As I traversed the tarmac in the rain to the small plane that would take me from Lesotho to Johannesburg, the skies were foreboding with a steady rain.
So little, so late. I am haunted by the sight of the fields, especially in Thaba Tseka. Corn that should be shoulder height is less than a foot; fields that should be bursting with produce are unplanted or dying well before maturity. The sight of the dry streams and river beds, women washing in shallow muddy puddles, and children pushing wheelbarrows up and down the mountain roads to find water makes the issue clear and terrifying. As I leave, the nights are cooler; the mornings crisp. Winter will come – as inevitable as the sunrise and with it cold and hunger.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation recently issued a warning that the state of malnutrition for under-five-year-olds in Lesotho is critically high. According to the report released last week, the national malnutrition rate has risen to 33% of children suffering from malnutrition and 50% from anaemia.
I will miss the sound of cows, sheep and horses waking me up. I will appreciate my showers more. I will be more grateful for what I have.
A generous partner foundation in Denver, Colorado has purchased a brand-new computer lab for our Pitseng Centre with 22 new computers. It is so exciting to think of how this will revitalize the community and give students, youth and adults a chance to learn marketable skills. Of course, they will also take life skills during their two-month course – that is the deal! The chief and local counselors have already signed up! Discouraged and disengaged out-of-school youth, always so hard to reach, will have a purpose and a chance to change their lives and behaviour. Young mothers will begin to believe they can move on with their lives. We expect the delivery in a few weeks.
The community cannot wait – this is the most exciting thing that has happened since we opened the Centre in June 2008!
The past two months in Lesotho have been packed. What stands out the most though is the tremendous efforts our communities and beneficiaries expend to show how much they love and appreciate our work. We get constant messages, letters and speeches from our beneficiaries of all ages – more grateful and heartfelt than you can imagine – to thank us – to thank you – for caring so much about them and their lives.
One example is a speech a young woman made at the intensive Leaders-in-Training graduation last week:
The Help Lesotho staff have always seemed to understand that attitude is contagious. Thanks for your positive attitude when we found ourselves dwelling on the negatives of life. You help us count our blessings instead of our troubles. Your optimism was contagious, it gave us the courage to dream and the faith to believe that our dreams can come true. Thanks for the lessons about life. By your words and actions, you have taught us about love, discipline, hope, courage, responsibility and more. One of life’s greatest ironies is there’s so much to learn in so little time. That’s why we value the wisdom you’ve shared with us. You cared enough to teach, and we won’t forget.
Thanks for your care, your concern, your help and your kindness. Even in your busiest moments, you always made time for us. Through your words and deeds, you have taught us a lesson that will last a lifetime; the power of compassion. We will be forever grateful.
Thanks for listening to our dreams and thanks for believing in them. When we summoned the courage to confide in you, you supported us, you encouraged us and you trusted us. If you harboured any doubts, you hid them. Please know that your faith was effective. Because you believed in us, we can have faith and believe in our dreams, too.
When I meet our grannies, as old and poor as they are, they are dressed neatly in their finest Seshoeshoe dresses with gifts of song and dance. They are bursting with speeches to share what they have learned and their plans to make life better for themselves and their children. They write songs of thanks. They hold my hands as if ever to let them go.
Our Help Lesotho family is enormous and loving – it is amazing. Just one example was the reception we had at a mountain school a 50-minute horse ride up into the clouds. We were met by the entire community with traditional songs and dances. The 156 children in this tiny primary school wore the track suits we had provided last year – to replace their threadbare clothes. They wore the Toms shoes we had distributed instead of bare feet.
I took our international guests to a VERY remote village to meet some grannies. The whole village turned up – a village of old grannies and children. One rarely sees a man or youth. The men have died or left and the youth have gone to seek work and a better future. With the help of our local staff, I had pressed upon them beforehand that they should not prepare food. The Basotho are so generous and hospitable but it is too painful to take food from their meagre supplies. I struggle with how to graciously keep them from making these enormous meals when I come. After a wonderful visit, a spokeswoman from the grandmother group in that area handed me the equivalent of CAD $5 in small bills for us to purchase drinks in town to compensate for the lack of opportunity to provide us with a meal. I know very well how much that money represents to them and was almost in tears to accept – which I must. They gave us handmade pots and brooms. Such generosity is beyond humbling – the widow’s mite!
