2022 #5: Letters from Lesotho (#140)

2022 #5: Letters from Lesotho (#140)

Greetings,

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.”

Moliehi

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.”

Mothetho

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.

Love,

Peg

2022 #4: Letters ‘from’ Lesotho (#139)

2022 #4: Letters ‘from’ Lesotho (#139)

Lumelang,

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!

Tebello

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!

Peg

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!

Click to read Letter #5 from 2022

Click to read Letter #1 from 2022
Click to read Letter #2 from 2022
Click to read Letter #3 from 2022

Click to read past Letters from Lesotho

2022 #3: Letters ‘from’ Lesotho (#138)

2022 #3: Letters ‘from’ Lesotho (#138)

Greetings,

I know you are as excited as I am at the advent of spring – it has not come too soon! I imagine you are planning gatherings and trips, hopeful to satisfy some of those longings. I am booked and looking forward to a hiking trip for a week in the Rockies in the first week of April – it has been so long …. I can’t wait!

I have so much to share in this letter that I will get right to it. Note that I am including two videos of our beneficiaries that are well-worth a few minutes of your time (about 11 minutes total running time).

Firstly, our staff have done a terrific Annual Report for 2021 (fiscal year ends June 30). It is quick, visual impact reporting on our work during a very challenging year. The financial charts on this page tell you exactly where your money has gone – https://helplesotho.org/financials/.

Young mothers in Lesotho in their training program

As you know, we have a vibrant program for pregnant girls and young mothers. One incredibly generous woman in Canada sponsors a major portion of the program and UNICEF another section so we can reach more girls. The program is holistic, dealing with pre- and post-natal issues, breastfeeding and nutrition, sexual and reproductive health, emotional challenges, conflict resolution, and managing the stigma of having babies so young. The girls also learn to start a small business in their villages. Over the years, the program’s reputation has grown so that UNICEF regularly uses it as an example in other countries and sponsored the production of this video which introduces you to these dear young woman as they speak for themselves.

The world just celebrated International Women’s Day. It is exciting to see the changes and concurrently disappointing to see the lack of progress. Our staff and beneficiaries honoured the day by striking the ‘Break the Bias’ pose!

As Help Lesotho evolves, we move fervently to scale up our program strategies to educate community leaders and members on their explicit responsibility to create the social change required for girls and women to be safe and part of decision making in all facets of life. Since 2016, our GIRL4ce Program has delivered the message through drama, song and poetry. Our community dialogues train herd boys to educate and communicate with their local councilors on their rights and the rights of girls and women. All beneficiaries are trained to speak up to the elders, mothers-in-law, teachers, parents, guardians and local leaders on their rights. The impact is significant and in the end, the community leaders are appreciative:

“We are so empowered as leaders, from now onwards we understand that we have power to influence for social change and can keep the momentum going within our societies to support people vulnerable to Gender Based Violence because indeed it happens in our villages.”

‘M’e Mafonea

“I was not aware of such a very important role of protecting the rights of women and girls as a politician. I have always been interested in political powers without realizing the responsibilities it comes with. Now I’m ready to make a difference in every corner of my community and those next to me.”

Ntate Keele

This scale-up includes increasing our programing for boys and men, for their own benefit, and as they are the usual perpetrators and conveyers of inequity. We have augmented the number of male participants from 20% to 35% over the past few years, despite our experience that donors are often reluctant to fund male programs. We have boys and men in various programs (Guys4Good for grade seven boys, the leadership programs and camps, sponsored children, Computer and Life Skills, GIRL4ce, for example). Funded almost entirely by another generous woman, the impact and reputation of our Herd Boy Program is significant. Some of these boys are as young as six when they start herding. One of the Chiefs in Berea, Ntate Mangana, said:

“Since the herd boys attended the program, there is a very huge positive change in their lives. Before Help Lesotho’s intervention, I attended to many criminal cases of herd boys who violated people especially, girls and women. Although I repeatedly tried involving the police to intervene, the situation remained the same. The herd boys were very cheeky and could not abide by any rules related to range management. This led to disputes between families and in some cases other people even lost their lives in such family fights that emanated from inability to solve conflicts harmoniously. In this community, most young men abuse drugs, especially marijuana which is easily accessible. The past two months, I noticed a change to most of the boys here. I’m glad to say that they have been so engaged in the community policing committee, they organised and participated in a soccer tournament focused on messages to do away with drugs. They aim to rebuild their lives and act as positive role models to their peers.”      

