The young girl sat, crouched against the cold, waiting for me at the kgotla on a chilly winter morning, was a distressing sight.
Even before the tears flowed, I instinctively knew she was in trouble.
Drying her eyes from the cuff of her threadbare coat she eventually settled to tell her story.
By the time she had finished there were tears standing in my own eyes as well.
Mpho’s mother had dumped her at the tender age of 18 months with the Sethibo family, who lovingly raised her as their own daughter.
When she was four-years-old the bond became even stronger with the death of her father.
Now 17 and still using her mother’s surname, there were many questions Mpho had for grandma Sethibo.
But whenever she enquired about her mother and her background, all she received by way of reply was that the two families were still discussing some ‘issues.’
This seemed to take forever and yet Mpho needed practical solutions to some real problems.
She was concerned that both her primary leaving and junior secondary certificates reflected her mother’s surname.
Then there was the problem of her now overdue Omang application over which the Sethibo family had run into administrative challenges.
Mpho was going to sit for her O’ level exams that year, and it was her desire to transfer her name to that of her guardians who happened to be the only family she knew.
When the young girl had pressed her grandmother for a solution to these critical challenges in her life, Mma Sethibo told her that her mother wanted to be paid P35 000 before they could talk of a change of surname.
The news troubled Mpho’s since over the years she had yearned to meet her mother and other members of her family.
The knowledge that such contact came with a price tag and that she was to be ‘sold,’ broke her heart and brought her to the kgotla to find a solution.
Although Mma Mpho had been asked to come with her relatives for the hearing, she claimed that she did not have any family – pointing out that she had carried Mpho alone for nine months.
She was adamant that she did not need any “metsenelela” -meaning extended relatives who would only come to meddle in her case.
The kgotla confined itself to the urgent need for Mpho to be assisted in getting an Omang and the possibility of finalizing Mpho’s adoption by the Sethibo family.
Strangely Mma-Mpho did not seem moved by her daughter’s endless flow of desperate tears.
There was no room in her mother’s heart for a long lost daughter -all she wanted was her pound of flesh.
She looked into Mr Sethibo’s wrinkled, tired face, returning his look with a blank stare of cold indifference, merely repeating her demand: “Rraetsho ntuelang, ke batla madi”- meaning ‘pay me, I want money.’
I asked Mma Mpho to justify her demand for P35 000 and she answered without shame that “lo raya gore loka tsaya ngwanake mahala gape ke batla damage” – meaning “Do you think you can take my child for free – I want to be paid damages.”
The kgotla called her to order and reminded her that her parents can only claim damages, and in any case Mpho was her second child, which meant “damage” payment was not applicable.
To this Mma Mpho, who was obviously not so sober, stood up and announced “Mme go tla a pala” meaning “Well that is the end of the matter.”
As Mpho listened I could see her visibly crumbling from the shock as her mother’s heartless words fell like hammer blows.
Instead of being moved by love to help her, all the woman was interested in was a business transaction.
It was a pitiable sight.
The Sethibo family were adamant they would only pay Mma Mpho an amount which took into account that raising Mpho for 17 years was not just a labour of love, but also involved costs.
The social welfare officers were consulted for professional guidance and Mma Mpho was forced to take responsibility for helping Mpho get an Omang.
But when it came to the adoption issue, she would not be moved from her P35 000 demand.
When Mma Mpho was quizzed regarding the giving away of her child she rudely countered: “Why should it cause an earthquake for a woman to do what men do daily with impunity?”
Stripped of the reservoir of love that should naturally flow from a mother’s heart, there seemed to be no answer to the argument.
The story brings out the shocking reality of a departure from traditional child rearing practices.
It is a gap the kgotla will increasingly find hard to fill as we struggle to provide intervention strategies within the framework of the customary law.
Although Mpho got her Omang, the battle for her to identify with the guardians who have kept custody of her rages on – an issue complicated further by the fact that her father had died.
As distressing as the case had been, I could not help thinking of Ma Mpho’s question to the kgotla.
How ready are our communities to handle the hot cake of young girls doing what men have done without attracting judgment?
Has the time come to change the lenses through which we see parenthood in the new era? It is a worrying thought.