As I return home to Canada, I am racking my brain to think of more ways to engage people in this amazingly powerful work. It truly matters – and the Basotho are counting on us.
We so appreciate the few large donors we have. Their consistent, generous donations help to reduce our reliance on the often uncertain availability of grants and ensure we can provide the services we know are needed so badly. Finding more such large donors is a constant challenge that keeps me awake at night. I believe completely that if people could see our work they would be so happy to support it. This is what each person who sees our work in person tells me!They proudly showed us the repairs to the holes in the concrete floors of their classrooms. They ask for nothing. They cheered and made a public announcement when I told them they will soon be receiving solar lights for their dungeon-like classrooms and for every student to bring home, thanks to your generous support.
So much has been done since my first visit in August 2004, and so much is yet to be accomplished. I am very excited as we complete our strategic plan for 2016-2019. Our growth and implementation has been targeted and successful. We know what we need to do and how to do it. We are ready!
Thank you for walking this journey with us – it is such a privilege to do this together ….. and as this little mountain school says:
God bless Help Lesotho 2016!
With my love and appreciation,
Read Peg’s other 2016 ‘Letters from Lesotho’.
On Wednesday, we bid farewell to our four special guests from North America, Gail Helmcken, Judith Manley, Jan Miller and Patti Giffin. It truly was an amazing experience to travel around Lesotho with them and see people, places, customs and landscapes through their eyes. They were such a pleasure to have. I marveled at their reactions to watching traditional dancing, hearing the unbelievably magnificent singing, and reading to the most adorable children you have ever seen.
- They met young mothers and played with their babies.
- They built key-hole gardens with grannies.
- They watched a weaving demonstration by disabled women, and participated in our leadership training on sexual violence and grief and loss.
- They heard grannies, children and youth open their hearts about their troubles and how they have learned to overcome them.
- They traveled by horseback in the tops of these majestic mountains to one of the most isolated and poorest schools you can imagine.
- They met a fine young man in Thaba Tseka, one of Gail’s sisters’ sponsored children, who is 17 years old and starting grade eight. He is over the moon to be able to continue his education.
- They attended church in the middle of nowhere.
- They were greeted by traditional chiefs, local councillors and villagers with grace and warmth.
- They received a unique dance from a witch doctor.
- They served grannies their special monthly lunch.
- They learned a bit of Sesotho.
- They laughed and occasionally cried.
This was only the second time I have led a group to Lesotho to experience the ‘mountain kingdom’. We feel this is an important way to show our donors the enormous impact of their funds. Yet regardless of what we say, visitors are never prepared for the depth of gratitude, the magnitude of our work or the gentle loveliness of the beautiful Basotho people. Our guests cherish the authentic activities with our staff and beneficiaries. It truly is a life-changing experience. We were all deeply touched by their passion for our work and the bonds they formed with the staff and beneficiaries.
We have decided to do another trip next year to coincide with our Grandmother Conference, where we bring all 200 grandmothers from our Grandmother Support Program together from all over the mountains. It is five days of learning, sharing and empowerment. Guests of this next trip will have the unique opportunity to spend time with grannies at this inspirational conference in addition to visiting rural primary schools, touring the beautiful countryside, and meeting children and youth at our Leadership Centres.
If you are interested in joining me for the Mountain Kingdom Experience in 2017, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. It will be at the end of February 2017 for 12 days.
We have been working tirelessly to develop a measurement and evaluation database that will greatly increase our capacity to track our beneficiaries and most importantly – our impact. We hope to have Phase 1 complete this month. As you know, our work is complicated because we are encouraging change in human beings. Capturing such change is complex. Our database is now up and running and holding our most precious information.
