Greetings from my isolation to yours,
I am nearing the end of my total-isolation period after returning from Lesotho and am so looking forward to going for a walk!
I hope you are well and managing during this stressful period. You would be surprised at how much we think of our individual donors – always mindful of your role in our story.
If you did not receive my last epistle outlining my harrowing trip home and the situation as I left it – you can access it here. I was deeply touched by your many messages of care, thank you. Please forgive me if I have not answered yet. I will soon, once we have things in place.
I had originally planned to send this letter two weeks ago from Lesotho. So much has changed in these last two weeks…but I still want to tell you about the people I met in my daily activities there. Before I continue with my Letter, you might appreciate an update about what Help Lesotho is doing to mitigate this crisis in Lesotho.
CURRENT SITUATION: To date, there are no identified COVID-19 cases in the country but I am sure that is due to the lack of testing. Tests have to be sent to South Africa to get the results. The country is on lockdown from April 1 for three weeks with Basotho living in South Africa prohibited from coming home, a measure that will significantly reduce the transmission of the virus and hopefully some domestic violence. Last Friday, a shipment of test kits arrived, complements of a Chinese billionaire. People are terrified, burdened with the still open wounds from the horrors of the AIDS pandemic. Among the salient factors are inadequate national health services, small crowded homes, loss of jobs in an abject poverty context, increases in isolation, domestic violence, and sex-trade activities for girls and women who cannot feed themselves or their children, virus myths and misinformation, and the fear of death of those with severely compromised immune systems.
OUR RESPONSE: Our staff inCanada and Lesotho have been working feverishly to prepare programs and processes that will support our program graduates and current beneficiaries. Our expertise in delivering the kind of psychosocial support our beneficiaries need most gives us an important opportunity to reach people who will most likely get no other support. It is essential to roll out our initiatives immediately to avoid the debilitating discrimination, stigmatization and myth culture that surrounded the first decade the AIDS pandemic. Our strategies will help thousands of people – directly to those beneficiaries we can reach, their families and neighbours. Some of the measures we have put in place in the past three weeks include:
- Distributing food parcels, including extra soap, to our grandmothers in Berea and Pitseng last weekend just before the lockdown;
- Developing a simple Sesotho information sheet on COVID-19;
- Developing and operationalizing a communications plan and supporting materials through which our program staff are reaching out to deliver psychosocial support to strengthen the hundreds of village support networks we have developed over the last decade;
- Mechanisms to provide staff with airtime to hotspot their computers as none have internet at home to work remotely;
- Set up WhatsApp groups of thousands of beneficiaries for positive messaging, information sharing and crisis management;
- Refreshing our beneficiary database of 3,000+ cell phone contacts, identifying the most vulnerable in each program group for priority contacting and schedules of contacts by phone, text, etc. These are adapted to those who have smart phones, non-smart phones (no apps) and those who have no phones, radios or other forms of information or who are illiterate. The latter group includes many of our grandmothers. For these individuals, we will try to reach their relatives;
- Developing and operationalizing messaging for staff to manage these communications, including phone scripts, Q&As on the virus, strategies for handling stress, fear, depression, communicating with children, and domestic communications under stress. We want to identify those households that may be perilous for girls and women as domestic violence tends to increase under stress; and
- Sending all staff home with large quantities of COVID-19 information sheets, one pagers on various issues (human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, anger management, communication, decision making, peer pressure, etc.), our booklets on pre-and post-natal care, sexual and reproductive health, etc. We have printed thousands of copies and each staff will use them as references and will distribute them (while practicing social distancing). The guard houses at each Centre have copies to freely give out.
With your help we can leverage the expertise, trust, stability and continuity we have built over the last 16 years to be a significant part of the current response and eventually the recovery process once this crisis has passed.
HOW YOU CAN HELP: Thank you for the many offers, here are some suggestions:
- Help us with our cash flow: After building up this organization from nothing, we want to preserve and support our highly trained staff over this difficult period, who have no government support benefits such as unemployment insurance or government bailouts. If you can help us continue to keep paying our local staff and keeping the lights on, it would be most appreciated. Of course, all our budgeted spring fundraising events and plans are now aborted. We appreciate a one-time donation but if you feel you can start a monthly donation, this will give us the predictable revenue needed to enable us to continue planning our interventions for the immediate and long term periods.
