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 about 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 Lesotho Funeral Services parlour seems to have taken on the significance of a cathedral in a medieval village.
It is deceptively green and wet in Lesotho at the moment, but the late rains have created this green drought and the stunted maize bears a pathetic testimony to true crop failure. But not much is as it seems here.
We were in the village to speak to Aids orphans, to put a human face to the lifeless, numbing statistics: out of a population of 2,2-million people, 93 000 children have lost at least one parent to Aids. What does it mean to have 10% of the child population orphaned?
The principal at Katlehong Primary School, Mantonthabiseng Ramone, said she would gather the orphans to speak to us and came back with a smile, saying “here they are”. The schoolyard was jam-packed with chattering children, boys and girls, small and big. “No, no, Mme, sorry,” I say, “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 the the Katse Dam, which is part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project which 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.
Last year there were just 88 orphans at the same primary school, but this is not just because more parents are dying as a result of Aids. A band of driven and dedicated teachers at Katlehong Primary has taken responsibility for the growing number of orphans and has made their school a model for others.
Julia Likhama is one of these teachers. She has seen the number of Aids orphans at the school increase year by year.
“We never saw this thing before, just in the past couple of years,” she says. “But now this free education is bringing more and more orphans back to school and they also get porridge in the morning and pap and vegetables, sometimes meat at lunch.”
Word has now got out that orphans are cared for at the school.
Likhama has been teaching at Katlehong since 1986 and knows the intimate details of many of these orphans’ lives, but there is one girl in particular who bothers her.
We don’t get much information out of Matshidiso Rasenoko (16) except that her father died when she was much younger and her mother died in 2000. She thinks they died of tuberculosis. It’s left to Likhama to tell her story.
“Ever since her mother passed away, she has been sad,” says Likhama. “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.”
Rasenoko now lives with an elder brother, but she must work at cleaning other people’s homes, to earn R150 a month. “That is why she comes to school late every morning,” Likhama explains.
Rasenoko seems distant and emotionless, but when I look up from my notes, I see she is crying. Odd then, when she says she wants to be a soldier “because of bad men”.
“An orphan is a very sensitive person,” says Likhama. They all have striking stories to tell. Piekiso Nape (15) lives with his four siblings during school term 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%, one of the highest in the world. The Lesotho government has received much praise for being courageous in the battle against HIV/Aids. Four years ago King Letsie III declared HIV/Aids a national disaster, and ministers speak openly and advocate the ABC (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.
About three million children in the six-country region — Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, South Africa — have lost one or both parents to the Aids epidemic. Most are cared for by elderly relatives, but many 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 is being orphaned to Aids in Southern Africa. It has asked for $34-million under the UN appeal, but to date has only received 20% of the funds.
Free primary education has been rolled out year by year since 2000 and is starting to revolutionise Lesotho’s youth.
At school, children are taught life skills and given 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 about HIV/Aids, Ramone and her teachers are convinced that “the children are the bridge between the school and community”. And their ideas are clearly 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,” says Likhama.
The girls at the school seem to have been especially well informed about HIV/Aids, probably thanks to the Unicef programme, Girls Education Movement, which emphasises gender equality.
The challenge in Lesotho is to get boys to school. At a very young age they become herd boys, and though school is free it is not yet compulsory.
The Katlehong teachers are bursting with ideas and enthusiasm — setting up model vegetable gardens and using plays to educate the community about HIV/Aids; giving the orphans food packages for the holidays; selling second-hand clothing, and so on.
If their efforts, and the efforts of the international community, succeed in Thaba Tseka the Katlehong Primary School may replace the funeral parlour as the most important place in the village.