In-depth: United Nations Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Support Office for the Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa

LESOTHO: When things are not what they seem

Julia Likhama with her pupils
JOHANNESBURG, 8 March 2004 (IRIN In-Depth) - It has pride of place in the quiet Basotho village. Large as life, freshly painted and set on lush rolling lawns with luxury cars in the garage, its ochre coloured walls stand in sharp contrast to the shabbier, grey dwellings of Thaba Tseka. It can only be the best and only hotel in town, or so you think until you drive closer.

It’s a pretty enough village, high up in the Maluti Mountains some four hours along rugged windy roads from Maseru. But this is no tourist resort and the smartest building in Thaba Tseka does not accommodate the living, but the dead. The funeral parlour Lesotho Funeral Services seem to have taken on the significance of a cathedral in a mediaeval village.

It is deceptively green and wet in Lesotho now, but the late rains here have created this green drought and only the stunted maize bears a pathetic testimony to true crop failure.

Nothing is quite as it seems here – even the children at Katlehong primary school in their green uniforms look deceptively like other rural kids in southern Africa, but they aren't.

We were here to speak to AIDS orphans, to put a human face to the lifeless, numbing statistics -- 93 000 orphaned children out of the Lesotho population 2.2 million have lost their parents (double/single) to AIDS. What does it mean to have 10 percent of the child population orphaned?

The principal said she would gather the orphans to speak to us and came back a few minutes later with a smile, saying, “Here they are.” Outside the schoolyard was jam-packed with chattering children, boys and girls, small and big. “No, no, Mme, sorry,” I said, “I don’t mean all the children.”

But they were indeed all orphans – 140 children had lost one parent, 29 of them had neither a mother nor a father. Many of the children are heading households themselves. Thaba Tseka is one of the worst hit districts in Lesotho and the locals blame it on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and the Katse Dam that attracted migrant labourers from far and wide. Now they fear the HIV/AIDS prevalence will be even higher once the pending Maluti highway project reaches their village.

At the same primary school last year there were just 88 orphans, but that’s not just because more parents are dying as a result of AIDS. A band of driven and dedicated teachers at Katlehong primary has been responsible for the growing number of orphans that has made their school a model for others.

Julia Likhama is one of those teachers and each year she’s seen more and more orphans coming to the school.

“We never saw this thing before, just in the past couple of years,” she said. “But now this free education is bringing more and more orphans back to school and they also get porridge in the morning and pap (maize meal) and vegetables, sometimes meat at lunch.”

Word has gone out now that orphans are cared for in the school.

Julia has been teaching at Katlehong since 1986 and she knows the intimate details of many of these orphans’ lives, but there’s one girl in particular who bothers her.

We don’t get much out of Matshidiso Rasenoko, 16, except that her father died when she was much younger and her mother in 2000. She thinks they died of tuberculosis. It’s left to Julia to tell her story.

“Ever since her mother passed away, she has been sad,” said Julia. “She was a bright, clever girl, one of the top students but now, eiy nothing. Her marks are not good. She’s just sad. This has disturbed her mentally.”

She now lives now with an elder brother but she must work cleaning other people’s homes and for that she earns R150 a month.
“That is why she comes to school late every morning,” Julia explains.

Mathsidiso seems distant, emotionless, but when I look up from my notes, I see she is crying. Odd then, when she says she want to be a soldier ‘because of bad men’.

“An orphan is a very sensitive person,” says Julia.

They all have their own striking stories to tell – Piekiso Nape, 15, lived with his four siblings during school time and with his granny in the holidays; Nthabiseng Leuta, 16 is living with an aunt; Mamello Phatsoane, 19, and her brother and sister live alone. They all have their own dreams and say they don’t like being identified and don’t want to be pitied.

Lesotho has an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 31 percent, one of the highest in the world. The Lesotho government has received much praised for being courageous in the battle against HIV/AIDS; four years ago King Letseii III declared HIV/AIDS a national disaster and ministers openly speak out and advocate the A B C (abstinence, be faithful, condomise). Some would say the government has even been overly crude by adding a ‘D’ for death if people don’t follow the ABC.

Some three million children in the six-country region – Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe - have lost one or both parents to the AIDS epidemic, most are cared for by elderly relatives and many of them are now heading households. A massive effort has been undertaken by the United Nations agencies to stem the humanitarian crisis caused by the triple threat of drought, HIV/AIDS and weakened government capacity. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, a generation of children are being orphaned to AIDS in southern Africa and has appealed for $34 million under the U.N. appeal, but to date has only received 20 percent of the funds to date.

Free primary education that has been rolled out year by year since 2000 is starting to revolutionize Lesotho’s youth. At school children are taught life skills, HIV/AIDS education, supported by UNICEF which is also assisting with curriculum development; the children are also given two meals a day through the World Food Programme’s school feeding scheme.

In a country where there is great sensitivity around HIV/AIDS the principal, Mantonthabiseng Ramone, and her teachers are convinced that “the children are the bridge between the school and community” and clearly it’s working. All the children I spoke to were well aware of HIV/AIDS.

“They feel very sad when they hear about HIV/AIDS because they realise their parents must have died from this disease,” said Julia Likhama.

The girls at the school seem to have been especially well informed about HIV/AIDS, in part probably due to the fact that there were more girls in school and also in part due to a UNICEF programme, Girls Education Movement, emphasising gender equality. The challenge in Lesotho is get boys to school. Already at a very young age they become herd boys and school may be free – this year up to grade five - but it’s not yet compulsory.

The Katlehong teachers are bursting with ideas and enthusiasm – setting up model vegetable gardens to teach the AIDS orphans and the others about nutrition and fending for themselves and using plays to educate the community about HIV/AIDS, giving the orphans food packages for the holidays, selling second-hand clothing, opening a bank account and so on.

So if their efforts, and the efforts of the international community succeed in Thaba Tseka, in time it may be the Katlehong Primary School that becomes the smartest more important place in the village and not the funeral parlour.

From Sarah Crowe, Communications Officer UNICEF, Johannesburg
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