You definitely will want to watch this short video of these boys so far away and trying so hard to be good men. 

We piloted a program to combine the herd boys with the out-of-school boys in the same village. In many ways, both groups are idle, prone to depression and substance abuse with limited prospects for their futures, and are often the abusers of the girls around them. Alas, bringing the two groups together did not work. Each group has unique challenges, different education levels, and deeply ingrained biases towards the other. The groupings had such different attitudes and contexts that they could not communicate or support each other. We now run programs for each group so they get the support they need to safely explore their challenges, emotions, and hopes for the future.

As the mother of three sons and grandmother of four young lads, these fragile boys break my heart. They are so wounded, but they actually thrive when given the support, attention, empathy and time to heal from their insecurities and lack of knowledge. When they explore how these negative, abusive sub-cultures sabotage their relationships with their families and girls they long to partner with, they start opening up to growth and eagerly grasp at new ideas to become young men they can respect. One staff wrote: “The boys say they are no longer forcing their girls into sexual activities but are choosing to communicate and discuss consent because they want better relationships”. From our multitude of reports here is a sample from our staff, as the boys can now:

  • recognize peer pressure situations and have the skills necessary to resist it;
  • identify people they want to become friends with by sharing their values;
  • think for themselves rather than allowing others to make decisions for them;
  • identify their own self-esteem levels and strategies to boost their confidence and self-esteem;
  • understand the importance of self-talk, and that saying good words to themselves when they do not feel strong will help them to accept who they are and value themselves when others do not;
  • accept that dropping out of school was not a healthy decision and if given a chance to go back to school they would go;
  • understand the laws and acts protecting human rights in Lesotho, including that children actually have rights and should be protected against gender-based violence, being exploited, forced into marriage and denied an opportunity to go to school; and
  • realize that abduction and human trafficking are serious offenses, even abducting girls to be married, and that if they witness these things, they could also be found guilty.

Many of these boys do not know their HIV status as they are afraid to go to the clinics. We bring the health care providers to them, for testing and education about transmittable diseases, condoms, female reproduction etc.

Doing this math, if we helped close to 22,000 people last year, we reached over 7,700 boys and men. Multiply that by the number of years and we are reaching an enormous number of males with deep enough programing to create substantial social change.

And finally, I want to share this happy story. When COVID forced lockdowns, we were deeply concerned about the education and mental health of the children. Most have no real support, no books at home, often no table to study, light to read or educated parent to help. We were also concerned about our program alumni becoming depressed with all they have to cope with. We married the two concerns and called it ‘Limitless Horizons Volunteer Village Outreach’. Next week marks exactly one year since the project began.

In 2021 we had 96 alumni who volunteered 5,379 hours (av. 56 hours per volunteer) and reached 4,736 children (av. 49 children per volunteer). In 2022, just over half of the original volunteers continue their outreach activities and we are welcoming 30 new volunteers to the project this month. The alumni receive training in tutoring and basic listening skills to then work with children in their village to keep them motivated to learn and to provide basic psychosocial support. We have developed and distributed over 5,000 activity books, filled with COVID-19 education, math, literacy and science games and activities, motivational messages and coping strategies.

The project has been so successful that the guardians and parents have asked us to teach them how to better support the children in their education! Perhaps most rewarding is witnessing the pride the youth volunteers have in seeing their commitment to role modeling and helping others yield substantial impact. They are earning the respect of others in the community. They finally believe that they have what it takes to make a difference.

