2021 #1: Letters ‘from’ Lesotho (#131)

Feb 17, 2021

Greetings to our Help Lesotho family,

Instead of sitting in a short-sleeved summer dress watching the early morning southern African sun drench the land, listening to the tinkle of the sheep and cow bells outside my window as I write, I am watching snow fall, ever-so-gently from my home in Ottawa.

For those who follow our work, you know that this is the first time in 17 years that I have not spent January-March in Lesotho. Each trip, I have written five or six letters ‘home’ detailing the adventures, challenges, meetings, and people in my days. In the first decade of the organization I would make more than one trip, spending four-to-five months each year in Lesotho – more letters home. The letter you are reading now is #131! These epistles not only chronicle my time there, but capture the history of the organization and act as a vivid testimony to the resilience and character of the Basotho people as they faced the HIV/AIDS pandemic, poverty, government instability and grief.

Although COVID prevents me from being in Lesotho this year, I will write my letters to continue our story. I am in touch with our local staff daily and regularly catch up with alumni from our programs, friends and colleagues in Lesotho. I feel they need this voice right now, maybe even more than ever.

For those who read about my harrowing journey back from Lesotho during the infamous third week of March 2020, you know that I was filled with déjà vu that this unknown virus could decimate Lesotho in the same way I witnessed in 2004 from HIV/AIDS. Then, life expectancy was a grim 34 years; there was no ARV treatment outside the capital city, fear, misinformation, terror and denial were rampant.

In the letters I write now, I want to share how COVID has affected Lesotho and how our staff and beneficiaries are coping. I will share their stories and our responses, the challenges and progress. We have spent 17 years building the quality and expertise of staff and programs to create a critical mass of young people who can lead the way forward. We are extraordinarily well placed to help during this period in Lesotho’s history. We are not helpless.

In our efforts to keep beneficiaries safe, we employed local seamstresses to create a ready supply of masks.

Thank you for reading along with me and being a witness to the grannies, young mothers, herd boys and children in this mountain kingdom we all care so much about. To begin ….

In March 2020, Lesotho was quick to shutter its 14 border posts to South Africa and lockdown. It worked. Lesotho was among the last countries in the world to report cases of the virus. Yet, almost a year of restrictions has decimated the economy – businesses failed and those selling vegetables on the street have had no income. The small businesses of our young mothers collapsed as they had to either eat or sell inventory to survive. The most common and desperate problem was starvation, especially over the winter of June to October.

In the end, the first nine months resulted in very few cases. The familial pull of Christmas changed everything. Over 130,000 migrant workers crossed the newly opened border to return to their home villages from South Africa – bringing the South African variant with them, spreading it immediately throughout the country. Panic. This was what we feared all along. January 13, 2021, Lesotho issued a ‘Red Alert’ lockdown – schools closed again (immediately after they re-opened January 4th for the first time) and businesses shuttered. Social/family gatherings restricted. All gatherings, including church, prohibited unless COVID-related. 7PM-7AM curfew imposed. The police and military were deployed countrywide to enforce COVID-19 regulations. Again, it worked. Yet, in the weeks after Christmas, so many people died, quickly without treatment. There was no oxygen supply in the entire country. Hospitals and mortuaries were full to capacity and stopped receiving new patients. Mythical cures proliferated. It is almost impossible to isolate in a crowded hut. Testing was sparse and unreliable. February 3rd, lockdown restrictions were relaxed with infection rates dropping from 47% to 31%. Key transmitting venues remain funerals and church services. February 15th, King Letsie III plead with his countrymen on national TV to stop attending funerals.

A hurricane in southern Africa brought torrential rains to Lesotho in early February wreaking staggering damage to hut roofs, roads and crops. It will cost over CAD $10M to repair the 33 major bridges that were destroyed. February 17th, Lesotho Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro declared a six-month state of emergency after heavy rains pummeled the country killing a number of people and destroying more infrastructure. That said, enough crops survived to supply families with some vegetables during these summer months.

