A lack of legislation stipulating a minimum age at which boys in Lesotho can attend an initiation school and be circumcised has seen some as young as 12 dropping out of school and heading for the mountains.
Mojalefa Molikoe, 16, has been out of school for more than two years now and spends his days herding the family’s animals in Ha Rabotsoa, 56 km from Maseru, the capital. After undergoing a traditional initiation, he considered himself a man and capable of making the decision to drop out of school independently of his parents.
He does not regret it. “Things were not going so well for me at school; I was bored,” yet Molikoe says he is disturbed that his family have allowed his younger brother, Motjope, who is only 12 years old, to succumb to peer pressure and go to initiation school.
The Lesotho government introduced free primary school education in 2000 as a key strategy in achieving its goal of education for all. Enrolment rates increased rapidly and 82 percent of primary school aged children (80 percent of boys; 84 percent of girls) are now attending school, according to UNICEF.
However, there has also been an increase in the number of boys enrolling at traditional Sotho initiation schools. Starting in July, they usually spend three to four months in the mountains, preparing to be circumcised. After returning, they rarely continue their education, partly because they are culturally viewed as men, but also because they are often indebted to the initiation schools and forced to work to repay them.
Demand for circumcision
The spike in initiation school enrolment coincided with the release, five years ago, of widely reported research that men could significantly reduce their risk of HIV infection by being circumcised. Lesotho has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world and several government-backed organizations began offering clinical male circumcision, but many Basotho still opt to be circumcised traditionally.
Malefetsane Liau, chairperson of the Council of Traditional Healers and one of the country’s best-known herbalists, explained that initiation schools were not merely about preventing HIV, but offered boys an awareness and understanding of their culture that the formal education system could not provide.
“For a long time, the NGOs and the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare have promoted circumcision without considering some deep cultural implications,” he told IRIN. However, he and other traditional healers are “totally against kids leaving school before completing their studies”.
|It's really sad to see such highly gifted learners leaving school when they are on the verge of completing their primary school|
Children in Lesotho are supposed to complete primary school and start high school at the age of 12, but in rural areas where young children may not be up to walking long distances to reach the nearest school, and boys often miss a year to help their families look after livestock, it is not unusual to find children as old as 15 or 16 still attending primary school. Students can be well over 18 years old before they complete high school.
Chief Education Officer-Primary Thuto Nt’sekhe-Mokhehle said the ministry of education and training is aware that some initiation schools discourage learners from finishing their education, but other than continuing to conduct awareness campaigns about the importance of allowing children to go to school, “there is nothing we can do”. Although the Council of Traditional Healers recommends a minimum age of 17 to enrol in initiation school, the absence of a law banning school-going children makes it difficult to prevent much younger children from attending.
Phakiso Sekaleli, a primary school teacher, lost two of his brightest learners to initiation schools this year. “It’s really sad to see such highly gifted learners leaving school when they are on the verge of completing their primary school,” he said. Without the input of parents, efforts to persuade the students to return to school had failed.
Drain on family finances
While some parents support the Sotho tradition of sending all male children to initiation school, others are opposed to it, but have no say.
Masello Moseme has two sons, aged 12 and 18, who dropped out of school without the permission of their parents to attend an initiation school at Mokema, 30 km from Maseru. “I am deeply hurt,” she told IRIN. “After I paid for everything at school, they just decided to drop everything and pursue their own thing. Only three weeks were left before the eldest one had to write his final examinations.”
The “class” her sons attend is one of the largest in the area - over 115 initiates - most of whom were students at nearby primary and secondary schools. The traditional healers’ council stipulates that no initiation school should have more than 50 initiates, but some are recruiting as many as 300, and the lack of regulations governing how the schools are run means there is no limit to the fees they can charge.
In the more remote, mountainous areas of Lesotho, some initiation schools charge as little as 100 maloti (US$14) per person while others, especially those in the more populous lowlands, charge 500 maloti ($71).
The families are also expected to supply enough food to feed their sons during their months in the mountains, as well as a blanket and other accessories to be worn during the graduation ceremony. “We are proud of our culture but we simply can’t afford some things,” lamented one parent.
If initiates are unable to pay the full amount, school owners will feed and clothe them until graduation, but the initiates are then expected to work for them for a year or more, in many cases herding animals, to repay the debt.
Seabata, a former initiate, complained that some of the traditional healers operating initiation schools were “too business-oriented’ and gave others a bad name. He regrets dropping out of school to go to initiation school at the age of 14 and then spending a year herding animals to repay his debt.
“I was ill-informed when I went there,” he told IRIN. “Imagine looking after animals for the whole year and getting nothing in the end.”