For the first time ever, we have somewhere to input pre- and post- program survey information that will show the extent that Help Lesotho’s programs are helping vulnerable children, youth, and grandmothers to build their resilience, improve their self-management, and take action for the benefit of others. While data is rarely ‘exciting’, we are very excited!! Phase 2 of this project is to improve our reporting capabilities based on this data. With so many multi-faceted indicators, we require separate software to maximize the reporting capability for all this new information.
I am hopeful that someone out there will be as excited about reporting our impact as we are, and will want to help make this next phase a reality. We estimate needing $15-$20K, but will submit a more formal project outline to prospective donors. If you, your company, or someone you know is interested in helping, please reach out.
Finally, this week we held the graduations for two of our most intensive programs – each lasting two months. Our ceremonies are very special and the attendees proudly come dressed in their finest! Ntate Shadrack gave a rousing speech at each group to inspire them to become leaders. At one, there were 85 Computer and Life Skills graduates, including the police I have been writing about. The chief of police was among them and I was petitioned to train more officers from other areas – hundreds of them! The very next day, in Shadrack’s mail box, there was a letter of appreciation from the Chief with a list of 19 more officers he is hoping we will accept for training. They were so appreciative and humble in their closing remarks.
The other group was 60 graduates from our Leaders in Training Program (LIT). This is our most intensive program, involving the entire organization to pull it off when we have so much else going on. As they ate their celebratory lunch, I was able to speak to each and every graduate. I almost had to leave twice to fight back the tears.
They were so appreciative – intently telling me how their lives have changed and how much they want Help Lesotho’s programs to continue and reach their families and friends. They praised and thanked the staff for their kindness and support. They repeatedly asked me to thank the donors who made this possible. They pledged to return to their families and communities to step up and speak out against injustice, gender inequity and violence against women. If you could have heard the men in their commitment to change to protect women.
Words fail me in describing how deeply I was touched.
I started this annual program in 2006 and estimate that we have trained over 500 youth to date. Imagine the cumulative impact of these fine young people all over the country! One young man tweeted during the day:
‘M’ Peg said, “we believe in you. We have put our hearts and souls into you; the best of everything we have has been offered to you”
Reflecting on today’s events @helplesotho ,
‘M’e Peg said to us “it’s all for you and now you need to go out and make it all for them”
A special thank you to all the Help Lesotho family for taking us through this journey that is LIT. Now it’s our turn!
I guess that pretty much says it all! Wishing each one well from Lesotho.
I hear regularly that central and eastern Canada has been in a deep freeze. While their nights are -35 to -40 Celsius, it is +33 to +35 during the day here. We are concerned that the heat will take away the benefits of the little rain we have had.
In my last letter, I mentioned the drought. An American doctor here told me that there were five weeks before Christmas when there was no water at all in the hospital down the road, water was brought in for surgeries only and there was no water for doctors to wash their hands otherwise. A startling image that brings the scale of the drought into perspective.
Just a sweet aside – as I am writing, three tiny, emaciated little deaf boys have threaded themselves through the slats in the gate to use the swings. We are closed on Sundays but they can’t stay away. This place has become their home.
Like a proud mother hen, I am bursting to tell you that Palesa Nkaile, who graduated from high school in December received the second highest results in the entire country!!!
Shas been part of our Help Lesotho girls’ leadership program and received school sponsorship for the last six years. While waiting to start university on full scholarship, Palesa is tutoring almost six days a week to help others do well. Palesa came to see me this week and was not only happy that her future education was ensured but truly appreciative of all the camps, conferences and leadership training she has received since she was twelve years old in our programs. Palesa wants to be a doctor. She left me a note:
“‘M’e Peg, I love Help Lesotho and the girls’ leadership program. You offered me free life-skills that give guidance to a healthy life with better choices and a clearer future. Those programs empower women and girls in Lesotho who are vulnerable and prone to all forms of abuse. They created a place for girls to build new friendships and learn. Help Lesotho has given me a reason to live and hope for a better future. Help Lesotho has taught me to give back whatever has been given to me to others.”
As I mentioned in my last letter, our centre is so busy that we are now using the garages for classrooms. This week was Grandmother Day at the Hlotse Centre and I wanted to show you what that looks like! You just gotta love the hats!
