To my chagrin, I was absent for the graduation ceremony of the Leaders-in-Training (LIT) Program – again. I have written about it many times – the ‘best-clothes-possible’ attire (even the occasional evening gown; often traditional dress), the rehearsed performances of song, poetry and dance from the young people, the almost blinding glow of pride in their faces.
This is not an easy program – these wonderful young people have opened up infected wounds of abuse, neglect, fear, isolation. They have learned words to describe the intensity, anger, desperation and longing. We have 22 programs and all of our intensive programs have these graduations. For the young mothers, grannies, computer students, and herd boys, this might be the only graduation they have ever had. Chiefs and community leaders come. Each arrives with mixed feelings. They are so proud and look forward to receiving their special certificate, yet reluctant. They definitely do not want to leave their program. It has been a womb – safe, loving, healing and growing. (One of them stood up at the graduation and said: “I felt loved”). They will remember this time for the rest of their lives, knowing they were brave enough to face their demons and embrace behaviour change and healthy decision making.
I have a shameless pride and admiration for them. I know in the depths of my heart the risk they have taken to be known, and they never flinch. I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I missed the chance to tell them that and to tell them we expect them to go forward to share what they have learned with others and to make a real difference in their families and communities – not just now, but for the rest of their lives.
(Top Left) Herd Boy Graduation, (top right) Grandmother Graduation, (bottom left) Young Mother Graduation, (bottom right) LIT graduation.
As I was writing this, I saw an unsolicited post on LinkedIn from one of our interns, Katiso Motopi:
“One year ago today I graduated from the Leaders in Training (LIT) program at Help Lesotho. I wish everyone could go through this. It changes the whole way of seeing life. It was very entertaining and educational. I got a chance to reflect on my fears and challenges, shared my experiences and knowledge. I cried for the first time in 14 years, laughed and felt the healing through the powerful sessions. Since that day, I still strive to be a better person both professionally and personally, a better father, a better colleague, a better listener, a better psychosocial support provider and most importantly an agent of change. After my graduation, I was blessed to join the Professional Intern Program here as a Professional Psychosocial Support (PSS) Intern. This is the platform that I am still part of which is helping me to improve in my PSS provision and facilitation skills (to be continued).
The isolation of COVID has brought a whole new awareness of mental health and the need for psychosocial support to all of us. The lid is off the can. We need each other and now we know how much. From Day 1, 18 years ago, Help Lesotho has focused on this, developed its approaches and programs, trained our staff around improving mental health. I see the international development world finally realizing how central this is to social change. Unless people’s woundedness is acknowledged and healed, no amount of money or ‘stuff’ will make the long-term difference. Wounded people do not make good leaders. Emotionally damaged adults do not make good parents or teachers. Deeply insecure men do not stop bullying and domineering.
I have used a fair bit of my COVID-non-travelling time to improve our staff training in these areas. We need outstanding materials and training to maintain our expertise in this area. Other organizations come to us for this specialization because it is so hard to develop this kind of capacity. We developed the CHANGE4ce Program to leverage our experience, proven materials and staff talents to operationalize our strategic goal to train more organizations to deliver deeper, more meaningful psychosocial support (PSS). The need only increases. Our online learning platform now offers a fulsome 12-session Psychosocial Support Training Course (required for all our staff) and a 7-session Facilitator Certification Course with an extensive practicum (required for all our program staff). Each is multi-media with videos, readings, assessments, exercises, discussion groups and practical tools and assignments. Going down into the heart of human misery is difficult and requires knowledge, perspective, self-care and tender talent.
I share this as it is the thread that weaves itself throughout all of our work, approaches and relationships – whether staff, partner or beneficiary. This is the foundation on which we stand and from there people can learn, develop critical thinking and move on with their lives with confidence, autonomy and social responsibility. That is what brings about real social change – when enough people have the confidence and personal capacity to demand equality, justice and democracy.
To give you an idea of the impact, I include some quick quotes from the course graduates:
- “I struggled when interacting with beneficiaries but now I am more confident in handling their painful experiences and circumstances.”
- “It really helped me to grow personally as a father, husband and professional to be a better PSS provider.”
- “It helped me to heal emotionally. Now I feel I have a big room full of emotional support tools for myself and others as I apply what I have learnt. It helped me improve my relationships with other staff and to feel confident that I have necessary skills to support others.”
- “PSS is so complex. We need to master the skill of listening carefully, have a kind heart, empathy and respect for others. Beneficiaries receiving the right kind of PSS at the right time helps them to be resilient towards challenges they are faced with – to be assertive and become survivors.”
If we could train existing organizations, front-line service providers, such as police, development and health workers, and teachers to deliver their programs with greater compassion and comprehension of the underlying issues, maybe the pregnant girls would go to the health clinics, the community members would report sexual and domestic abuse, the children and women would feel safer, and youth would get more support. Hopefully, we will find funding to be able to provide this training for free to organizations that cannot afford it or have not yet valued such in-depth training for their staff. Wish us luck.
Those of you who follow our individual programs will know that this approach is central and has affected the lives of everyone who has come in contact with our Help Lesotho programs, staff and donors, such as these two young girls:
When one of our staff arrived at Mpati’s home, she fought back the tears. A young girl was fixing the pillow under her granny’s head. She is tasked with nursing her grandmother at an age when she should be playing with friends. Mpati is part of our grade seven Pearl Program, paid in part by the revenue from our pearl sales. The program care, skills, knowledge and self-awareness has given this child the commitment and capacity to do well at her school work, handle the housework and look after her grandmother.
15-year-old Pontso, a Pearl Program graduate, is an exemplar of the continued high rates of child-headed families. Many drop out of school to collect tins and metal to provide for their siblings who are also in school. Child-headed households perpetuate teenage pregnancy and face much discrimination. She has looked after her four siblings (the youngest is 18 months) since both her parents left to work in South Africa. Pontso starts at dawn to cook, do the laundry, and get herself and the other children ready for school. She was often late for the training sessions, yet her presence lit up the room as she actively engaged in discussions and activities. She used the little transportation money we gave her to buy essentials for her and her siblings and walked the distance home. Despite all this, she graduated from primary school in December 2021 with flying colours and is now in high school, through our child sponsorship program.
As I close, I want to respond to a few questions from readers about COVID-19 in Lesotho. I reached out to Tebello Sarele (read more about her here), one of our alumni who is a practicing pharmacist, to share some of the issues from her perspective. Tebello describes the misuse of drugs and traditional medicines to prevent or fight the infection, such as antibiotics, which absorb people’s precious funds and can cause liver and kidney damage. People have defaulted on getting their AIDS medication or drugs for chronic diseases (heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc) for fear of getting infected at the clinics. These conditions are now out of control. She highlights the myths and inadequate supervision for adverse reactions to COVID vaccines as a significant driver to vaccine hesitancy. She writes:
“If I were to be given a chance anywhere, I would stand on the mountain and shout “The population of Basotho have a right to access quality pharmaceutical care”. This is what I would advocate for even in my sleep. As a Help Lesotho Alumni, I believe that I need to do what I can to make my country different, that I should be honest, transparent, and SERVE AS I LEAD. LEADERS NEVER GIVE UP!”
Each one of us – on staff, in the programs, on the board and in the families of those around us, thank you that you never give up either. The situation globally is truly depressing, but we are not helpless. We can be the steady help that changes lives and improves social justice. You are the ones who help us do it. Thank you!
P.S. Another good use of my time is catching up with you. If you would like to chat on the phone or go for a walk in Ottawa, send me an email. I would love that!