. QwaQwa was at the time a Bantustan led by the late Chief Minister, Dr T.K. Mopeli.

Despite the catastrophe that befell her family upon the collapse of Dr Jonathan’s government, she still harbours good memories of the time when she toured the world with the late premier.

She was part of the late First Lady ’Me ’Mantahli’s entourage that visited London for two weeks, and she attended the Prime Minister’s daughter, Thikhoi graduation when she received her PhD. Degree.

She also toured Scotland for a few days with the Jonathan’s family and visited Basotho who were living there. On their way home, they touched down in Hamburg, Germany.

Another official entourage she was part of was when Her Majesty the late Queen ’Mamohato visited to Swaziland for His Majesty the late King Sobhuza II, KBE (also known as Nkhotfotjeni Mona)’s 80th birthday.

The Swazi king died at the Embo State House on August 21, 1982, aged 83.

“It was during the celebration that we discovered that the Swazi royals were not expected to converse with commoners,” she also remembers.

Another unforgettable trip was when she accompanied ’Me ’Mantahli on an official visit to the Republic of Mozambique to meet His Excellency, the late President Samora Machel.

They spent a couple of weeks in that country and among other places visited the Portuguese Island for a few days.

When she arrived in QwaQwa, she got a job as a Bookkeeper at the Sedibeng filling station. While working for the late Dr Jonathan, she had enrolled for a Diploma in Public Administration at the Lesotho Institute of Public Administration and Management (LIPAM) and graduated in November 1985.

Within a short space of time, she got another job as a Nutritionist at the Thekolohelong Welfare Centre. An experienced typist working as a nutritionist - it was clear that she would not last long as she was doing something that she was not used to.

On September 17 that year, she left for the Leratong Children’s Home where she worked as a House-Parent.

In 1990, she moved to the Qwaqwa Nursing College and worked as a Typist until 1995.

On her own, she studied for the South African Senior Certificate (Std. 10) which she passed at the same time with her eldest daughter, ’Manthateng. She obtained three credits: Shorthand A; English Language B and Sesotho Language C.

In Lesotho around 1978, she attended the PMU Private School headed by Principal, Ms Molefe of the Prisons Department and obtained the London GCE “O” Level with four credits: History: British Empire and the Commonwealth C; Principles of Accounts C; Commerce C and English C which was taken as a First Language.

While she was working at the Qwaqwa Nursing College, she was transferred to the Provincial Department of Health in Bloemfontein at Bophelo House where she worked as the Administrative Secretary to the then Director in the Health Department. But Sehlabo did not enjoy working far away from her sickly mother who needed her care.

“In 2000, I asked for a transfer to work in Ficksburg, which is in the eastern Free State, as it is closer to Kolonyama where my mom was. While working there, I used to go to Kolonyama every now and then. In 2004, I decided to take an early retirement at the age of 55 so that I could spent enough time with my mom,’’ she says.

Since 1980, she has been an active member of Lekgotla la Sesotho le Ikemetseng la Bangodi (LESIBA), an independent association of Sesotho writers. Sehlabo was elected as part of the executive committee member of LESIBA in 1997 at an elective conference that was held in Hlotse, Leribe.   The 72-year-old writer has, to date, published many interesting Sesotho books which also include children’s books. She published an anthology of Sesotho idioms and proverbs in a book entitled, Lefi la puo, loosely translated into English as rich remnants of the language and Lefi la puo which was her fourth published Sesotho book.

Asked what inspired the book, ‘Lefi la puo’ the multi-faceted author, says she just wanted to rekindle in the daily language of Sesotho-speaking people the usage of rich and flowery Sesotho laced with proverbs and idioms.

“I realised that Sesotho-speaking people no longer use idioms in their speech. They no longer pride themselves in speaking a flowery language like their forefathers who could leave listeners at loss of words hearing them speak. You hardly hear young people employ Sesotho proverbs when they speak,” she explains.

The book is already making waves in literary circles. It was even endorsed by academics such as Dr William Moruti Tšiu who works at the University of South Africa.   

The Assistant Director/Curator at the National Sesotho Literary Museum (SLM), who is also a notable Sesotho author, Tšeliso Masolane, showered Sehlabo with praises, saying she has proven that she is the authentic custodian of the Sesotho language, culture and tradition.

“The 193-page book is definitely going to have a far-reaching impact in Sesotho literature as we have few books of idioms and proverbs especially as it is written by a first-language Sesotho speaker,” he explained.

He added; “Of the few books that we have, most were written by white ‘missionaries’ such as Adolphe Mabille, R.A. Paroza, Edouard Jacottet and Hendric Dieterlen. It is high time we had a book on idioms and proverbs written by a first-language Sesotho speaker in Free State.”

In 1989, Sehlabo was the first prize winner in a short story writing competition sponsored by Nasou Via Afrika. Her prize-winning short story was called, ‘Kgokanyan’a Phiri’, meaning ‘Coming together in Unity,’ in English. The award presentation ceremony took place in Teyateyaneng (TY) Lesotho at a LESIBA conference. Sehlabo has also written K’oaba Le Tabotse kob’a Ka and Ranthokoleng.

