Bantu Serobanyane Lerotholi had become increasingly estranged from his loved ones who strongly condemned his decision to become a writer, arguing it was no profession for a serious family man. But after the release of his novel, From Highlands to Riches, last September by an American publisher, things have since taken a completely different turn.
Whenever an idea pops in his head, even in the dead of the night when tucked snugly in bed, he immediately scrambles for pen and paper to write it down lest he forgets what it was all about.
‘Mamakopoi sounds almost resigned to her “fate” as she describes her husband — author Bantu Serobanyane Lerotholi — whose chosen vocation has spawned its fair share of eccentric characters.
Yet one can also sense ‘Mamakopoi’s pride in having 36-year-old Serobanyane as her husband, whose novel, From Highlands to Riches, has earned the family a place in that exclusive club only extremely creative minds could belong.
In From Highlands to Riches, Serobanyane tells the moving story of young Tšepo, whose impoverished parents did the best they could to provide for their only son.
After the parents succumb to HIV/Aids, Tšepo is raised by his grandmother and due to his intelligence; he eventually makes it in life and caps it all by marrying his high school sweetheart.
It might sound like your everyday rags-to-riches story that has been told countless of times by many a dime novelist, yet something in this poignant narrative convinced New York-based Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Company to print the 27-page novel in September 2013.
From Highlands to Riches costs $10.95 (about M110) and is now available in most Western countries’ bookstores and could also be purchased online.
The disappointing thing, however, is the novella is not yet available in Lesotho where Serobanyane remains virtually unknown in literary circles.
Serobanyane says he wanted to tell a different story of resilience and success amid the heart-breaking tales about Aids, which have come to characterise Lesotho — a country whose HIV-prevalence rate of 23percent is the third-highest in the world behind Swaziland and Botswana at 26 and 23.4 percent, respectively.
However, according to Serobanyane, publishing his book came after a long and hard struggle to convince his family about who he really was.
Currently employed as a security guard at G4 Security, Serobanyane went against what his family wanted him to be — a Metallurgical Engineer — and pursued his real love, which is poetry and fiction-writing.
But this rebellion was not without consequences as his parents and wife felt “writing books” wasn’t enough of a profession for a serious family man.
With pressure mounting every day for him to pursue “a real profession”, Serobanyane, who passed his Cambridge Overseas School Certificate examinations with flying colours at St Stephen’s High School in Mohale’s Hoek, only became more defiant and decided to go into street-vending — much to the shock and anger of his loved ones.
It was while he was “on the streets” that he wrote “like a madman”, culminating in From Highlands to Riches and several other stories and poems that are yet to be published.
Serobanyane recalls the “difficulties” leading to the publication of his novel, and his wife’s outrage after he borrowed money from the bank to pay the publisher’s fee when the family barely had enough to eat and their daughter didn’t have school fees.
“I was in a very difficult situation,” Serobanyane said at his parents’ home in Ha Seoli-Maluti this week. “My wife didn’t understand the logic in getting a M15 000 bank loan to pay for a book, while our daughter could not attend school because her fees had not been paid. But she soon understood, although very reluctantly, but the bottom line is, those were very anxious times.”
Serobanyane poured his heart out about how, at a tender age, he had felt so strongly about writing stories and poems but his parents made him take another path they thought would provide a better future.
“I was in a very complex situation, but the truth of the matter is, finding myself again when everybody else wanted me to believe I was someone else, confused and hurt me. I never meant to disappoint my wonderful parents and family but at the same time, I could also not hide who I was or become who they wanted me to be.”
Yet this advice was from concerned and loving parents who genuinely wanted only the best for their son.
Bantu’s father, Mathealira Lerotholi, an engineer by profession, and his mother Lineo, a secretary, both thought fiction writing alone would not offer the kind of life they had visualised for their son.
His mother explained the initial misgivings over their son’s vocation: “We had always known he loved writing, but we did not support him. We thought it was not enough to make him the kind of man, husband and son we had always expected him to be,” she said last week at the family home.
