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 email@example.com. 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.
Ntate Shadrack and I recently spent a couple of days in Maseru for meetings, making various arrangements and sparing time to talk about our upcoming strategic plan. The founder of the Country Directors’ Leadership Forum of Lesotho since 2008, Shadrack chaired a meeting of its members.
World Vision Lesotho presented the latest stats about the drought, now called the “green drought” because although the recent rains sprouted the grass there will be no harvest to speak of. If the many people who are on antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS do not have enough food to digest the drugs, the drugs will eat away their digestive system.
Corn stalks, normally shoulder length at this point, are barely a foot tall. Animals are emaciated. Food prices have risen 13%. 77% of people report they have had to borrow money to purchase food from loan sharks – predators on the poor. Watching the animals grazing on the quarter inch of grass that has grown in the past two weeks brings it all home, given that it is past mid-summer here.
If you are interested, you can read more about the green drought here.
From Maseru, I went to the small town of Roma to lecture at the National University of Lesotho to undergraduate students on Help Lesotho’s approach to delivering psychosocial support to vulnerable populations. It was special to meet the students and talk about our work. They were studying to be counselors and especially interested in our approach. Unfortunately, I cannot accept their invitation to return to speak to larger groups or to the faculty. There is never enough time!
Before I left Roma, I sat listening to the funeral music on the other side of a stand of trees from where I stayed in a little village. The music was transcendent. There are far too many funerals in Lesotho – this one for a young woman who had died of AIDS. She was a cook and supported 22 people with her meagre wage. She leaves behind a couple of tiny children. The place of music in this culture is impossible to overstate. Music permeates every aspect of life. Every meeting at our work starts with a song. Music is the living expression of grief, of joy, of hope and longing. The harmony is awesome and compelling.
This one little funeral, held in a tent by the side of the dusty road, was a testimony to the resilience of the Basotho people to keep going under the duress of more grief and loss that one can imagine. Where words are entirely inadequate, music takes over.
While I am in Lesotho, I often travel deep into the mountains by myself in a four-wheel drive truck. This is when I connect with the country the most. I had to laugh – leaving Roma, one sign says there is 60KM to your destination; 45 minutes later, another tells you it is only 50KM to go. Forty minutes passes and the sign says 30KM. Bear in mind this is on switchback turns.
This land belongs to the herd boys, their cattle, goats and sheep. While rare to pass another vehicle, it is the norm to share the road with donkeys bearing sacks of maize meal, women carrying huge weights on their heads up VERY steep paths in the hot sun for hours, tiny boys shepherding animals and horseback men shrouded in threadbare blankets and face covers against the dust in the 30 C degree heat.
Going through one tiny village, I was totally enamoured of four little boys – first bathing together in a small tub by their hut and then sunning stark naked in the warm sun on a nearby rock. They were beside themselves with delight – laughing and splashing. It was all I could do to restrain myself from stopping to play with them. One can’t though – when one has the white skin that glows in the dark. It is never possible to be subtle or inconspicuous. I often feel my presence disturbs the natural order of things and so feel reserved to intrude where I have not been invited. The Basotho are always welcoming but non-the-less, I am a disturbance.
We are excited to welcome four guests – women who have come to participate in our work on the “Mountain Kingdom Awaits” trip.
Judith Manley, a dear friend for 25 years and a huge encourager for me, is one many of you may know. Her husband, John, was the Master of Ceremonies for our first big fundraiser in 2006 with Stephen Lewis as our special guest. John was also the MC at our Tenth Anniversary in Ottawa last year. I value their friendship very much.
Patti Giffin, from Atlanta, is also one some of you will know. She too is a long-time friend. You may remember her from when her husband, Gordon, was the American Ambassador to Canada.
Gail Helmcken, from Vancouver, is a retired teacher who has been a hugely enthusiastic child sponsor since the beginning and is so excited to meet the children in our programs.
Jan Miller, from Kingston, is a member of the Kingston Grandmother Connection (KGC). This group have been the largest funder of our Grandmother Support Program for the past ten years and without them, we could not sustain that program. The KGC has raised over $250k since the beginning and is such a large group of wonderful women – I think about 225 in their membership. It is exciting to have one of them with us to actually meet the grannies.