To learn more about the educational context in Lesotho right now you can check this out: https://reliefweb.int/report/lesotho/striving-build-better-future-children-through-education-lesotho

I sometimes struggle with what to include in these letters as there is so much to share, context to provide, people to thank and others to celebrate. In the course of a given series, I try to cover key areas but do let me know if you want special topics in either of the last two letters this season.

Be well my friends, embrace the day, know that you are appreciated.

If you will accept it, I send you a hug.

Peg

P.S. For those who are interested, this digital government of Lesotho flip brochure has lots of photos and information on various sectors. The font is small but you can enlarge any given page: https://heyzine.com/flip-book/a6669c2361.html

Click to read Letter #1 from 2022
Click to read Letter #2 from 2022
Click to read past Letters from Lesotho

2022 #2: Letters ‘from’ Lesotho (#137)

2022 #2: Letters ‘from’ Lesotho (#137)

Lumelang,

When I take my first sip of coffee and start my day, it is already early afternoon in Lesotho. I open my emails with a moment of trepidation, knowing there will be many and that each one needs my careful attention

Mamoletsane Khati, Country Direcor

Even though ‘M’e Mamoletsane and I meet for a couple of hours weekly to share updates on the many issues we are facing and the opportunities we are chasing, there are always things that need immediate response. Some emails tell me of sad news of our beneficiaries. Others reveal the latest on the social-political issues in Lesotho from my newsfeed. There might be an issue with maintenance in our centres, a new report or story on the impact we are making – on an individual or on a group, a new request for proposals from UNICEF or UNFPA. My inbox is also the conveyer of the dearest messages from donors in support and encouragement. Every day has its surprises.

A recent email reported the reach of a special post on our Facebook page. It was one of the most popular posts we have ever had (over 7,000 views!) – about a man who has no Facebook account. Ntate Motsamai, our incredible driver, was awarded his Ten-Year Loyalty Plaque at a recent staff meeting. I so vividly remember hiring him. We had decided we needed a professional driver to transport staff to our outpost locations. I had done a lot of the driving myself over the years but no other program staff had a license, nor were confident to get one.

I hired Ntate Motsamai because he had been a long-haul truck driver and knew how to manage vehicle breakdowns in the mountains. He volunteered helping the vulnerable at his church, had a gaggle of children and wanted to work closer to them. He spoke little English then and was quite shy with me.

Over these many years, Ntate has transported thousands of pounds of goods to our beneficiaries and staff to the most rural sites you can imagine. When we have international guests, he and I drive in convoy. He treats our guests as royalty and they all end up loving him (many commented on the Facebook post). He helps the grannies, translates for me, makes our stressed-out young mothers laugh, and kicks a ball around with the herd boys. He and I have had so many adventures – and misadventures – together. Had I been in Lesotho, I would love to have given him this honour myself – with a huge hug. He is a very dear man – who is now famous!

As well as a gift, ‘M’e Mamoletsane took he and his wife to the (one and only) hotel for a nice lunch to celebrate.

Our fabulous head of finance, Lesley Griffiths, also celebrates her 5-year anniversary at Help Lesotho this week. Lesley was our auditor for 8 years prior to joining us, so she has been with us and our growth for much of our journey. She stewards the financial team and its accountability with expertise, the diligence of a pit-bull, and the passion of a forensic auditor. Our last five audits have been ‘clean’ with no suggestions for improvement.

One cannot overstate the value of loyal employees who care deeply for our beneficiaries and always put them first.

Since 2006, we have held our annual Leaders-in-Training (LIT) Program at this time of year. As usual, 65 carefully chosen young men and women between ages 19-27 are launched on an exploration of themselves and their ideas that will transform them forever.

I always look forward to the first morning – watching them come into the centre with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension, not knowing what to expect, hopeful something good will happen. I too am filled with hope that something beyond wonderful will happen for them – this is why we exist.

