As I write, I am looking out the window as a group of children are, yet again, surreptitiously sneaking through the vertical bars in the gate beside the playground at our Seotlong Centre.
They are deaf children who live at a residential school across the field. Over the last couple years we have developed several programs for them and their teachers. Some of our staff are learning sign language to be able to talk with the children. You would be surprised at how little they are for their ages, developmentally delayed from malnutrition and illness. They are so thin that they can indeed successfully squeak through the 8” space between the bars in our gate. The Centre is closed for the day, yet they cannot stay away. This place is the one space in their lives where they are treated as equals, as valuable, as welcomed visitors.
It beacons them!
(I could not let them see me watching, but here are a few of them the next day when the Centre opened.)
I want to tell you about a young man named Tsita.
Tsita was 29 in 2015. School ended for him in 1999 after completing grade seven at the age of 14. There were no funds in the family for school fees to continue his education. Like so many young boys in Lesotho, Tsita became a herd boy, looking after cattle and sheep up in the mountains of the northern corner of Lesotho in Butha Buthe.
For 14 years, he lived an isolated life, wandering the mountains, without education or socialization. When his village chief called a gathering to declare that herd boys were being recruited for Help Lesotho’s Herd Boy Program, he saw his chance. This was the first opportunity he had ever had to better himself. He attended the Saturday classes faithfully for the full six months of the program, soaking up every word and idea, never minding that many of the participants were still children and he was not. He participated in a herd boy initiative to march in the streets of Butha Buthe to raise awareness of the need to end sexual violence against women. Tsita graduated from the program, proud and changed.
(Tsita at Herd Boy training. He is the one wearing a black woolen hat with one red and three grey stripes sitting just behind the speaker.)
In early 2015, our program officer selected Tsita to represent Help Lesotho’s Herd boy program at our 10th Anniversary Celebrations in March of that year. With lots of encouragement and support, he wrote and delivered the first speech of his life in front of the King and Queen of Lesotho, honoured international guests, his peers and national TV and radio. Despite almost paralyzing nervousness, he spoke bravely and passionately.
Below is his speech, followed by the story of a meeting I had with him exactly two years later.
Everywhere I went after the celebrations, no matter how remote the village, people were talking about this speech. Never had a herd boy taken such leadership or admitted publicly to being an abuser. People listened. Tsita became famous in his village. Peers who attended university weren’t even as renowned.
I too was deeply moved and read his speech to many people in Canada. He had captured not only the plight of the herd boy but their potential to be reintegrated into society as effective leaders.
Two years later, in February 2017, I asked one of our staff to find him to meet with me. I saw this as a test of the real impact of this program.
Could a young man hold onto that change over time?
Tsita arrived exactly on time, sparklingly clean and beaming. I did not ask where he got the money for the 75-minute fare to come on public transport. He was now 31, still living with his mother, his brother’s wife and two children, and his deceased sister’s two orphans.
He could not contain his delight. He was so proud to receive the call that he told the entire village, “Help Lesotho still remembers me!”.
Tsita remains a herd boy, looking after cattle for hire for approximately CAD $20 (M200) a month. He said the program had changed him forever. He had been a harsh man, thoughtlessly abusing women sexually. He told me that once he started the program he stopped completely and never did it again. To this day, whenever he sees a woman or girl being abused he either tries to stop it or he reports it.
He said that he learned how important it was to know his HIV status, to get tested regularly and to get treatment if required (while he spoke, he proudly pulled out his testing card to show me that it was indeed up to date and indicated that he carries it with him always).
Tsita said that he tells people around his village that women must be respected and should never be abused because they have rights. He reported that before he had been so shy that he never spoke to others and could not express what was inside but after he went through the program, he became confident and can now express himself. His face shone as he described how proud he was of himself now. He said if it had not been for this program, he probably would have been in prison but now he will never go there because he knows how to do better.
When I asked what he would say to the donors if he could, he quickly responded that they must be very happy that they had given this program and that his life will be better, that he is a different man and he will make them proud.
As he talked openly and with great enthusiasm through an interpreter, Tsita kept repeating how proud he was of Help Lesotho, over and over again.
Needless to say, I was very moved.
I took him into the kitchen where we were feeding lunch to the 65 Leaders-in-Training participants and asked our cook, ‘M’e Muntja, to plate a REALLY big lunch for Tsita while the staff got the funds to pay for his transport both ways.
Indeed, as Tsita says, you would have been proud too!
PS. Shortly after the anniversary, we lost the funding for the Herd Boy Program. During a talk I gave upon my return from Lesotho in 2016, a long time child sponsor stepped forward to help. She and her family nearly fully-funded this program for two years (300 herd boys))! Without this incredible support, it is unlikely that we could have run the program at all. Here is the proof – one person certainly can make a difference!
PPS. We are also so grateful to the people who donated towards the Herd Boy Program and who supported our online ‘Giving Challenge’ in June 2016 to raise the remaining funds required. Together, you made it possible for herd boys to get the same support Tsita received, including new blankets and gum boots for all!