It is a real honour for our staff and participants to host guests who care so much about our work that they are willing to leave their families and come to see it for themselves.
You see, although our work is fraught with challenges and heartache, we are surrounded by amazingly selfless, generous people. They, like you, walk this journey with us and we feel part of one family – donors, staff and beneficiaries. It is a real privilege.
Salang hantle (stay well)
PS thank you to all those who LIKE and SHARE our Facebook posts. This is a zero cost way to spread the work about the impact of our programs where they are needed most.
It is early in the morning as I write and I hear a gentle rain falling on the tin roof – what a wonderful sound. There is so much going on here I am tripping over myself to describe the activities clearly.
Help Lesotho is stepping up its efforts to reach more people and provide more leadership opportunities for our beneficiaries to run public events and activities. One such initiative is the formation of a national Grandmother Network, with Help Lesotho as chair to guide the development of the network.
Another initiative is the GIRL4ce Movement, planned and run by girls and boys with older youth mentoring the younger ones in leadership. The focus of the movement is to educate and encourage thousands of youth in learning about and practicing human rights, gender equity, HIV prevention and ending unhealthy practices such as child early and forced marriage (CEFM) and gender-based violence (GBV). The girls and boys in the movement’s leadership have been meeting on weekends to plan and prepare various advocacy activities. The girls have even trained police officers!
The GIRL4ce Movement has conducted massive activities in three locations over the past two-week period, with the expectation of reaching 2,000 youth, teachers and community members to advocate against CEFM and GBV.
Many of our graduates who are members of Help Lesotho’s Alumni Association are committed to helping execute these activities, which include songs, poems, and speeches. At Hlotse High School, the target was 400 participants. Nearly 500 primary and secondary students came!
Last Sunday, a church service was planned by the GIRL4ce young leaders to talk about these issues, pray for victims of gender-based and sexual violence, and have a moment of silence with participants holding lit candles to remember and honour the victims.
The best laid plans – the school auditorium reserved for the service was double booked and the entire group had to walk 30-45 minutes (depending on your speed!) to our Centre. And they came – close to 300 participants!! The grandmothers were seated in the place of honour at the front. I was just thrilled to chat to the priest beforehand to know what he was going to say and I learned that he is a graduate of our Leaders-in-Training program last year! He loved it. The messages spreads!
After the three-hour service, the grannies went by themselves to form a circle on the property and sang and danced by themselves for 20 minutes. Gosh they are adorable! They encouraged the youth to care for one another and stop this violence against girls.
A similar event was held in the village of Pitseng, again using the school auditorium on Saturday for 500 youth. The next day there was a community walk from the village of Pontmain to our little Centre that attracted 400 community members. The activities were then repeated in Butha Buthe district reaching an additional 600-800 people. Youth were in charge of all these activities as they publicly stood up to protest against early and forced marriage and gender based violence.
It is wonderful see these young boys and girls talking to their peers and community members about such important issues that affect them all. These activities are not merely educational – they are therapeutic. Estimates vary but even among boys and grannies the level of abuse is staggering. At these events, the participants hear clearly that someone notices them, that what they are experiencing is wrong, that they do not deserve this and that it is not their fault. Somebody cares. Somebody expects this to stop. Young people are going to step up and speak out until it does. These events matter!
There is so much excitement in our office about upcoming projects. In the coming months, we will:
- Launch a new group of 150 young mothers;
- Start a new Computer and Life Skills program at the Pitseng Centre in our new container-computer classroom; and
- Hopefully distribute 2,000 solar lights to vulnerable students who need light in order to do their homework!
You have likely heard about this solar light campaign since Giving Tuesday in early December.
We are only $3,100 away from our target of $30,000 to make this project a reality!
I love to think of students turning on their solar-charged lights for the first time as they sit down to read, solve math equations, and practice their writing skills. I have been in so many huts that have little or no light. How can these kids pass when there is no option to read or study at home after chores? Such a simple thing but beyond the reach of our students.
Thank you for the encouraging notes and emails – they mean a lot and I love touching base with you – even in a few lines.
Salang hantle (stay well),
Read Peg’s other 2016 ‘Letters 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)