In just hours, thousands of Batswana rose in response to what was initially referred to as ‘Sebina-Gate’ to a snowballing Facebook movement breaking the silence on child abuse. For the past two weeks, media activist and Staff Writer, PAMELA DUBE KELEPANG found herself dragged into the campaign, which has moved beyond the 35,000 plus members of the group formed on Facebook on the Saturday of May 7, 2016. The movement has now taken to all corners of Botswana, the international arena, the police stations, and the courts of law. Here she shares her story of the #IShallNotForget campaign and bares a piece of her soul
“Mummy Pam, you cannot ignore this, you just can’t…” This was a desperate midnight inbox from a young woman I had only known through Facebook (FB). She had, in the past few months, shared personal details of her childhood – an orphan, who would cry herself to sleep after episodes of assault by aunts, molestation by an uncle, rape by a neighbour and another later in life by a medical doctor.
A young woman who despite all, worked hard at school to get a tertiary education with the sole aim of escaping the home abuse. But as fate would have it, she is back home, with the very same circle of abusers because her degree has not earned her employment to move out. At that point, having just taken the much-needed leave, and away from the newsroom, I was still confused with the little details of the issue in Sebina village. So I left the warm comforts of my bed, went to the living room and started reading. There I found horror stories and outbursts, mainly accusations and counter-accusations from FB political activists. It troubled me that possible molestation and teenage pregnancy by a civic leader, was being reduced to political point scoring.
Activists were tearing each other apart discussing and insulting one another over which party had more leaders or incidents of sleeping with and impregnating school children. I immediately put out a post, stating that I cared less about whatever political positions, or whether the pregnant school girl had reached the consent age or not (in my books a child cannot ‘consent’ to sex with an elder). What mattered to me was the future of that child, being from a poor family meant the end of a dream of a better life. She could just be condemned to a vicious cycle of poverty.
At 5 am, Saturday morning, May 7, I finally fell asleep, but with a troubled mind. I was up within three hours. When I switched on the phone, I had more messages, and one was an ‘add’ to a Facebook page, which had been created an hour or so earlier.
I suddenly found myself part of a movement, Women and Men Against All Sexual Abuse of Children, and the creator of the page was someone I had known in the gender activism, but had not had an opportunity to work with, Setho Poloko Motsei Mongatane. A little while later, another young woman Tumie Mohoasa wrote a simple but poignant message, and in it she used the now popular, and internationally recognised tagline, #IShallNotForget. This was in reference to the alleged conversation between the Sebina councillor and the assistant minister of education, Fidelis Molao, in which it was said this would pass as Batswana “ba lebala ka pela (they easily and quickly forget)”. By Saturday evening, the Facebook page had more than 1,600 members and the numbers were growing, standing at 35,000 plus this week.
That first Sunday afternoon, a small Internet café at The African Mall in Gaborone was packed with angry youth, and looking around I realised that I was the oldest, and had at one point or another had to calm them down. At the end of the meeting, different committees of volunteers were elected, and in the main one, were two of my nieces, whom I found at the meeting. I did not know whether to be proud that I had, in my own family, nurtured activists, or that I should worry that we would be stigmatised because at times when one takes up a cause of this nature, they get accused of being trouble makers, or are labelled the ‘victims’. But when more family members, neighbours and colleagues soon joined in, I knew we were on the right track and there was no need to worry.
As the days passed and the campaign intensified, and the story in Sebina became headline news, the activists became the target, some hit with smear campaigns.
First, while from the word go, the originators of the group had made it clear that this was not a political platform, and that the focus is bigger than that of the Sebina councillor, Kemmonye Amon impregnating a 16-year-old girl, the political labelling continued. As someone who has never hidden my political views, and had been known for my public opinion on issues of freedom of expression, media freedom, gender violence and many human rights issues, I made it clear from the onset that I would help where I could, but would not take the lead. I remember I was asked to help with radio interviews, and I said I would help where I could, but they had to take the lead. New blood, I insisted. Of course, colleagues knowing how passionate I can be, still dragged me back in, and knowing we needed every voice to speak for the voiceless who have faced and lived with not just the pain of child abuse but also the silence and shame for too long, I lent my voice here and there. I do not regret it, but like many in this campaign, I have been made to pay.
As I said, this campaign is not about Sebina or being partisan. But the Sebina issue was the spark.
