by vinita | Feb 8, 2016 | Letters From Lesotho 2016 |
As I set foot on the soil of Lesotho last week, I started the twelfth year of my journey with the Basotho.
Before landing in Lesotho, there is a point when one can see the mountains from the small plane’s windows. Then I know I am home. This year, I was filled with trepidation about what that view might look like after months of drought. Thankfully, there have been short, gentle rains since Christmas. I felt enormous relief to see green on the mountains instead of the dull, hopeless beige I had feared.
Global partners, the World Food Program, and the Lesotho government are strategizing ways to help the more than 650,000 people who are at risk of starvation this year from the paralyzing heat and drought wreaked upon sub-Saharan Africa this year. Imagine the effect on our vulnerable populations – especially breastfeeding mothers, young children, HIV patients and the aged.
There were several months when our Centre had no water at all – even the town we live in had none. They had to import it from higher regions. It was incredibly challenging hosting hundreds of people for two five-day Leadership Camps, a three-day Alumni Conference and all our other regular activities.
The effects of the drought persist and are very real. The winter preserves are gone. Seeds shrivelled in the soil after the September planting. There is no time left for grain crops to mature before June’s freezing temperatures. There is hopefully time for one crop of vegetables, but nothing to eat before they mature and not enough to store for next winter.
As if to reinforce my relief, it rained on the drive to Hlotse from the airport! I arrived at home and the power went out. Welcome to Lesotho!
As I work, it is routine for me to hear the bells on sheep and cows. This morning I was treated to the grunts of a group of pigs as they foraged at our front gate! Life is never dull!
Our programs are in such demand that we have converted our two garages into classrooms. I walked into one garage yesterday during Saturday story time. It was packed. Half the children were from the nearby school for the deaf and the rest from surrounding villages. One young boy signed for the deaf children as ‘M’e Pontso read the story. Children clustered around our duplicate copies to follow along. One little munchkin was clearly thinking this was a bedtime story!
One of my joys in returning each time is the staff. Our staff are all Basotho, with the exception of our wonderful Country Director, Shadrack. This year, two staff you may know have changed portfolios.
- ‘M’e Mampaka who previously managed our Child Sponsorship Program all these years is now in charge of the Grandmother Support Program.
- Ntate Makoti, one of our Leaders-in-Training program graduates, is now the Child Sponsorship Officer after two successful years interning under ‘M’e Mampaka.
- ‘M’e Felleng, who managed the Grandmother Support Program, is now the Advocacy and Networks Officer – to address our ever expanding reach and scope.
Last year, we had almost 20,000 beneficiaries covering a massive geographical area. Last quarter alone, with no water, we reached over 4,600 beneficiaries with our programs!
Shadrack holds two-day quarterly staff meetings to build the team, share challenges and successes, review organizational information and plan ahead. There were 32 participants at the first meeting of 2016, including our grandmother leads from the villages. Staff came from all locations to participate.
We explored lots of issues and successes, but perhaps the most popular was the session on how our programs are designed and delivered to promote the cognitive development of our beneficiaries – and how it enhances our own. Great discussion and lots of interest. The staff were particularly touched as I told them of the sacrifices our donors make to fund these important programs.
I was delighted to present Five-Year Service plaques to ‘M’e Montja, our amazing cook and assistant house mother, and Ntate Motsamai, our wonderful driver.
There were tearful moments as they shared how much they value working at Help Lesotho and how they have grown as individuals. I look forward to my individual meetings with each staff to catch up. These are the people who make our work possible and such a huge success – they are an incredible group.
We have two new interns this year, funded by the Ministry of Global Affairs through our partnership with the Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development (ICAD). Jo-Ann Osei-Twum (right) is from Brantford, ON and Sarah Otto (left) is from Ottawa, ON. They will be with us until August supporting programs and projects.
I was surprised to learn that I am not the only white woman in town these days. Risa Keene from New Hampshire is here with her husband, a physician, for two years. Risa, a speech therapist, will volunteer in our Centres for half of every week over the next year – working with the pre-school program, library and literacy work. The staff have embraced her with open arms.
Wishing each one the very best, sala hantle.
PS On a personal note, in church this morning, an absolutely adorable baby cooed throughout and I became happily distracted with my anticipation of my third grandchild arriving next July to my youngest son, Abe, and his lovely wife Jessica! I wish every Basotho child was so blessed as this new babe will be.
Read Peg’s second Letter from Lesotho of 2016.
by vinita | Apr 2, 2015 | Letters From Lesotho 2015 |
This is my last letter home after two months in Lesotho. It has been an intense and extraordinary time.
The feedback from our first donor trip was more than enthusiastic. Their assurance that they would not change a thing has encouraged me to do this again. Without exception, they were thoughtful, culturally sensitive, interested and engaged. It was so much fun! We laughed a lot.
The depth to which they were moved by their time with our staff and beneficiaries was touching. It was very exciting for me to have this chance to show these committed donors my world in Lesotho, the people I love and the staff who work so hard to make this extraordinary impact possible.
Our Anniversary Celebrations were wonderful (see my last letter) and we got quite a bit of local press. The event was televised in full several times and also played on radio and we got three national newspaper articles:
As an aside, I had so hoped that the cosmos flowers would be out – they are fall wild flowers in Lesotho – bursting into pinks and purples all over the alpine fields. They were just coming into their own as I left.
I just missed the installation of the new playground equipment at the Pitseng Centre that Simon Melanson worked so hard to fundraise for.
Two swings and climbing ladders were installed last week and the remaining equipment will be fully in place next week. Other than our Hlotse Centre, I have never seen any playground equipment like it in northern or central Lesotho. I am imagining the little ones – and even the big kids – laughing with abandon and having so much fun at our playground. Those kids deserve some fun! Thank you to all who contributed. We will post photos on our Facebook page as soon as they are available.
