As the light and air in Canada offers a promise of spring, Lesotho days begin to shorten on their way to autumn. The longing world waits with baited breath for vaccination coverage and some semblance of normality. It has been an eternally long year.
March 9, Lesotho received AstraZeneca Covax doses from India. Schools are beginning to open; our programs are resuming all over the mountains, under guidelines of course. Everyone has renewed hope.
If you are in need of a ‘boost’ (who isn’t?!), check out the video of our staff choir singing a beautiful song we posted on our Facebook page this morning.
One exciting piece of news is that our beloved annual six-week Leaders-in-Training (LIT) Program was able to start this week with the restrictions lifted. I gave my usual welcome session to 50 fine youth on their first day via Zoom. I am disappointed not to personally welcome the new group to the Help Lesotho Family for the first time, but grateful that technology still allowed me to connect with them for 90 minutes. All these years, I would never have imagined that virtual sessions would be possible in rural Lesotho!! Even through my computer screen it was touching to see them so anxious to learn and grow. Gosh, it is hard to track their reactions with masks on!
LIT is our most elite program of young tertiary graduates who display leadership motivation and potential. Following their progress through the program and beyond has always been a pleasure and I will do my best from this distance. Among this group are two young men and two young women with social work and psychology university degrees who are beginning a special internship in psychosocial support to build our capacity to help more people. This kind of training takes a long time and a serious focus. They will take LIT, do online courses on our proprietary platform, have mentoring sessions and complete many assignments. They will have practicums in the field, followed by training and certification as CHANGE4ce Facilitators to deliver our program modules. I will personally invest significant time into building their psychosocial support delivery skills. Developing young leaders is our purpose, our expertise and our joy.
This morning the group had their ‘Grief and Loss’ session. I always feel conflicted about this. Every year, I keep vigil while the session is going on. These dear young people, coming to the Centre with spit and polish, hopeful they will make new, quality friends, trying so hard to grow up. But this day, like no other, they face the layers of desperate loss and anxiety they have carefully hidden deep in their souls. The accumulative grief from the loss of loved ones, opportunity, intimacy and trust is brutal and my heart breaks for them. Our senior staff facilitate this session, while others are stationed around the room and the property to support the outpouring of emotion, however it manifests. I have written about this many times but the impact never leaves me – or them. They cannot move on without lifting this burden; yet facing it is tortuous before it is liberating. Torrents of tears; visceral deprivation of comfort and tenderness over their lifetime; memories buried deep in their emotional tomb rise up. There is so much loss from AIDS, TB, and now COVID. Many of the grandmothers died this year – grandmothers who have raised and loved these fragile young people and with whom they have their strongest emotional bonds. They grieve not only for the loss of their loved ones but how those losses have altered their lives for the worst. Many feel unloved. Most are suffering from a growing depression from too much isolation, not enough support and pervasive doubt about what will happen next. Most broke down in tears and some fainted. If you are the praying type – please join me in praying for their healing and their precious time of growth in this program.
Although there are many stories, here are a few from this morning:
- One young woman shared: “My father died when I was nine. After that, my mother turned to an alcoholic. Instead of her taking care of me as a child, I was the one taking care of her. I would go to the bar after school, sit with her until she was done so we would walk home together. This was a life routine for me as a child. At the same bar, there were teachers, who happened to be my teachers when I proceeded to secondary level. It felt embarrassing being taught by someone who knows the darkest secrets of my family. I would always be humiliated being with my mother at the bar with my teachers in the same room.”
- A young man blurted out: “I had a very tough life growing up. My grandfather played a very important role in my life than my father. He would always tell me stories than encouraged me. I remember one day at secondary. I did not have any shoes, I had to wear my grandfather’s shoes to school. I was a laughing stock due to those shoes, so out fashioned and old. I did not really understand until he died. Now that he is gone, I feel pained because he will not see my successes.”
- One young woman lost both parents when she was eight. “Then my grandmother moved in with us for a year. After that, she missed her own home so we moved there. We couldn’t stay with her any longer so I ended up being raised in different families and I felt I had no home. I miss my parents dearly. I always tell myself that someday, when I have a job, I will build the same house as my parents’ house so that I feel that happiness of being home.”
This is our work – careful, loving, deep and transformative.
As you may recall, we operationalized our first nation-wide ‘blitz’ to target gender-based violence (GBV) in Lesotho from November-December 2020, to help community members, such as teachers, chiefs, mother-in-laws, boys and men understand their participation in and/or responsibility for turning a blind eye to GBV. The already alarmingly high rates of GBV skyrocketed in 2020 as a direct result of COVID-19 lockdowns. There is also ample evidence of increased incidences of child marriage as a coping mechanism in emergencies.