One reason we are bursting at the seams is the popularity of our computer classes. There is a huge waiting list. On a first-come, first-serve basis, participants come two hours a day for two months.
One hour is a lesson and practice at using Microsoft Office, building a CV and skills like formatting.
The second hour is a life skills class where they learn about
- AIDS and gender equity
- gender-based violence
- conflict resolution
- communication skills, etc.
Participants initially join the life skills classes reluctantly. By graduation, it has changed their life and their perspectives.
Two years ago, four male police officers came. They were shy and uncomfortable taking this free class. ‘Learning is for children’. Now every session includes more police officers, on company time. Before Christmas, one session was half priests and the other half police officers. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for those conversations!
Senior police officers leaving computer training classes.
One of the current sessions now has 17 senior police officers – both male and female. They are asking for two hours of life skills training daily! While we have them on site, we are also taking them aside and giving them extra training on gender and domestic violence. Their more-than-enthusiastic participation in this type of new learning is a huge definition of success and community impact. It is impossible to separate HIV transmission from gender-based violence. Just think of how this can change society if we can reach more police and local leaders through the carrot of computer classes.
Lesotho, the Mountain Kingdom, is now ranked first in tuberculosis (TB) infections, with 852 people in every 100 000 now infected according to the World Health Organisation’s 2015 Global TB Report. Most people here have compromised immunity systems. Hundreds of thousands are on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). A form of chemo therapy, they are hard on the body. When I first came here, there were no paediatric ARVs. Children were put on fractions of adult pills, imprecise and potentially too strong dosages. A few I know well are now 18-19.
I have seen the ravages on their development through childhood and adolescence. Their cognitive and physical development has been compromised. They are small of statue and have intermittent periods of illness and cognitive confusion. Many lack the food to digest the drugs and so they eat away at their mouths and digestive systems. So many are ripe for the other opportunistic diseases that lurk around to prey on the vulnerable. The WHO states that TB will eventually wreak greater damage than HIV/AIDS has.
People often ask me how I balance the sadness and relentless challenges here to avoid becoming discouraged. I never do get discouraged because our programs are so effective, so appreciated and so relevant to the local needs here. We cannot change everything, cannot cure diseases or generate rain. But, we can give people the hope, kindness, support and education they need to move forward in healthy, confident ways each and every day – gifts that will never be devalued. It is totally worth it.
I also never feel discouraged because of your faith in us. Our donors are wonderful – they are faithful year after year and truly believe in us. Not a day goes by here that I do not think of you – our donors – and how incredibly touched and rewarded you would feel if you could see how far we stretch your funds – in sustainable and innovative ways. It is this partnership with you that allows us to work.
Please know how much grateful we are. You are right here beside us all the way.
Rea leboha haholo (thank you sooo much)
Despite the beauty, the past couple of weeks have been challenging. We have had no water for a good portion of it, no internet and often no power. As of yesterday, we have water and power.
Last Saturday, Feb 28, was the national election here in Lesotho.
The country has over 20 parties vying for power with three in the mainstream:
- the Democratic Congress led by former Prime Minister, Mosissili;
- the Lesotho congress for Democracy, led by former Deputy Prime Minister, Metsing;
- and the All Basotho Congress (ABC) Party, led by the incumbent Prime Minister, Thabane.
The results are so close that another coalition government is the only way forward. We await the distribution of the 40 proportional representation seats to know who will form the government. The last six months have been unkind to Lesotho’s reputation as a stable and moderate country with good governance. All hope that the resolution of these issues will be peaceful and democratic.
The Facet Foundation, a generous donor since 2009, sent a professional photographer from South Africa to capture our work over three days. Anna Lusty, a fabulous photographer who specializes in NGOs, was just lovely – so interested and captivated by our programs and beneficiaries. You will be seeing some of her photos soon but I am including two in this letter (of the granny and the deaf boy) to give you a notion of the insight and quality she brings to her photos.