At the staff’s request, I conduct the first session of the program every year on self-awareness – the last two years by Zoom. Even with the awkwardness of a screen, masks and distance, their questions to me are filled with longing for guidance and care:

  • “’M’e, how can I learn to be confident, I am always afraid?”;
  • “’M’e, I want to make better decisions. Please tell me how”;
  • “’M’e, I am crying all the time, how can I learn to stop”.

One wants to just hold each one for a while and listen. They are desperate to know better; to do better. Our staff do an amazing job with all the love and care possible. Everyone grows, everyone loves the program. The participants develop amazing friendships, many of which last a lifetime.

As I write, our staff are playing a friendly soccer game vs. the LIT participants. Everyone is out cheering each other on! The match is ongoing, so no final score to report yet. Amid the heaviness of the world this week, I find comfort in seeing these young people having fun. 

I write about this program every year because it is central to our mission to: 1) help young people heal and grow to take personal and social responsibility and leadership; and 2) identify promising young leaders as candidates for Help Lesotho’s Professional Internship Program. I write about this every year because the need is extraordinary and pressing. Lesotho requires ethical, wise leaders more than anything. With the exception of two, all our program officers are graduates of this program as it forms the foundation of values, ethics, commitment to excellence, and compassion that is the life breath of Help Lesotho.

When ‘M’e ‘Mamoletsane sat in on the Grief and Loss session last week, it shook her to the core. The depth of their pain is unbelievable and it pours forth as an emotional avalanche the minute the dam is breached.

Our recent three-year evaluation of the program allows me to share a sample of the data collected through our participant feedback surveys. Their choice of most meaningful topics is consistently self-awareness, self-esteem, grief and loss, and communication. Perhaps the most stable and valuable measure of longitudinal impact is the unsolicited positive feedback and appreciation we receive from LIT alumni – even after 5, 10 years! The most common suggestion is that the program be longer and available to all youth in Lesotho! The full 2021 LIT evaluation, including impact stories, is available here.

You might also enjoy watching this video (about 12 minutes long) of two of our current Professional Interns, Lineo and Motopi, who participated in LIT in 2021. 

We have an abbreviated version of the LIT content in our Computer and Life Skills Program offered at both centres throughout the year. As well as life skills sessions, the participants learn the basics of word processing, spreadsheets and professional presentation. One of those morning emails shared this update:

Three of the young women in our current course, Pulane, Rorisang and Motena, are between 18-20 years of age and were friends before joining the program. When discussing the importance of building healthy friendships, they shared the challenges of being good friends to each other. Pulane teared as she described her feeling of being trapped between her two friends who fight almost every day.

They said they realized in the session on friendship that they never feel they belong and so they are too intense with each other – wanting someone to love them. They compete for approval and superiority at who is the smartest or the best looking. The girls said they understood their emotional needs better now and that their need for approval was bringing behaviour they were ashamed of now. They became aware that children in Lesotho rarely feel they belong or are accepted, especially when they are orphans or if they live by themselves at a young age, and that this is a reason why children don’t get along or do well at school. Often their friends are all they have and they now realize that if they fail to build healthy friendships, they find themselves in risky behaviours such as early pregnancy, early marriage and dropping out of school. They said that equipping the young people with knowledge and skills and these valuable lessons is the most important thing Help Lesotho has offered to them.

To conclude on some levity, you might enjoy this video – the two ladies are absolutely crazy and the footage of the beyond-rough roads and typical Basotho culture is wonderful. I have driven a huge white double cab Toyota Hilux pickup on exactly these roads for close to twenty years. Believe me, they were even worse back then!  If you watch to the end you will get a sense of some of the people I meet and the places I go! Enjoy.

Thank you to those who responded to the survey in the last letter. We all enjoyed reading your comments – and appreciate them.

Every day, we try anew. Everyone is important.

And, so are you! I hope you are able to get the hugs and laughs you need to manage this week.

