In most countries across Africa, the right of
the firstborn male, or closest male relative to
inherit family property is still practice. Women are
denied the right to
inherit the family estate purely because of
their gender, a custom that is upheld by
some traditional African ethnic groups.
But four sisters in Botswana did something that
no-one there thought was possible – they took on
tradition and won.
Last month, a five-year legal struggle ended with
a landmark victory to Edith Mmusi (80) and her
three sisters Bakhani Moima (83), Jane Lekoko
(77), and Mercy Ntsehkisang (68). Ms Mmusi has
a wry smile as she speaks of the lengthy case.
“It took resilience and courage to get this far. It
was a stressful time for the family that gave me
many sleepless nights. I am glad it is finally
Over the years it was sub-dived to accommodate
members of the family who wanted to live close to
the elders. The house at the centre of the row
was built on the land where Ms Mmusi’s old family
home once stood. What remains of that house is a
wall of mud, bricks and mortar, the only reminder
of the house Ms Mmusi and her sisters had lived
in with their parents as young girls.
“This is the only home we’ve known here. We
helped to build one of the first mud houses in this
big yard,” she tells me, a big smile on her face.
It is easy to see that this place means a lot to
them, as they share their childhood memories of
growing up here.
When their father died, Ms Mmusi and her sisters
contributed to the upkeep of the homestead and
looked after their mother until her death in 1988.
In court the sisters argued that they were entitled
to the family home as they had used their own
finances to renovate the property.
The Appeals Court agreed, finding that denying
them this right went against the constitution. But
this was not an easy victory.
Traditional values are held in high regard here, as
in many rural areas in Africa.
Tswana custom prescribes that the family home is
inherited either by the first-born or last-born son,
depending on the community.
As a result, their nephew had earlier won the case
at the Customary Court of Appeal which found
that under his ethnic group’s customs, women
could not inherit the family home.
That court had ordered that Edith and her sisters
be evicted from the family home.
As a last-ditch attempt to avoid eviction, the
sisters took the matter to the High Court and later
the Appeals Court, which both ruled in the
But this has been a bitter-sweet time for the
family, and the matter has caused divisions in the
family. Some male members feel the women
belittled their culture by challenging it, Ms Mmusi
tells me. Something she says she hopes will
change with time.
“Customs and culture have no place in the
modern world because women are still oppressed
in the name of culture.”
“What makes men [especially the staunch
traditionalists] think they have power over us? We
are all equal in God’s eyes,” she adds, the smile
But why are some African tradition against
women Inheriting the family home?
In its broadest sense, traditionalists argue that
the only way of preserving family wealth is by
passing on the inheritance only to the males,
arguing that women may take that wealth to
another family after they marry.
But African cultural expert Moses Twala, of the
Kara Heritage Institute, believes this ruling should
compel traditional leaders and societies to take a
closer look at what they are doing.
“Culture is not static, culture is dynamic because
it conforms to the times, especially with the fact
that people are getting more and more
modernized with the times,” he says.
He says inheritance should not be seen as
something that will benefit one person, but rather
as something that will see to the well being of the
entire family once the head of that home has
died. He argues that women are as capable of
carrying that responsibility as males.
“A family is not one person only who is a male.
Females also play a very big role also in uniting
the very same family even when males are
present,” he told Ajua Martey.
But Botswana is largely a conservative country.
While a handful of chiefs in Botswana are for
promoting gender equality, they say this should
be done in a manner that still shows respect to
“Yes culture is dynamic but tradition is important,
the role of tradition is to preserve our identity. We
would like to preserve our culture and live in the
way that our great-grandfathers lived,” says Chief
Gaseintswe Malope II.
As head of the Bangwaketse people, the third
biggest community in Botswana, he says it is his
responsibility to make sure his people honour
Modern law and African culture are in many
instances still poles apart and sometimes in direct
contradiction, according to women right’s
activists. Women’s Inheritance Now, a group
advocating the inheritance rights of women,
believes the judgment will go a long way to bring
change to Botswana.
Back in Kanye, Ms Mmusi is hopeful that the case
will inspire other women to stand up for what
they believe in.
“It will give them motivation and comfort that
they are not the only ones going through that,
where they are. We hope they will say: ‘These
women took action and they won’ and do the
same too. We are overjoyed,” she says.
*would the relegation of some African custom and tradition be a prerequisite to
what the west termed “modernization” or a prelude to the destruction of African history and identity?
In most countries across Africa, the right of