This is my last ‘Letter from Lesotho’ this season – imagine writing 140 letters! It would be fun to make a list of people who have read each of them! (Let me know if you have and I will make that list). I hope to return to Lesotho in the near future. I have some news to share with you at the end of the letter.
We near the particular parallelism when the weather in Lesotho and Canada is the same – as the former transitions to fall and us to spring. Basotho turn their thoughts to harvest; Canadians to planting. Climate change has altered the predictable, bringing hunger and erosion to the Lesotho mountains and flooding and fires to ours.
In my last letter, I mentioned our concern about the educational deficits exasperated by two years of COVID.
Help Lesotho is an educational organization. Everything we do is either psychosocial support or education.
It seems fitting that the funds raised to build one of our two centres, our precious Pitseng Centre, came from the 1400 teachers in the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. The buildings were constructed by local people, with a grand opening in June 2008, to wide acclaim and jubilation.
It was and remains the only community resource in the whole area, surrounded by two primary and one high school, a 45-minute walk from the nearest village. We have a wonderful Centre Supervisor in ‘M’e Thoala – sometimes I think of her as the mother of the whole area! ‘M’e has been with us for ten years and is a blessing to everyone who comes.
In its 14 years, the Pitseng Centre has hosted well over 100,000 visits – people who long to learn or be listened to, little ones who crave joy and protection, primary school children learning to read and comprehend the challenges they need to face, youth who devour discussion about their thoughts and feelings, community leaders who proudly master basic computer skills, and grannies who cherish the companionship of those who understand.
As well as the main building, our small centre has a wonderful new playground we installed last year, an open-air classroom (lappa), outdoor toilets (latrines) and a computer lab. I think of our grannies there – asking me, or should I say imploring me, to let them come every day so they can be in a happy place and learn something new.
I have taken some of you into the computer classes where the young people proudly show us how to create a formula in excel. You may have seen the photos of the children playing cognitive games to best other children in our centre competitions in Scrabble, Monopoly, Chess or Cribbage.
Tucked inside the centre is a small library, chock-full of African-centred books for all. When a dozen small children huddle around the two wooden tables, it is nigh impossible to pass on either side to access books or leave the room. For many little ones, this is their first exposure to books. Most of our visitors live in huts without electricity and little-to-no space to read or study.
The library plays a significant role in the community in shaping attitudes and opportunities about literacy, learning and creativity. More than 50 students flock there from school every week to grab one of those precious seats. The overflow must go to the outdoor lappa or to read under a tree despite the distraction of dozens of boisterous children on the playground equipment, playing cognitive games or other activities.
We are launching more initiatives to draw the hard-to-reach, oh-so-vulnerable out-of-school youth into the womb of the centre. Many have quit school after the discouragement of losing almost two years of their education due to COVID lockdowns or whose families can no longer afford the fees. Last year, we invested in new books for this age group in efforts to entice them away from depression, isolation and relentless household chores. Whether to play chess, join the computer classes, or participate in the many programs, these connections and constructive activities are instrumental in preventing teen pregnancies, crime, human trafficking, early and forced child marriages and substance abuse.
A wonderful organization called Bountiful Hope donated our computer lab in 2016, which has brought so much to the whole community. The first Computer and Life Skills class of 2022 just graduated, including 7/20 girls, and another one begins soon. One of the women is a nun from the nearby convent. Sister Itumeleng was passionate about the program and participated fully, not at all intimidated by her age difference with her youthful classmates.
This group particularly enjoyed the session on decision making, as they grasped the influence their thoughts and decisions have on their choices and consequences. When asked to anonymously write a current situation they face and feel inadequate to handle, the submissions revealed troubled youth desperate to find help in the program. They shared about conflicts and harsh treatment with parents, fear of men and the pressure to have sex, fear of teachers and life, worry about failing at school, feeling desperately lonely. This is often the first time they share such deep concerns. One wrote, “I just tested HIV positive and this has troubled me such that I think of taking my life or spreading it to more people because I feel betrayed by my partner”. The group unpacks the issues together, sharing thoughts, learning that HIV can be treated, peer pressure can be resisted, loneliness can be overcome. The girl who just tested positive felt that although no one in the room knew it was her, she had been supported and she could now take a bold decision to seek help.