As we celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Help Lesotho on March 13 here, we also mark the 5th Anniversary of the opening of our Seotlong Centre in Hlotse with the Support Centre and the Graff Leadership Centre.
The opening back in 2010 was quite a day. The site was still rather like a construction site that we tried – by all means – to hide with decorations and distractions. We fed 800 people with no running water or kitchen.
The event was hosted by His Majesty, King Letsie III with wonderful traditional dancing, speeches and singing. I remember thinking to myself that it would be five years before I knew if it was all worth it. There were so many struggles and frustrations, so much perseverance and hard work, tears and exhaustion.
Now, after five years, I see that the Centre is in great shape and truly manifesting the original dream of being a place of sanctuary and learning, healing and laughter.Thousands of people stream in here every year to have their lives transformed and hopes renewed.
I can now say that it was worth it – totally!
This is a place where all are welcomed with kindness – those with AIDS, victims of abuse, the depressed and discouraged, the elderly and feeble. This is a place where their suffering is honoured and their future taken seriously. It is the centre of all we do here.
I was thinking this as I watched a group of young boys from the nearby school for the deaf flooding in the other day. When we originally invited them, these boys (there are very few girls) were ill-behaved, stigmatized, frightened and cloaked with the ‘tough’ guy attitude of wounded souls. It took time for them to really believe they were welcome.
With time, our staff learned sign language, we started special literacy classes, and we organized community engagement events to highlight the prejudice against and rights of the disabled. When I see these boys now, I find well mannered, quiet and happy children enjoying the play structures and interacting happily with the staff.
We are fervently preparing for our Ambassador guests, Canadians who are joining us to celebrate our 10th. They begin arriving today with the full complement here by Saturday, hosted by Mary Ann and Chris Turnbull.
- Mary Ann has been a board member for close to nine years and her school, Turnbull School, is twinned with a primary school here.
- John Graham, our board chair, comes with his wife Lynn;
- Jennifer Parr, on the board for nine years and chair for eight, arrives with guests Nancy and Brian Enns from Toronto.
- New board member Margie Hooper and her husband Jeff, owners of Keller Williams Realty Ottawa who provide our donated office space in Ottawa will be the last to arrive
It will be such an exciting time having them all here!
Although this is our first donor trip, it has been in our thoughts for years – waiting for the right time when this would not put too much of a burden on the local staff and when we could show our guests the natural countryside and the impact of our programs on our beneficiaries in a respectful manner.
I am convinced that it is impossible for someone to come and spend time with our staff and beneficiaries and not want to help – just impossible.
It was fun today showing a cleaning ‘M’e what a vacuum was; quite a startling contraption to her! Our staff have been working diligently getting everything organized and ship shape. It is no mean feat to put all these massive events on, but they do it with pleasure and pride.
I sometimes wonder if we mention HIV/AIDS enough in our communications. Lesotho has the world’s second highest rate of AIDS, inseparable from gender issues.
Our journalist intern this year, Stephanie Vizi, is doing a great job of chronicling both in her blog and GIRLS GLOBE articles. Click here to read her latest blog post on living with HIV in Lesotho, and click here to read more about the eye care program for grannies.
I wish you all could be here – that you could know how much your support is appreciated. Each one of you play an important role and it is only together that so many thousands of people can regain a chance for their future,
Stay tuned for the news of the celebrations ….
Khotsong (Peace to you)
Read Peg’s other 2015 Letters from Lesotho
As many of you know, I wrote a children’s book last fall in honour of the gender equity theme of our 10th Anniversary. My objectives were to:
- Show Basotho children that their everyday life was meaningful and worthy of seeing in a book as we promote literacy to children who have never owned a book or seen themselves in one;
- Begin gentle conversations between children and guardians or grandparents about gender issues; and
- Show Canadian children what life is like for A GIRL IN LESOTHO, thus the name of the book.
In Thaba Tseka last week, I had the long anticipated chance to show the heroine of the story, young Nthati, this book about her life.
When she saw the cover – her face lit up! I sat quietly while she read every page. I needed assurance from her that she was happy with what I had said about her life and her family. I needed her to know that this would make her famous and assurance that she was OK with it.