And the spark it was. Former MP for Gaborone West (now Gaborone Bonnington South) Robert Molefhabangwe, posted a quote from Mao Tse Tung on his timeline recently, which I think speaks to the matter at hand: “A single spark can cause a praire fire…” And that is what the Amon case in Sebina has done. For
One of the most evil acts against children in our homes is incest. This monster is so real in our communities that I recall when I was working for The Sunday Independent in South Africa back in 1999, one of my editors walked up to me and said: “So incest is a cultural practice in your country?”
Just as I was about to accuse him of all sorts of things including racism, he showed me a research report from the then head of the SADC Gender Desk, Athaliah Molokomme, currently Botswana Attorney General, stating that in many Botswana communities uncles engage in breaking the virginity of young girls, and though not openly spoken of, this was something inculcated into our system. She cited the traditional song, which goes, “Setlogolo ntsha ditlhogo. Ditlhogo tsa eng malome. Sengwe le sengwe ke ditlhogo. Serope le sone ke ditlhogo…”.
We can argue about this, but what remains is incest and other forms of child abuse, have been institutionalised. While the laws are there to protect the children - and it is no longer just about the girl child, as reports of young boys being molested in homes, cattle posts and tourism centres are emerging – the authorities seem to be failing our children.
When we were arrested on Friday May 13, the officer commanding, Moyo, at the Mogoditshane police, was upset at me for carrying a manila paper written ‘407 students impregnated by Bagolo’. Pointing at the poster, he said, “…Why did you write that? What evidence do you have?”
My response: “From MmaDow (Minister of Education and Skills Development, Unity Dow) and from your boss Rre Kgathi (Minister of Defence, Justice and Security, Shaw Khathi). Ga oa mo utlwa haa bua mo Btv from the BDP press conference?” I was not being disrespectful or silly. I was just pointing out the fact that while peaceful campaigners - who are demanding justice for the many children whom sexual abuse has left with lifelong emotional and physical scars are being illegally detained, abusers walk the streets free. Abusers can even boast of the fact that the law will not touch them because they engaged in sexual escapades and impregnated consenting girls. This world. Botswana for you and me!
The arrests, court case
At that first Sunday meeting, it was agreed that the issue should not be limited to social media. We need to move back to the ground, speak to Batswana and break the silence on sexual violence against children. We had to circulate a petition to be signed, and then hold a march the following Saturday, to hand the petition, to the Office of the President and the education minister among other authorities. A small team offered to apply for the police permit.
On Wednesday, as the group grew, and ideas flowed, and many horror stories of abuse started pouring in on the Facebook page, the police answer came. NO. No permission to march. First it was verbally communicated, then a short correspondence later speaking of not enough reported cases of child abuse to justify a march. We did not apply for the permission to speak about ‘reported’ cases. Even if we did, we are speaking of the silence.
Silence means many cases go unreported. Secondly, from the many researches on molestation, incest and all that, even when a child tells the teacher, and the teacher takes up the matter with the parents, in most cases it ends there, with the message that, “E tlaa buiwa mo lwapeng…” Instead, as reports in our Facebook pages show, the child not only starts being tormented and terrorised for sharing the ‘family secrets’, the abuser feels justified to do more damage, and at times, opens other channels of abuse - daily beatings and other relatives joining in to rape the child. Worse, in most cases, the authorities hand the child back to the abusers. The most disturbing story I read on that Facebook page is of a child, who, when her mother was booked into a mental hospital, the neighbours, a woman lawyer (now a magistrate) and her husband, took her in. Almost immediately, the lawyer started sexually abusing her.
When the 12-year-old finally told one of her teachers, she reported the matter to the police who after whatever they did handed her back to the couple. The husband then joined in the sexual abuse and physical torture, to the extent of burning her private parts with acid as punishment for speaking to the authorities.
It is stories like these that leave one with no option, but to stand up. It becomes personal. But of course while I can shout and scream at the horrors I read and switch off to take a mental break, these children, some women today, continue to live the memory and at times, other cycles of abuse. Some become abusers. How can I not step up? Intimidation will not stop me, or any of the many angry and hurting Batswana today.
When the police refused us permission, there online, we agreed to seek redress from the courts of law.
We also agreed to step outside our computers and cellphones, and walk the talk – peaceful campaigns at traffic lights. With our simple messages, we stood at traffic lights in small teams of five to 10, to share the message of child abuse. That was on Friday May 13, between 7 and 8am.
Enough is enough. It has to end. For #IShallNotForget!