Bantu , she said, is named after his late uncle, (her brother) Bantu Malefane who was a teacher and successful writer. But this “coincidence” was not enough to convince the exasperated mother that, maybe, this name somehow had something to do with her son’s career choice.
“Despite the fact that my brother achieved a lot through writing books, some of which are secondary school set-books, we never accepted writing as a career. We know that for years, we have put some rocks in his writing path to try and discourage him. But this was out of ignorance because you can’t force a donkey to drink, as the saying goes; we have come to realise this was wrong and we would want to support him now. Seeing is believing — his inspirational book changed us all,” she said.
After From Highlands to Riches was published, Mrs Lerotholi now sees a silver-lining in what the family thought was a dark cloud in their son’s life.
“We are all happy and pray that he has a successful writing career. He has proved to us that this is the life he enjoys and would like to have and we can’t deny what God has ordained him to be.”
However, many years of resistance by his parents and later his wife, saw Serobanyane tripping so many times, yet he never gave up on his dream and would always pick himself up.
Because he had always valued his parents’ advice, Serobanyane in 2003 enrolled to study Metallurgical Engineering at the Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa. After one year of study, he married his beautiful wife and the couple has since been blessed with three children.
“I thought pursuing engineering would be great for him and his family, hence my pushing him in that career-path at the beginning. But now I know that is what I wanted not what my son wanted,” his father, Ntate Lerotholi, said.
Serobanyane, who listened thoughtfully as his father spoke, could not help but continually shrug his shoulders, suggesting it was not his fault that he wanted to be a writer.
He explained: “I was at Tshwane for two years but realised I did not like it and dropped out. By that time, I was already a father. It was a tough decision because I had to find ways to provide for my children.”
It was then that he decided to sell fruits and vegetables on the streets of Maseru — much to the shock of both his parents and friends who knew how intelligent he had been while at St Stephen’s High School in Mohale’s Hoek.
“The two years I spent working on the streets were tough but this was also the time I came closer to God and looked up to Him for answers. My condition also brought out the best in me and inspired me to write,” said Serobanyane, who is a Jehovah’s Witness.
After surviving the streets and benefitting more than what he had expected out of his vending business, Serobanyane in 2009 eventually heeded his parents’ advice and went back to Tshwane University.
“I did some programmes in metallurgy and, hopefully, I will be able to go back and finish the degree since I am just left with a few courses. The other side of me tells me my parents are right about my education. I could become a metallurgist and still write my books.”
Serobanyane has more than 10 manuscripts he intends to publish and this includes Part Two of From Highlands to Riches.
On why he chose a foreign publisher over locals, Serobanyane said this was entirely for marketing purposes.
“My choosing a foreign publisher was based on the understanding that I would reach out to a much wider audience, including Basotho. I am currently making efforts to make the book easily accessible locally.”
Although he has not yet received any royalties for his work, Serobanyane said he is entitled to 10 percent of every 100 books sold and 50 percent of every one thousand and more books that are bought.
“It’s too early to really say how the book is being received but I am happy about the feedback I have received from the publishers.”
He explained what made the book unique was that it was a story about Lesotho and written by a Mosotho in a language many people understand.
“It is important that as Basotho and Africans, we tell our own stories the way we see them. This gives a true reflection of who we are as a people.”
Serobanyane says he is happy with what he is seeing on the horizon.
“I see myself publishing many books and inspiring other potential writers who might have given up easily because society thought that was not good enough.”
Although he is currently fascinated with presenting his works and name to the world, Serobanyane is aware that his family still needs to eat and go to school.
“I am not a child anymore and I know that my ideas and imagination should translate into a source of livelihood. I can’t fool myself and say I am content with writing for nothing; my family should live and live well.”
He hopes government, and in particular the Ministry of Education and Training, would be able to assess his book and see its benefit to the many orphans whose parents also died of Aids.
“This is a book every child should read for inspiration and strength to fight on, no matter how harsh the times might look. It’s a book that says hardship is a temporary phase and a part of life. It is up to every child to work hard in school and be the changer of his or her circumstances and also the designer of one’s destiny.”