I watched her carefully pour over every page with full concentration. I was spell bound watching her. I had another copy in my hand and turned the pages at her pace so that I might infer her reaction to each photo and page text. She was – as they say here – over the moon! I will never forget it.
As Hilary and I went from school to school, we saw Help Lesotho’s hand washing posters in classrooms, offices and pit latrines.
Our school project this year has been water and sanitation hygiene educational program in 20 schools. Each participating school has built a simple hand washing station that has a bucket of water with soap and a bit of chlorine, and a tiny cup with a perforated bottom outside the latrines. Our Canadian partner schools paid for their Basotho schools to have this opportunity, and a local partner, USAID, paid for the other schools.
Friday was the graduation ceremony from our computer classes. We make a huge deal out of the graduations from our programs as some participants may never have graduated from anything – ever. This was a combination of three classes in this session – the largest ever, made possible because of some computers and chairs donated by UNFPA.
The 50 graduates ranged from 32 youth, to 13 pre-school teachers (who often have only a grade seven education), to a gentleman who looked to be in his sixties. Good for him for trying something new. They came early, very dressed up and looking so smart.
For the first time we have broken the tech gender barrier with more women than men in the class – a full 70% female.
There were also five police officers – which is exciting to know that these men received our vital training on gender equity and conflict resolution. Ironically, I was stopped last week in a routine road check. When the police officers saw the Help Lesotho logo on the truck, they asked me about how they could be enrolled in the computer classes! The police department is so supportive of this training that it gives the officers time off to attend.
The computer classes are more than just learning to type or use various programs; the classes also include life skills training to help participants learn how to communicate, how to make healthy decisions, and how to set goals and move forward with their lives. Most of the participants have no means of employment, and no funds to attend training courses to enhance their skills. Now, because of Help Lesotho and the Facet Foundation – program like this are free and open to everyone. As you would expect, we have a long waiting list for these courses.
Several brave participants gave heartfelt speeches about the skills they learned in the computer training and the life-changing impact the life skills component has made on their lives. One group did a skit on gender-based violence and how to respond to it. They were so proud.
One woman, perhaps in her mid- thirties, a mother of three children, the eldest of whom was about 17, told the whole group that she had been raped and never told a soul.
She felt she had no right to speak of it and she had to endure. She shared that she had been married to a brutally abusive man who went off and left her with three children to raise. She picked herself up, saved and built herself a little house for the family. Her husband came back recently to claim the house as his.
She literally beamed as she shared that the life skills component of the program had taught her that she had rights, that she was a valuable person and could take a stand against abuse and injustice. We were breathless at her bravery to stand up and speak out about her pain and her goals;
“Now I know that I did not cause these bad things and I do not have to take this treatment. I now know how to stand up for myself – and my children – and I will! Because of what I learned in this course, I went to legal aid, got a lawyer and am going to fight this evil man. I will do it!”
Another young looking woman told me that she completed our young mother’s program and had learned how to take care of her baby and not pass her AIDS to the little one. She also completed our Women’s Arts and Crafts program and was selling the things she learned to make. She said that now, because of the computer training, she was going to start a very small business (gesturing with her fingers about 2 mm apart!) to make business cards and nice things for people because she knew the software.
Several men told me they were no longer afraid to test for AIDS or get treatment and that this had changed everything in their lives. They would now tell their wives they were HIV positive and be more compassionate to others who had the virus. Truly it was a good day. As they danced and posed for group photos, their pride in themselves brought tears to my eyes. …as it does now as I write about it.
I am excited to tell you what happened after my appeal for support eye surgery mentioned in my last letter.
You will be amazed to know that one wonderful women on Vancouver Island wrote to commit to the first 20 surgeries, others came to add one after another so that as of this writing there are for 31 grannies who will have their sight restored!
Thank you so much – only $5,000 more to do the rest. We were all overwhelmed at this generosity – this is what gives us energy and keep us all going.
My very best wishes to you all,
Salang hantle – stay well.
Read Peg’s other 2015 Letters from Lesotho