On October 12, 2022, waiting hours to board for our 15-hour flight from New York to Johannesburg, I had such vivid flashbacks to my reverse journey 31 months ago – leaving Hlotse in the dark hours before dawn to get through the border before it closed, to the circuitous days and countries to return home, wary of the hordes of international travelers who might be carrying this nameless plague that had so suddenly descended upon the world.
Now – returning to Lesotho, still masked and COVID wary, the world is both altered and oddly the same. The pandemic brought our staff new capacities with devices and platforms allowing more effective and meaningful distance communication – upon which we have relied all these months. Compounded by climate change effects and debilitating inflation, so much progress has been erased during these months. Gender-based violence, human trafficking, poverty, food insecurity have all risen alarmingly.
Our Board chair, Kathleen Lauder, a long-time supporter, friend and an international development specialist, is with me. Kathleen was in Lesotho twice in the very early days of the organization – no staff, no office, little structure. We reminisced about the sometimes harrowing adventures and struggles in those years building credibility, programs, partnerships and progress. It is exciting for her to see Help Lesotho now – robust, highly trained staff, incredibly well respected and impactful.
As you can imagine, I longed to see each one of our staff – to see for myself and hear know how they are. I love and admire them. After the beneficiaries, they are my daily concern. Zoom and Google Meet just aren’t the same. Our driver, dear Ntate Motsamai, greeted us warmly at the airport and, after a two-hour drive to our Hlotse Centre, the staff and children welcomed us with songs, signs and hugs. Home again!
I write after our first week – predictably crammed with 25 meetings as we try to make the most of this trip (my shortest visit in my 18 years). I will return for February and most of March for my usual time and donor trip, but these precious days are designated for our staff after such a long absence. There are still a couple spots open on the March 2023 trip. I would love to welcome you to the mountain kingdom. Please take a moment to watch this short video of the incredible people and places our guests visit (be sure to hit the ‘play’ button in the bottom left corner!).
Just since we arrived, there has been rain – finally – to drench the arid soil and prod the spring seeds and seedlings to grow after a drought of many months. As prices escalate, these homegrown vegetables are more essential than ever. At the centre, we only lost water for two days this week.
We had a great visit with our Pearl Girls and Guys4Good. These adorable grade seven children are learning how to navigate the perilous world of high school, peer pressure and adolescent confusion. They were bursting to tell us of their growth, new-found insights and how they are sharing what they learn in this program with their peers.
By-weekly, our staff congregate from various locations at the Hlotse Centre – to support each other, share their successes and challenges, and learn. This provided us with the chance to see everyone and celebrate our time together.
This year, all staff completed a challenging 12-Session Psychosocial Support Course on our online platform, followed by a Facilitator Course for those who facilitate our modules – a refresher course for some and new training for others. Our impact depends on the professionalism and insight of our facilitators. The certification requires successful completion a 7-session online course and practicum of facilitation evaluation on various topics. I was thrilled to present the program staff with their CHANGE4ce Facilitator Certification Certificates.
How they love to learn – always asking for more training. I recently finished mini-courses on suicide (Lesotho has the highest suicide rate in Africa – you can learn more here) and most recently on supporting boys and men – delving into the social-cultural issues more deeply than ever before. Following our group discussion with the male staff, they will then lead the discussion with the female staff to process the material. I love those discussions as do they, as we constantly work together to increase our effectiveness, in this case to reach one of our strategic goals to train more boys and men and hopefully, this will help.
Our staff are dedicated and care so deeply, yet each one is exposed to stories and pleas of unspeakable suffering all day long. They too face the same challenges at home. Providing useful training and support is paramount. Toward this end, I have engaged a dozen of our talented donors who have specialties to act as monthly phone/Zoom coaches for particular staff. The pairing of them has been a joy – knowing what a wonderful growth experience this will be for both. The mentees and I are thankful for donors who give so freely of their time and expertise to help our staff grow and get the attention they dearly deserve.
On this subject, one of our staff has an autistic son, another an autistic nephew. With no resources in Lesotho, I am reaching out to see if there is someone reading this letter who knows of a parent of an autistic child who might be willing to listen and support these two. We have many deaf children at the centre and our staff have learned sign language. All of them would benefit from and appreciate learning about exceptionalities. If you can help – please reach out.
Lesotho held a national election last week and I was keen to hear the opinions on the results. We made enormous efforts to get the young people out to vote. We sent text messages to 141,000 people across Lesotho – in both English and Sesotho, distributed 3,000 handouts on why voting is so important, and reached thousands with multiple posts on social media. Of the 163K people we potentially reached, we hoped that at least 30% actually read the material – perhaps 50K. Shortly before election day, there was no electricity. Our staff were so committed to get voters out that they went out one-by-one on foot all over town encouraging people to vote. Yet, after all this work, disappointingly, Lesotho had the lowest voter turnout in the country’s recorded history at 38% – a clear indicator of how discouraged the population is with poor governance. We can only hope that those who voted did so wisely. Election monitors from many countries pronounced the election peaceful and fair. The populous has accepted the results without backlash – unlike most previous elections. The new Prime Minister, Sam Matekane, will hopefully bring the positive change this country so badly needs. He brings extensive business experience as the wealthiest person in Lesotho and seems determined to cut corruption, entitlement and restructure. We live in hope.
I met with a new class of Computer and Life Skills (CLS) participants, this time all correctional officers. Another strategic goal over the next five years is to train as many police and correctional officers as possible. We have trained many police officers and correctional guards in the past. They love it. Along with nurses and teachers, these are the frontline workers who can either help or retraumatize vulnerable girls, women and boys. Building their self-esteem and psychosocial awareness has proven to help them address their clientele with greater compassion and less judgement. I will re-visit them this week. Ironically, when I finished chatting with a youth group yesterday, there was a female police officer and former CLS graduate waiting for me. Hearing I was in town, she patiently waited for a couple of hours to tell me what a huge difference the program had made in her life. She looked to be in mid-forties and was completing her Master’s degree in social work on secondment from the police force. We had an interesting chat, while she pleaded for Help Lesotho to give this training to all the police officers and management so that they too could change.
Kathleen spent this weekend at our precious Pitseng Centre, participating in the programs, exploring the village and the stunningly beautiful valley. I was thrilled to see the new library – nearly finished, the space is well made, bright and spacious. We regaled ourselves with imaginings of the depressed youth, struggling students, correspondence students and aspiring literacy learners having this wonderful place to concentrate and hold discussion groups. Our most sincere appreciation to those who donated to this library. Please know that the impact of your generosity will last for decades and help hundreds of villagers.
Whether meeting with staff, professional interns, or program participants, the message is the same. Their compounded trauma peppers every conversation and meeting. The staggering need, intense fear and anxiety, and overwhelming gratitude are ever present. Our time together is filled with various combinations of tears, hugs, confessions, pleas for more training, stories of personal bravery and change, prayers of gratitude, and hope. I am constantly and deeply touched by the expressions of how important and meaningful our programs are and how loving and talented our staff.
The needs are tremendous but we are not helpless. We are focused and reaching people every minute. Last year, we helped 22,000 people. No dollar, day, conversation or effort is wasted.
I will write only one more letter this trip. So much to pack in! Kathleen and ‘M’e Mamoletsane and I are meeting in the coming week with three of the UN agencies who currently fund us to see if they will support some new work. Wish us luck!
I look out on the mountains as I write, feeling hopeful and appreciative. We have serious work to do and you are the ones that make this possible. I wish you could know what a difference it is making!
Until the next letter,