We used the opportunity to pivot from our usual intensive in-person training model to a much broader campaign with the simple message ‘Do the right thing – stop GBV’!
The month-long blitz campaign was youth-led by our GIRL4ce team and included 12 radio shows, 5 billboards, 3 newspaper ads, 5 community exhibitions, high social media engagement, an essay and poetry contest, thousands of distributed brochures and buttons, and a catchy GBV song. We can safely say that we reached more than 70,000 people through this initiative. We have heard from many who said that it enabled them to start conversations within their families and communities. GBV is so pervasive because it is normalized and accepted…changing social norms takes time, but we are committed to doing everything we can to turn the tide.
The GBV essay and poetry contest was great fun. We received dozens of impressive submissions. Picking the four winners was not easy! The winners had their entries published in the national newspaper and received smartphones. You can read the full entries on our blog here.
Following the Blitz, I wanted to hear how the GIRL4ce team was doing. As an edu-tainment troop focused on stopping gender-based violence and child, early and forced marriage, these young people need support as they address these heavy issues every day.
The ‘bride’ in the drama on child, early and forced marriage, Thato Chechile, shared her journey in the program:
“I stayed at home for two years after graduating high school with no funds to further my education. Life was so hard and I was struggling. I joined Girl4ce in 2018, whereby I learned so much. I took on roles in our dramas and helped new members with their characters so that our performances shine. I facilitated sessions in the communities and did radio shows.
COVID-19 really affected us a lot. When we were unable to perform, we took short videos to post on our Facebook page and continued the radio shows to pass our message. People liked the social media posts. We shot a music video of the song performed by well-known artist Selimo Thabane and this really helped improve our skills and performances. Listeners were so impressed that youth want to see a change in our country. Once we started talking, our listeners were agreeing that GBV is constant in their communities and action needs to be taken to stop it. Most impressively, many men said they are against GBV and signed pledges not to violate women and children and agreed to report to the chief or police.
COVID-19 is a tragedy to most of Basotho. Everyone is affected, both young and old. The education system is disrupted, early childhood education is affected, there are no preschools which are the foundation of early development in young children. Without school teenagers have no way to learn and this may lead to high rate of misguidedness leading to drug use and every other problem. When we look closely into matters such as GBV, many women and children are forced to stay at home with their abusers all day without any escape through school or work. Most women are stuck at home with their partners who have nothing better to do than to beat their spouses up. Financially speaking, most families are in bankruptcy. They can’t afford necessities and this lead to high rate of teenage pregnancy and early marriage whereby young girls think marriage is just the solution to their problems. I see this pandemic destroying people’s future.”
As I check in on staff and their program participants, I heard the plight of one of the young mothers, Moratuoa, who is currently being attacked by family members trying to inherit her deceased mother’s house, saying she is not entitled to inherit any property because she is female. They have already taken her small fields and refuse to share the produce with Moratuoa and her child. Her chief is supportive so far, allowing her and her little five-year-old girl Nneuoe to stay in the single roomed house, in which the kitchen and bedroom are separated by only a white curtain.
Moratuoa survives thanks to the income she generates through the small business she started with support from the Young Mother Program. This past year has been tough. Most of her customers lost their jobs – no one is buying. Most families in her village go to bed hungry.
‘M’e was thrilled to get a M400 (CAD $33.75) voucher from Help Lesotho to buy more items for her shop. She is earning just enough to feed the two of them, pay her funeral insurance and the fee for her daughter’s crèche while she works. Because of this business, she can manage. She thanks all donors supporting the Young Mother Program so much for helping her learn how to manage her life and provide for her daughter.
Moratuoa mentioned that she used the strategies from our Grief and Loss session to deal with the loss of family members during COVID. She said:
“I cried a lot and I felt relieved. Some people told me not to cry but I did because I am aware that it is one of the healing strategies”.
Indeed, lots of challenges but amid them is hope and determined effort to make each life better. So much has happened behind closed doors this year. It is our task now to unpack it all and help them move on. I wish I was there to give out a few hugs – mask and all!
Thank you for allowing us to continue this work so adaptively during the pandemic and under arduous conditions.
PS: For those interested in how climate change is affecting Lesotho, a substantial, and frightening, report was just published and it concludes: “We estimate that climate change decreased the number of farming households in Lesotho that were self-sufficient by 50%. It decreased household purchasing power by 37%. It’s important to note that climate change exacerbated an already vulnerable food situation of the country. Agriculture production has been declining for years due to soil erosion, poor land-use practices and decreasing soil fertility. Hence, climate change may push Lesotho’s already precarious food security over the edge and make it unsustainable during drought years”. Click to read to full article.