Peg

2022 #1: Letters ‘from’ Lesotho (#136)

2022 #1: Letters ‘from’ Lesotho (#136)

My personal greetings to each one,

As this letter falls into your inbox, I wonder how you are. You would be surprised at how often I think of you – wondering how our donors are doing – seeing your names, wondering if you need help or a listening ear. We are all struggling to manage during this seemingly endless pandemic and we all need support. Thank you for your messages of encouragement and for remembering us and our beneficiaries when you have so much else on your mind.

I am grateful daily that my children and six grandchildren have remained healthy the past two years, as I have. We have all had a very long reminder about gratitude!

My plan to return to Lesotho in March or April is on hold until it is safe and reasonable to satisfy four different countries’ regulations to get there and back! I will go as soon as I feel it is a good idea. We have a lot of interest in the next donor trip so we will plan that when safety allows. In the meantime, I will once again publish my ‘Letters ‘from’ Lesotho’ on our usual schedule over the next couple months. 

As we move into our third year of COVID, I am often asked how it is to lead an international team at this distance. Firstly, I want to highlight that we are now an all-female-led organization as a result of some leadership changes last year. Besides myself and our finance managers in both Canada and Lesotho, we now have a new female Country Director in Lesotho and a female Chair of the Board. This is an amazingly committed and talented team, with whom I work closely and am deeply grateful for their leadership. I have asked our two new leaders to share some thoughts with you.

Last May, ‘M’e Mamoletsane Khati took over from our wonderful Country Director, Shadrack Mutembei, who helped build our organization in Lesotho for ten years. I love working with ‘M’e ‘Mamoletsane and know that she will continue to guide and grow the organization for years to come.  Many of you have met her already and I know those who haven’t yet, will want to. She writes:

“Since I joined Help Lesotho in August 2020, even throughout COVID, I have witnessed so much social change brought from our programs. Our dedicated, talented staff have persevered and still managed to be positive and effective. Working with such a selfless, committed team has developed in me so much humility and compassion for others. Our interventions continue to bring so much hopefulness and optimism to us all – staff and beneficiaries alike.

Mamoletsane Khati, Country Direcor

I hear often from community leadership, chiefs and councillors, and partners how our programs have improved their communities and their relationships with each other – even economic improvements!  Our grannies were truly dismayed during the shutdowns to miss their usual trainings, support and care. When they could meet again, they sang and ululated with sheer delight to be together and receive some relief packages. One teary, yet appreciative grandmother said; “Oa tseba ke tlohile hae ke sa tsebe na ke tlo khutla ke soka eng! Ke ne ke sena le ha e se e le phoofo feela. Empa hona joale kena le papa, le lijelello. Kea leboha Help Lesotho” loosely translated as “The children and I have been without food and now I will have good things to feed us. With my whole heart, I thank you, Help Lesotho.”

 

To our chagrin, our talented and beloved long-time board chair, John Graham, completed the maximum term of nine years on the board and retired in November 2021. I truly enjoyed working with John – he always had my back and remains a sage, faithful friend and supporter. Thankfully, Kathleen Lauder has taken up the mantle to guide us as our new chair. Kathleen was one of the very first people, with Sheryl Selwyn, who believed in this crazy vision I felt so compelled to do – even before my first trip to Lesotho. She has remained committed to our work and brings her own decades of experience in international development to our board. These photos were taken in Kathleen’s first of two trips to Lesotho (2006/2007) when we had no office, no staff, and almost no money! She lived in a hut in an extremely remote school.

Kathleen Lauder compilation in Lesotho

Kathleen writes: “It is an honour and a privilege to be the chair of the Help Lesotho Board. I met Peg in 2004, before her first trip to Lesotho to “see how she could help”. Since then, I have watched in awe as Help Lesotho was structured, life-changing programs developed and implemented, staff hired and trained, and individual and institutional donors come forward to support its enormous impact. It was a joy to pray those first steps of its development with Peg on ‘our’ bench on the Rideau River. Despite hosts of enormous obstacles, she and her team have stayed firmly focused on serving the Basotho.  In my trips to Lesotho in the early days, I saw firsthand how Basotho lives were transformed through Help Lesotho’s work. It is a marvel to me how Peg’s desire to “see how she could help” has resulted an organization identified by Imagine Canada as among the best governed NGOs in Canada, one which brings life-changing support to over 15,000 Basotho each year, and which is now training other organizations to improve their impact.  I look forward to a challenging, intensely rewarding journey as the new board chair and would love to hear from you, anytime.” 

