Lumelang (Greetings) to you all,
News of the winter storms across Canada makes me even more grateful that the rains have stopped this past week, unveiling the magnificent Maloti Mountains of Lesotho. Everything is green and lovely. I eagerly await the blooming of sloping fields of wild cosmos– nature’s dazzling display of pink and purple.I wish you had been in Pitseng with me this past week. This stunning valley rests at the foothills of the mountains, in which resides our smaller centre. I happened on a Grandmother Day, always a great delight, as is the opportunity to chat about their challenges and successes. They were bursting to tell me how much the program was changing their lives. Dear, dear souls!
I had arranged a meeting with half a dozen talented community leaders and retired professionals I have known for years. Three are former school principals from our twinned schools. We met in our ‘spiffy’ new library to discuss how they might involve adults and seniors in the village to come to the library for adult literacy classes, tutoring, book clubs, to be read to, discuss concerns and solutions, learn to use a computer, join an exercise class, etc. Although rare here for adults to believe they could/should continue to learn and grow, we talked about the urgent need to keep mature people stimulated and have a break from their tireless work to survive. We talked about cognitive decline and depression. Ironically, at the same time in the other building, the grannies were discussing dementia! They had such great ideas. They decided to call the initiative, ‘Matlafala’, which means ‘Stay Energized’ in Sesotho. A perfect name!
Our annual and remarkable Leaders-in-Training Program is in full swing. How they love these six weeks of support, building healthy friendships and resilience. One afternoon, the staff set up on the lawn to both divert and provide access to HIV/AIDS testing and family planning sessions. They started in the training room to hear from our partners, Phelisanang Bophelong HIV/AIDS Network and the Baylor College of Medicine, to learn of prevention and treatment before going out on the lawn to enjoy danceable music and activities designed to distract participants from focusing on who went to the tents for testing. It was really fun and lively – they loved it. Of the 55 youth who tested – all were negative! Isn’t that incredible. Our job now is to help them stay negative! Interestingly, one in five went for family planning advice.
On Monday morning, the staff put on a touching traditional welcome for Julia Thompson, Help Lesotho’s new Executive Director. Both Julia and the staff were delighted to meet each other after such long anticipation. The staff sang, made heartfelt speeches and gave Julia a traditional broom, a handmade gift and even messages from the beneficiaries. As they meet individually with Julia, both I and the staff are so happy to have a new leader who knows and cares so much about their culture and programs. Julia will be sharing her impressions in the next Letter from Lesotho and I know you will enjoy hearing her thoughts.
Friday, we welcome our special guests from Canada. Joanne Beveridge and Campbell Osler are two dear friends and supporters since the very beginning. All of you who receive Help Lesotho calendars will know Campbell Osler Realty, its key sponsor for 18 years. Finally, they will see our work firsthand. Jennifer Parr joins us for her nineth trip to Lesotho. Jennifer, our first board chair for ten years, remains a close friend who constantly volunteers her expertise for Help Lesotho. Deb Ruse returns to Lesotho and is a key member of the amazing Kingston Grandmother Connection which provides most of the funding for our granny program. Nicole La Prairie, also of the Kingston Grandmother Connection, and Varsha Koneri Grant, from Toronto, are both teachers and so looking forward to spending time with these adorable little ones here. We are excited to have them.
As the school year starts in January, we have all been very concerned about the disruption in the education of the students throughout COVID, as we are in Canada. January starts the new school year and as we review the results from last year, we are so relieved to know that our students in Help Lesotho’s Child Sponsorship Program have done really well. 85% of the kids passed last year – against unbelievable odds. School closures left them alone and without the social and emotional support that school provides. Many guardians can no longer scrap the funds together to pay school fees. Many students have no guardians but rather stay alone in tiny multi-person boarding rooms. Passing is a herculean feat and we applaud each one. Our analysis of the reasons they did so much better attributes it to a combination of increased psychosocial support from staff, more engagement of their guardians, access to our computers and libraries, and participation in our leadership camps after a two-year COVID hiatus.
There are so many stories. I share but two from last year; one of a beginning and one of an ending.
Young Khotso lives with his mother, older brother and little sister. Without paternal emotional or financial support, his dream of attending high school was shattered. Reflecting on last January, when he was supposed to start his exciting high school journey, he said: “For those three months, I used to close myself indoors and I watch my peers wake up every day, all dressed up in new uniform to go to school. I avoided uncomfortable questions as much as I could”. All he wanted was to go to school and make his mom proud.
Khotso was deeply touched when his primary school principal believed so strongly in him that she paid just enough for him to join his peers at Khethisa High School in the second quarter, and bided time for his mother to plead for – and secure – Help Lesotho sponsorship from a wonderful donor in Canada. He feels truly blessed to go to school like other children. “I don’t need to be so afraid now when other children are expelled for school fees. I made a promise to make my mother and sponsor proud through my performance.”
Khotso credits much of his success to the lack of worry, the care of the staff and to the Pitseng Centre library when he obtained position one in his class and eighth in his grade, despite missing the first term. Now in his second year of high school, he promises to work even harder. (Imagine his joy at the new library!)
On the other hand, 19 -year-old Refiloe graduated in December from our Child Sponsorship Program. “Without sponsorship, I wouldn’t never have attended, let alone graduated. I stay with my grandfather and grandmother. My father passed away and my mother left for South Africa for job hunting. She comes once in a year and we rarely communicate. We depend on grandfather’s elderly pension but he is sick. I am responsible for the collection of grandfather’s medication during his checkups”
Distance and workload meant that Refiloe moved to a hostel room close to the school, wracked with worry about her grandparents’ well-being and ability to manage on the little money they had to all share. “When I got a sponsor, I started to relax a bit and was able to achieve the outstanding results. I am so thankful to my sponsor as I was never expelled from school because of fees or not having books. The toiletry kit I received boosted my confidence as I was able to fully participate in school activities. My dream to study Law is going to come true because of the sponsorship I got at Help Lesotho.” She loved the life skills provided by Help Lesotho. She is now proud to say that her self-confidence and esteem are high to resist all the negative peer pressures. She is working hard to achieve her goals and choose friends with positive and supportive peers.
If you feel you could sponsor a student (or more than one!), you can change a life forever. It is a remarkable gift.