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The green grass of Mantšonyane

The mosea grass is the difference between life and death for the many unemployed women of Mantšonyane in Thaba-Tseka

Mohau Serabele

Families use them every day to clean their homes — simple tools fashioned out of prairie grass.

The handle-less broom or lefielo, as Basotho call it, is one of those household implements that are not held in high esteem by many households, largely due to their humble origins.

The broom making graft is the only source of living for the unemployed women of Maputsoe - CopyYet for some women in Maputsoe, the lefielo is the difference between life and death — a bread-and-butter instrument that ensures the survival of their families.
Without this simple tool, there would be no income for women such as Matšeliso Khoatsane and ‘Maithabeleng Mathaba, who have become a familiar sight in Maputsoe through the manufacture and sale of lefielo on the streets of this industrial town.

Each day, Khoatsane and Mathaba — alongside scores of other housewives — sit in neat formation at a certain location along one of the town’s streets.
Next to each of the women is a small pile of neatly-stacked mosea grass and on the other side, as if by design, is a row of the finished sweepers.

The women are silent as they make the brooms from mosea — their sheer dexterity making the job appear so simple, until one notices the ladies’ serious faces.
“There is no time to waste here. If I work too slowly, I might not be able to sell any brooms today,” Khoatsane on Monday told the Sunday Express.
Khoatsane learned the craft from her mother, who also used to earn a living through lefielo.
“For my mother, making lefielo was also her way of relaxation. But for me, making and selling brooms is a matter of life and death. I have no other means of making a living. If I don’t come here every day, my family will die of poverty,” she said, forcing a smile from her parched lips.

The 24-year-old Khoatsane said she got into the broom-making business way back in 2008, but only came to Maputsoe 18 months ago, from her village of Mantšonyane in Thaba-Tseka.
“I was forced to come here to Maputsoe when I gave birth to my second child. I had to leave the elder girl at home with my sisters and came here with the younger one,” the mother-of-two told the Sunday Express.
Although she needs to work fast, Khoatsane has to take a break from time to time, to feed her one- year-old son.
“I have no other choice but to come here with him. I cannot afford to hire a nanny, who would look after him while I carry on with my business,” she said.
And suddenly, the young boy, dressed in nothing but a nappy made from an old and torn shawl, crawls on his mother’s lap and starts suckling hungrily.
The boy makes low, moaning sounds while his mother tries to pick an unfinished broom from the ground.
“It is an extremely difficult life for me. I need to wait for him to breast-feed and fall asleep; only then will I be able to continue with my work.”
Like all the other women seated with her, Khoatsane is not originally from Maputsoe — they all come from an area called Mantšonyane in Thaba-Tseka.

The women make the long trip from Mantšonayane to Maputsoe loaded with stacks of mosea grass — the priced raw material for the brooms or lefielo.
Usually, their stay in Maputsoe lasts three to four months at a stretch, with the women only returning to Mantšonyane to replenish the mosea grass.
“This has become my life, although it is way too hard for me and my son. But for now, I have no choice but continue. I will only stop doing this if I get a formal job.”

According to Khoatsane, she keeps making the trips because of the hardship back home in Mantšonyane.
“My husband works as a herd-boy and will only get paid with a single cow at the end of the year. I cannot stay in Mantšonyane and wait for a single cow, because we will all die of hunger.”
However, Khoatsane said the broom-selling business is becoming difficult with each passing day.
“Because we visit the same areas every day, there are times I fail to sell anything, yet I need to pay rent and feed myself and the rest of the family, hence I have to do the rounds again the following day.
“It is all a matter of luck. On some days, I sell five brooms and on others, nothing at all.
“When I don’t sell anything, I become so frustrated because it means starvation for me and the family.
“On a good day, I make as much as M60, and I keep the money in my rented room. When all the stock has been sold, I take the money back to Mantšonyane to get more mosea and feed my family.”
Khoatsane, however, said she, and her co-workers, live in constant fear of Maputsoe’s vicious gang, known as the Tycoons.
“On several occasions, the Tycoons have attacked me and taken the little money I would have made.
“I can’t take the money to the bank because I don’t have an account, and it is too little to bank anyway.”
Khoatsane, meanwhile, said she was apprehensive of the approaching winter because it is the worst time for their trade.
“In winter, the herd-boys deliberately cause veld-fires which destroy the special mosea grass, which we use to make the brooms. The fire destroys all the grass in Mantšonyane, which leaves us stranded and with no work to do.”

The other woman involved in the trade, Mathaba said the burning of the grassland is one of the main challenges they face in their business.
“When the vast grasslands of Mantšonyane are destroyed by wild fires, our means of survival are also destroyed.
“I look forward to the day when I will find a decent job in the industries of Maputsoe. I am at a point where I feel helpless here. Sometimes nobody comes to buy the brooms and I go home with no money at all.”
Mathaba also said the money she makes out of the brooms does not last long.

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