British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Bill Ramsden
(SA High Commission Territories, 1955-68)
Colonial Law and Local Custom:
Marriage and Divorce in Basutoland
When I was in Basutoland I often had to travel to posts in the mountains to “show the flag”. On one occasion I travelled to Marakabei with my interpreter, the recording equipment, a number of relevant law books in a travelling case (euphemistically called “the library”), a clerk, and food, etc. only to find, as often happened in Basutoland, that the rivers were down in flood and the witnesses had been unable to make it to the court. It so happened that a District Commissioner had also travelled up the mountain road to carry out an administrative task and he asked me if I would like to go along with him on a visit to a village in the mountains while I was waiting for my witnesses to arrive. I was very interested and gladly agreed. We climbed to the top of a nearby mountain to where the village he was going to visit was situated.

In Basutoland houses are built on mountains and high hills because the valleys are generally misty and considered unhealthy (despite the fact that houses built on the mountain and hill tops are frequently the subject of lightning strikes during storms).The purpose of the District Commissioner’s trip to the village was to find out if they would like to have water on tap. As we climbed the mountain we saw a number of women climbing it too with paraffin tins on their heads. They stopped from time to time to rest and to chat. They had to go down to the river each day to fetch water for the village and our purpose was to relieve them of this chore. When we arrived at the village we sat down on stools provided for us while the men of the village sat around to hear what the District Commissioner had to say. He spoke Sesuto fluently and was brief. The idea was to install a pump at the river down below and to pump water up the side of the mountain to the village so that they could have water on tap whenever they needed it. To my surprise there was much discussion among the men (the women are never allowed to take part in village councils, unfortunately for them as it happened on this occasion) because the advantages of implementing the suggestion seemed so obvious. Finally, the chief stood up and said they did not want the water tap installed. He was asked why, and he replied: “Because it will make the women lazy.” So that was that. We made our way back down the mountain to the rest hut where we were both staying.

Basutoland Map
1955 Map of Basutoland
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 112: October 2016


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