- Help us show our gratitude: One hugely impactful factor for our stability over this period is the donated Canadian office space from Hallmark RE/MAX Ottawa. Not having the burden of rent to pay is a tremendous relief. Would you write the owner, Ken McLachlan, and thank him? email@example.com. We are so truly grateful.
- Encourage our staff and beneficiaries: If you would like to write a note of appreciate or support to our beneficiaries and/or staff, please do – it would mean the world to them. You can send that to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will distribute.
MY TIME IN LESOTHO
A teaser: although I am not yet at liberty to name the person, we had a surprise visit from a very famous celebrity ambassador who came to spend half a day with our young mothers. Had I known, I would have changed my blouse!!! Once we get the go-ahead- from the publicity people, I will tell you who. That said, the person was so impressed and touched by the conversations with our pregnant girls and young mothers, asked a lot of questions and seemed genuinely moved.
Our donor trip guests visited our grandmothers and young mothers in Berea. The grannies all came in regalia – Seshoeshoe and their colourful blankets. As the grannies shared about their lives, we became tearful by the story of one Nkhono (grandmother) who had birthed 11 children and now looks after 17 grandchildren. Even by Lesotho standards this is extreme. Some of her children have passed, leaving her to care for their little ones; other children are in South Africa either working or seeking work and leaving their children with her. Now, during the lockdown, those parents will be stuck in South Africa for an indeterminate time. I cannot imagine how she manages. She said that if it weren’t for the Grandmother Program, she would have given up. It is just all too much.
Some of our young mothers brought us to visit their homes. The walk to and from, the conversations, and chance to see what these young women deal with was moving and troubling. For example, one girl showed us her one-room tin hut – made with scraps from old rooves. It was furnace-hot in there. No place to put their meagre items. A spot on the floor to build a fire for those painfully cold nights. No bed for the baby. She had to walk such a long way to get water, yet her baby was spotless. It was humbling to hear how appreciative she was for every little bit of support we were able to provide.
As there was so much to share, I will leave the rest for my final ‘Letter from Lesotho’ #5. I close with a note from one of our trip guests, Sheryl Kennedy Fleury, who came with her lovely daughter Nora. It is important to close on a positive note.
[Sheryl] As I leave The Mountain Kingdom after 12 days with seven other supporters of Help Lesotho, my overwhelming feeling is « I’ll be back ». The country is so beautiful and welcoming – not only the landscape, but all the people we met. At the same time, it is a country with so many needs.
I have sponsored girls through high school since 2004 with Help Lesotho Child Sponsorship Program when a group of us a St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in Ottawa committed to provide for 16 girls.
I was blessed to meet both the first girl I sponsored, now a mother of two in her 30´s, and our most recent sponsored girl who has just graduated and is working at home while her family tries to save enough money so that she can continue on to university.
Peg had all of us assigned to help out in our areas of expertise. I met and provided advice to the finance manager and accountant, and worked out the measurements and plans for remodeling of the Pitseng Centre kitchen which often prepares food for over 100 in a tiny space with no cupboards or counters, on a three burner propane cooker.
My daughter Nora, who was with me and works in the Arts in New York, met with the GIRL4ce troupe that performs dramas about gender violence and child early and forced marriage in communities around Lesotho. When performed, it opens up dialogue about this important issue – one central to Help Lesotho’s work, and is a powerful plea for everyone in the community to be part of the solution, not perpetuate the problems. Nora offered marketing advice and pre and post-performance exercises to manage the stress that such a performance engenders. Everyone’s talents were put to use. We were truly volunteers.
We shared our experiences. With grandmothers and young mothers, we talked about our children and grandchildren. With youth training on computers and in life skills session, we talked about our careers, especially as women, and with herd boys we talked about relationships and how girls and women like and deserve to be treated.
But our most important role was to visit the communities where Help Lesotho works, listen to program beneficiaries, ask them questions about our impact and how we can serve them better, hear their stories and provide compassion, understanding and a hug.
It was a trip of a lifetime. One I would highly recommend all Help Lesotho supporters consider doing. One I hope to repeat again.