One of the authors who triggered the love of writing in Mme Sehlabo was the late Sesotho poet, Kamuele Edward (KE.) Ntsane from Lesotho

“I love Ntsane as his poems were always laced with humour, and you would not know when he was serious. The female writer that I admire the most is the ’Mme ’Masechele Khaketla. She was a great Sesotho poet and playwright.

“She used to brilliantly mix English with Sesotho and was an eloquent writer. At the memorial service of the late Queen ’Mamohato, ’Me recited a poem full of some sort of sarcasm entitled, Haeno kobo liphororo

“This is a proverb that usually means, ‘go well’ in a negative way. It is often used when celebrating the departure of someone who was a pain in the neck. Hurt as the nation was, people eventually laughed when she started reciting that poem. That is talent at its best – making people laugh at a time of mourning,” says Sehlabo.

The gaiety of her latest book was brought about by the fact that the book is one of those rare pieces of work that leave a lasting impression on people. It is a book of Sesotho proverbs and idioms.

“Most of my writings are in my mother tongue. This is the culture that we should inculcate in our children as they will help us preserve our language. The language will not lose its purity,” Sehlabo also says.  

Sesotho literature is saturated with throngs of writers of note but, unfortunately, does not boast of too many female writers. Sehlabo is one of the few who have garnered their place of pride.

Her debut book of short stories was published by Educcum Publishers in 1990 under the title, Hoshe. She has also co-written two books with Dr Mpapa Mokhoane. These were Sesotho books for Grade 5 and 6 learners, Moloi ha a mele litšiba (A heartless person will never be successful) and Ha ke ea phela ke chopopotse (I got a clean shave.)

Those books were later translated into other languages such as English and Afrikaans. The English version of the former is titled The Message in dream and the Afrikaans version Die belangrike droom. The second book can also be read in English under the title Born to be Queen, and the original Afrikaans version was ‘n Bruid vir die prins

Sehlabo wrote the OBE curricular developmental material books as part of Lesedi Series organised by Oxford Press Southern Africa. Through these series she published the following books: Re bala lipale – Leseli Grade 3 Learner’s Book published in 1998), Buka ea Mesebetsi - Leseli Grade 3 Learner’s Book published in 2000), Buka ea Matichere - Leseli Grade 3 Learner’s Book published in 2000), Buka ea Baithuti (Leseli Grade 3 Learner’s Book published in 1999) and Buka ea Ho Bala - Leseli Grade 3 Learner’s Book published in 1999).

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Sehlabo shows young Sesotho writers the cue

’Mamothibeli Mpeako Sehlabo and Pule Lechesa (author of this article)

Sehlabo is also a motivational speaker and has addressed many gatherings on historical, cultural, traditional and religious issues, more often than not, voluntarily. Worth noting are: Moetlo le Setjhaba (Tradition and the Nation) – 22nd September 2007 at Qwaqwa Manthatisi High School, Tlokweng as well as St. Mary’s Primary in Bloemfontein; Moshoeshoe as motivator of today’s governance - 05th August 2009, St. Bernard Higher Primary in Bloemfontein; Important Cultural Aspects - 12th September, 2009; Heritage Day Ficksburg - 24th September, 2010; Morena Manthatisi of Batlokwa, addressed Mafumahadi (Chiefs’ wives): The Role of Women in Traditional Leadership – Golden Gate, Free State 31st August 2012, addressed Conference organised by Oral History Association of South Africa (OHASA) at Black Mountain Hotel in the Free State: The Beauty of the Free State: 10th October 2012

She wrote a Paper for the Youth Decade in 1985 which was read over and over on Radio Lesotho (the only radio station at that time) by the powerful voice of the late Mohlomi Ramonate. She also acted in a play written by Matsepe Masa as Tselane with the late Morapeli Motaung as Sello.

Sehlabo loves promotion of literature, and she is still an active and vocal member of LESIBA.

She is currently putting final touches on an anthology of short-stories called… Ho e isa liselong, derived from the Sesotho adage that reads thus - Ho leleka khoale ke ho e isa liselong. This idiom simply means that any bad thing that you do to a person might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The English equivalent to this proverb is: “What you lose on the swing you gain on the roundabouts.”

In terms of the Declaration of African Renaissance in the Republic of South Africa – nations comprising the rainbow nation, organisations, individuals having their nations’ cultural/traditional interests at heart work tirelessly towards the realisation of such an august declaration. Sehlabo identifies herself with such organisations.

She is one of the founding members of Mokgahl’a Thesele (Basotho Cultural organisation); a member of Sesotho National Language Body of PanSALB, an organisation that has the final word in written indigenous languages in South Africa. She is also an active member of South African Free State Heritage Council (SAFSHC). The National Department of Arts and Culture also awarded her a Certificate of Honour on August 29, 2016 in Uppington, Northern Province.

In the pipeline, she has, Mosotho Molimong (Mosotho in God), a book that has almost all that you need to know about Basotho culture and tradition including faith and religion; Nyarela Khoebo (Take heed in business), advice to potential business persons; Ha a nyatse moroa (He does not discriminate), a drama that seeks to instill trustworthiness in youth.

Sehlabo has also served as a part-time Programme Announcer of Lesedi FM’s Lenaka la Motheo.

(This is taken from the author's book called, Queens of the First)


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