 

Last month, we also welcomed a new board member from Toronto – our first remote member, Susan Richardson. Susan has been a longtime supporter who has twice experienced our work directly in Lesotho. She is a sought-after executive coach and a strong advocate for our work.

Susan Richardson compilation in Lesotho

Susan writes: “Although I have been a long-time supporter, yet as I reflect on my inspiring trips to Lesotho in 2017 and 2019, it is only during those trips, when I saw for myself the children, herd boys, grandmothers and the new mothers smile and dance as we arrived in the Help Lesotho truck, that I truly understood the incredible impact Help Lesotho has in the remote communities. That is why I decided to join the Board. I am honored to be joining the Board and look forward to meeting many of you, contributing as an advocate and support the organization today and as it continues to evolve”.

 

Leading this team remotely for two years has not diminished either my ability to remain informed or the organizational impact during the endless pivots and COVID constraints. My perennial goal is to build the kind of capacity in Lesotho that leads to progressive autonomy. As it has here, COVID has pushed our technical capacity to work together remotely. Luckily, we made a significant investment the previous year to improve our internet in Lesotho – it is still not great but it is better. Our staff in Lesotho are now more adept at and comfortable with various digital modes and apps for communication and efficiency. I am in touch with them daily through Zoom, Google Meet, WhatsApp and email. We completed a migration to Google Drive – which is free and productive. Some now have smart phones to capture better quality photos. I feel it has brought us closer. There are always opportunities in every challenge.

This increased broadband and capacity has allowed many more of our donors to ‘meet’ and talk with our staff in Lesotho through our Zoom events. It has been reciprocal and a blessing to them both. Our staff are deeply touched that our donors are so interested; our donors are deeply moved by the dedication, positive attitude and grace of our staff.

The proof in the pudding, so to speak, is that we were able to reach over 21,000 people last year – with your support. If you haven’t already looked through our Year in Review, I hope you will do so and feel encouraged that you are supporting an organization that is frugal, nimble and making an enormous difference to suffering people in a time of crisis. 94% of our revenue went to programs!

As I commence this series of five letters ‘from’ Lesotho, we wonder what you would like to hear about. I will be sharing the challenges and successes of our staff and beneficiaries but I would like you to tell me what you are most interested in by a quick click. Please take this 2-minute survey. I will ask the staff anything you like. If your question is not suitable for mass response – I will email you personally.

I do know that you wonder how COVID is affecting Lesotho. At this point, 43% have had one shot. Our staff were deemed an essential service and could thus get vaccinated early. Only one staff had COVID and he is fine. Unlike this time last year when so many were dying, the cases seem to be lighter, as they are here. We help arrange for beneficiaries to get their shots when possible. The photo of this young man on the left was taken last week in our out-of-school-boys program.

As well as rampant inflation, unemployment, depression and fear, Lesotho is again gripped by disastrous climate change conditions. This spring (September/October) started out so well – with enough rain to bring hope of a plentiful harvest. In the past few years, delayed precipitation prevented seeds from germinating. This year however, it is the opposite.

Starting in November, Lesotho experienced so much rain that roads have been washed out, gardens decimated, the Katse Dam overflowed, and food security increased dramatically – either drought or torrential rains!! In an agrarian society, this means crushed livelihoods and starvation.

Our beneficiaries need us and you are there.

Your support, encouragement, interest and care are the lifeblood of this organization and our gratitude is endless.

Be well my friends – grab onto what you can to bring joy to yourselves and others. Hopefully, we are near the end of this isolation and restriction.
I send you all a hug. I will write again soon.

Peg