Photo credit: SA People News

In April, Lesotho is one of the 92 countries set to receive free vaccines from the COVAX facility (a fully subsidized initiative by the World Health Organization to give poor countries free vaccines). Should it arrive, the vaccine they get will have expired in March. COVAX commits to donating enough vaccines for 20% of the populations of each of the target countries. These countries, including Lesotho, must find the funds to purchase the additional vaccines required for the remaining 80% coverage.

During the lockdown we produced an activity book with COVID education, coping strategies and learning activities for the children near our leadership centres. We continue to distribute these simple supplies and are developing more workbooks for various grade levels. The children are beyond happy to have something constructive and interesting to do. They are delighted to have story times in the fields and access to books from our libraries.

You can imagine our worry for the safety and survival of our beneficiaries. We have been reaching out to them, one-by-one, with encouragement, strategies and concrete help.

You may remember our amazing alumni-organized reunion exactly a year ago. It was one of the happiest days I have spent in Lesotho – to see hundreds of young people filled with hope and determination to make their country better. I so wished you all could have experienced the profound and spontaneous appreciation flowing from these kids – for the support they have received – because of you.

One young leader and organizer of the event I wrote about last year was Likeleli Lekhanya. I have thought of her many times over these difficult months and assumed that the planned June operation to remove the bullet from her spine had been cancelled.  A graduate from our Child Sponsorship Program, Likeleli comes from high up in the mountains of Thaba Tseka. Determined to become a young leader in her country, she graduated from university in accounting under unbelievable odds with the residual disabilities following the shooting.

A few days ago, Likeleli and I spoke on the phone. I wanted to know how she and her friends were managing. Determined not to complain, she shared how youth are struggling. Even with their degrees, there are no jobs. Businesses are failing. They are trying to do online courses but rarely have the data on their phones to hot-spot their computers. They are getting depressed and experiencing mental health issues. Things are getting worse because of COVID but people now know more about the virus and how to protect themselves than they did ten months ago. Her friends are telling parents living in the mountains to wear masks, not to go to funerals, and how to mourn without gatherings. People are becoming more careful now that they actually see so many people dying in their own communities. Although she knows many who have died over these last couple months, none of her close friends got sick.

She reiterated that the economy in Lesotho depends on street vending. Parents try so hard to help children by doing piece work. Some schools have online classes but they are not great, students are failing. Many have no tablets or computers; they try to learn on small cell phones but it is not effective. They have no internet at home – it is so hard to research. Many have been out of school for over a year and have stopped being interested in returning to their education at all.

I pressed her to tell me how she was. She had received a bursary to begin her courses to become a chartered accountant. She is struggling with the funds for data for the online courses and to learn under such strained conditions. Likeleli lives with her mother and two young brothers. Their sole income comes from her mother’s sales of vegetables on the street but that has closed down with COVID. The operation to remove the bullet was indeed canceled – with no new date. They worry if they take it out there may be more neurological damage. She is not in pain, except from cold during winter. That is what paralysis does.

Her voice lifted when she talked about how her faith keeps her going.  “I keep praying a lot – some days I feel so down and wish things were different and wish I could help my peers. That is when my faith helps so much – it is all I have.” Yet her next thought was of you: “Pass my greetings to all the donors, please ‘M’e Peg. I am so excited that you think of me and that I am hearing your voice. I am smiling to talk to you.”

I reached out to one of our supporters who referred me to a CA from Calgary, Sheree Donally, who has enthusiastically agreed to tutor Likeleli through her 18 months of courses to gain her CA. Our hope is that when she is finished, she can get some experience and set up her own business. There is little wheelchair accessibility in Lesotho but this is something she can do and clients can come to her.  I believe in her and know that she is already the kind of leader we work so hard to develop.

Thank you for caring and for your support – it means the world to us!

I wish you safety and health in these troubling times. Please reach out if we can help YOU.

P.S. Here is a helpful link if you want to catch up on my previous Letters from Lesotho.

Read the next ‘Letter #2’