Ask Malikhang Matsoakeletse what troubles Lesotho’s foothill villages and the Red Cross home-based care supervisor will take you to her clients: the hungry and lonely elderly, the struggling mothers who head up households, the abandoned and orphaned children, the HIV infected, and the impoverished grandparents caring for the offspring of their own deceased children.
Her rounds this morning lead to the home of Mafilipi Nthaha, 56, who cares for her nine-year-old grandson. Tlhokomelo is a bright little lad who wants to be a professional footballer and play for South Africa’s Pirates. It is a dream for the future. But tonight he will likely go to bed hungry.
Mafilipi is struggling. A food crisis is consuming great swathes of Lesotho, Malawi, Angola and Zimbabwe, and the field where she normally plants maize and sorghum has been swamped by flood and parched by drought. She has run out of seed and her land is barren. She does have a vegetable garden but survives mostly by borrowing maize meal from neighbours. Malikhang helps whenever she can.
Tlhokomelo’s father – Mafilipi’s son – was murdered in South Africa in 2011, and his mother, while thought to be alive, abandoned him when he was just a toddler. Now his grandmother is left to bring him up on her own. She loves the child and he is a dutiful grandson. But poverty and hunger are biting, the burden on Mafilipi telling. Hers is one of 1,600 households in dire straits which the Lesotho Red Cross Society intends to assist through an emergency appeal launched by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Malikhang Matsoakeletse is a tough, determined lady. She is used to the troubles of those who live below the poverty line, and her response is calm and practical. She isn’t easily given to pessimism. Yet now on the road she stops to say, “I have never known anything as bad as this. It is by far the worst we have faced.”
Farming, she says, is on its knees. Successive harvests have failed, and many animals have died as one weather extreme has followed another. “I’m afraid that people will be next,” she says. “If nothing changes, they will die in the years ahead.”
But much can be done in the community, and home-based care and support is integrated into Lesotho Red Cross Society efforts to build longer-term food security. Malikhang keeps a close eye on villagers in greatest need, calls in support and raises issues. She ensures patients adhere to drug regimes for HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, brings medicine to the housebound, gets her clients transport to health facilities.
She runs a children’s club, promotes support groups, conducts awareness campaigns, and with local health workers, spreads understanding of hygiene and how to prevent disease.
The Lesotho Red Cross Society helps families establish gardens that, come rain or drought, produce a year-round supply of vegetables. Malikhang shows people how to preserve and bottle the crop. She also works on livelihoods. The kitchen of her home contains a few hundred chicks. Support groups for the HIV-infected, and for orphans and children at risk, are going into the egg business.
Malikhang talks eagerly about all of this but reluctantly about herself, her needs, her hunger, the abandoned child she cares for herself. The truth is she has the same needs as everyone else.
Her husband is a farmer but they have no land of their own and normally live from sharecropping. They plant and harvest other people’s fields and share the yield with the owners. The crisis has put an end to that: half of almost nothing doesn’t count and last year they were unable to plant.
The child she looks after is her son’s daughter. Now 16, she was born to an HIV-positive mother and abandoned by her parents as a baby. Today Malikhang is concerned for her future: the girl has finished her primary schooling but her grandparents cannot afford the fees of a highschool education.
Having nothing is one thing but having nothing to give is what hurts this woman the most. She talks about the hungry children who call at her house in search of food, something they would find in the past. But her reserves have gone. The cupboard is bare.
“I don’t have anything either. I feel so bad when I can’t help them,” she says as she starts to cry.
Sometimes she thinks she should leave the village, look for a job in town. She’s smart, resourceful and Red Cross-trained.
“But how can I do that? I can’t turn my back on the people here. I can’t turn my back on the children.”