As I leave Lesotho, I am so conscious that our programs are unique and incredibly valuable. My mind is preoccupied with ways to address the second part of our anniversary slogan – Ensure the Future.
This is my task over the next few years.
Help Lesotho has surprisingly few large donors. We need to increase the number of large donors, the length of time they commit and the number of people who will consider including Help Lesotho in their will. I know that people want to support organizations that are totally accountable and having a high impact locally. We just need to get the message out.
A few weeks ago a British gentleman came to see to me. He had been visiting a number of charities in both Lesotho and South Africa to understand their approaches to dealing with the high rates of HIV/AIDS. He was so interested in our reiterative, holistic, comprehensive approach and the fact that we keep the same beneficiaries for long times and across multiple programs rather than the usual one-off interventions. I was touched by his interest and his commitment to become involved in and support our work.
One of the last things he said to me was –
“Well, I am going to put Help Lesotho in my will!”
Now that is one step forward in ensuring our future!
I left Lesotho with a happy and proud heart. It was important to have these celebrations, to stop for a minute and reflect on all that has happened. I left moved to tears by the appreciation of our staff and beneficiaries. I left excited about the future – with so many ideas running through my mind.
We have a great story to tell – let’s do it!
Happy Easter to you all.
PS For those following the eye surgery project, we now have enough funds to ensure 50 surgeries!
PPS Also, the ophthalmologist tells us that sunglasses for the grannies would be a good idea so if you want to save your old ones and give them to us, we will get them to the grannies.
Read Peg’s other 2015 Letters from Lesotho
by vinita | Mar 16, 2015 | Letters From Lesotho 2015 |
Friday was our long awaited 10th Anniversary Celebration in Lesotho.
It was exactly as we imagined – with 700 guests, a wonderful speech from His Majesty, King Letsie III, singing and dancing, poems and cheers. Staff and volunteers came from all over the mountains and worked tirelessly to prepare. One school sent a sheep – which our staff slaughtered on the lawn and cooked.
Above is John Graham, our board chair, myself, the Queen and the King.
The night before we had torrential rains, lightening and high winds. We slept lightly wondering if the tents would fall down during the storm. Despite the weather, youth arrived late into the night to be sure they were present for the morning celebration. All night long ladies were chopping cabbage, peeling carrots and potatoes, slicing pumpkin and beets, and cooking mountains of rice. Everyone else was up by 4am to cook and clean.
The dawn brought a glorious sunrise and an army of youth, staff and volunteers scurrying about in silent, focused activity.
The program included speeches:
- from a herd boy advocating to end violence against women publically with great aplomb;
- a young mother who has overcome her shame to stand up and advocate for community support for young mothers;
- a granny who admitted to all assembled that she used to drink to hide from her depression thinking all her children had died of witchcraft rather than AIDS and now she is managing well with her grandchildren;
- a girl who has learned to believe in herself and the power of women to make outstanding decisions in all aspects of life.
Below is a photo of our two Ambassador Girls – Felleng (on the left) who represented Basotho girls for the Canadian celebrations and Lijeng who wonderfully represented girls in Lesotho at our event yesterday. We were being filmed throughout by the Lesotho television network and it appeared immediately afterward.
The country director for one of our partners said after the event: girls can change this country – at least Help Lesotho girls will!
The Ambassadors from Canada are having a wonderful time – despite the challenges of going without internet the whole time, losing electricity for several days and managing without water for a while, everyone is wonderful.
They built key hole gardens with grannies, hiked, rode and walked through villages and caves, met with young mothers and youth and helped to prepare for the event with the staff. We could not have asked for a kinder, more enthusiastic or positive group of people. They have loved every minute of it. Tomorrow we leave for Thaba Tseka – deep in the mountains to explore and meet more of our beneficiaries.
As we close this anniversary year, with our theme ‘CELEBRATE THE SUCCESS AND ENSURE THE FUTURE’ and our focus on gender equity – our first and last priority – one cannot help but reflect on the changes in individuals and villages over these years.
His Majesty commented several times on the effect Help Lesotho is having on his country.
Greeting our former sponsored children and youth makes one proud.
Throughout this anniversary year, all programs here have been doing gender advocacy. It was hysterical and wonderful to see boys doing the traditional women’s dance at the event, and girls participating in the all-male gum boot dance – for the first time ever. Two firsts – initiated by two of our partner schools. The King commented on this as well as examples of changes that are afoot in the land – a turning point.
It takes time to do good development; to change attitudes and behaviours. There was much to celebrate.
In 2004 we had 16 girls in a special hostel, about 75 sponsored children and 30 youth in training. In 2014 we had hundreds of youth in training and 10,000 beneficiaries every year. My mother was our first child sponsor! Her Basotho daughter, Lerato, is 25, HIV negative, unmarried and determined.
Another of our leadership girls is 25 as well, a graduate pharmacist and has a job! Like any proud mother, I could go on and on – each one to be celebrated and supported.
It was a very special day – so many sponsors and partners, chiefs and government officials, country directors and beneficiaries came from afar to be with us and to celebrate the thousands of people who have gained hope, purpose and focus to move forward with their lives.
PS The eye testing for the grannies in Thaba Tseka went well. Of the 88 tested, 62 require surgery. The doctors say the incidence of cataracts are much higher in the remote mountains due to the lack of sunglasses in an unshaded existence and the toxic fuels used to cook in unventilated, smoke filled huts (cow dung, paraffin, etc.)
Read Peg’s other 2015 Letters from Lesotho
by vinita | Mar 5, 2015 | Letters From Lesotho 2015 |
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
by vinita | Feb 26, 2015 | Letters From Lesotho 2015 |
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