Our Pitseng Centre professional intern, Moliehi, recently shared:
“Many of the children, even in grade 5/6, cannot read or write when they should be able to. Because COVID closed the schools for such a long time, they were just promoted to the next class without the learning. I help them choose books they will be successful at reading and we work on speed, fluency and comprehension. We play games with vocabulary and grammar knowledge. ‘M’e Peg, you know children really want to learn.”
For many of these children, the centre is home – a place to be listened to, to be welcomed, to belong. Young Mothetho, comes daily and loves to share what she learns:
“I am Mothetho, a girl aged 12 years in grade 7. I am the only child of my parents, who are in South Africa searching for a job. I want to be a nurse when I grow up and so I must study hard and learn because my cousin, who is a nurse, told me that this is a good career but I have to put my full potential in reading and attending school very well. I visit almost every day so I can read because my grandmother has no books. I always ask myself questions I have no answer to, but at the Centre I learn that I am responsible for working hard to achieve what I want. Reading at the library takes my mind away from my stress so I keep going back. I am really trying! Someday, I can have a job to look after my grandmother, instead of her looking after me.”
We have made a thoughtful decision to build a new library – a larger, quieter space to think – especially for the high school students. If they don’t have a place to study and books from which to learn, they cannot have a future.
The location will use the only remaining space we have left on the property – filling between the lappa on the left and the computer lab on the right as indicated by the white arrow (below).
I am focusing on the Pitseng Centre in this last letter because we have never had a designated funder for it. We have to raise the $130,000 required every year for its operations and programming. After ten generous years, a family foundation that gave us $10K a year has stopped. We occasionally have a gift specifically for this centre but the rest must come from our general pot. It is my hope that we can find a family, individual, corporation or foundation that would faithfully take this on annually, wholly or in part, to ensure its future. We can even name the centre in honour of them or a loved one. It is a large ask but I am putting it out there – in great faith that someone or a group will come forward. I love this centre and am determined to make sure it is a blessing to the community and its 3,000 annual visitors for years to come.
Next week we will officially launch our spring fundraising campaign to raise the funds to build the library. I know this is a project many will want to support. If you want to kickstart the project, you can make your donation here.
I realize many people wonder when I am going to retire.
As most of you know, I am an obsessive planner. To this end, I set my retirement date four years ago with a step-wise plan to build staff capacity, donor stewardship and organizational excellence. I am proud and grateful to say that, even with COVID, we are on track – with a wonderful leader, ‘M’e Mamoletsane, in Lesotho, a terrific board and outstanding staff. I will retire in the spring of 2023, a few months shy of my 74th birthday.
- The board and I have developed an emeritus role for me to define how I will remain involved. I am not going anywhere – just stepping back from active leadership.
- This month, we formally begin the search for our next executive director (ED), who will hopefully start an overlap with me in the late fall.
I plan to spend a good part of next winter in Lesotho with ‘M’e Mamoletsane and the new ED toward a smooth transition.
- By our fiscal year-end in June 2022, we will have a new five-year strategic plan in place to leverage our experience and expertise to reach significantly more people in new, deeper and exciting ways.
- We have a full year ahead to celebrate our first 19 years, to prepare for the transition and lay the foundation for the wonderful new initiatives we have planned.
- I feel we are just getting started. My retirement is no surprise and a terrific opportunity to bring a different skill set for a different phase of the organization. We no longer need a founder. Our next ED does not have to do what I did. The foundation, trust, structures, governance, content and capacity are all in great shape and well-developed. The new ED will bring other skills, networks and capacities that I do not have and which will be needed in a new time and context.
I mention it now as we will post the position soon and I want to tell you myself. We will of course keep you informed as our plans evolve but for now, please pray with me that the new ED is longingly waiting for exactly this opportunity to serve in this very special way with and for the most amazing people one could imagine.
As a final note, many have asked me about the next donor trip to Lesotho. We are planning this for February 2023 so if you are interested let us know. Three guests from the 2019 and 2020 trips share some of their fondest memories here.
I look forward to the future. When I am relieved of my formal duties, I will have more time to chat with you, spread the word, be with my grandchildren, and make different kinds of contributions. As I write this, my mind is full – I tell everyone who will listen to me that I love our donors, that each one is a privilege to know.
Together, we will launch the second innovative phase of Help Lesotho and continue its achievements in reaching 265,000 more people. We are a team and you are key members.
I send you energy as you rebuild your resilience after such an arduous couple of years – thank you for walking this journey with me.