Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Visit to Lesotho

As many people in Dorchester (and perhaps some from further afield in the Team who were part of the Team Flower Festival in the Abbey some years ago) there is a school in Lesotho called Leseli (the light) begun by Kieke (or Greet, as they call her here) Van der Zwaal. Leseli School started in Kieke’s garage as a place of education for able bodied and disabled children alike and arose out of the needs that she saw around her in the community near Maseru the capital of Lesotho. The school now has some 300 students of all ages from kindergarten age upwards. Children from wealthier families pay to come to the school and this supports work with poorer families. The school facilities are excellent including a new computer suite and library, a unit for autistic youngsters, classrooms for each grade and a new kitchen and dining hall building in progress.

Some of the disabled children have become young people who are enabled to continue to work on the school site - some work at putting together electrical components whilst others have been trained to work in the kitchen and are supporting the work of the school. The skills these young women have grown will soon be used in the new school kitchen and dining room which it is also hoped may be opened to the public. I noticed the similarity of thinking with the Home Farm Trust - an organisation local to us - who also enable their service users to gain skills and use them on site which for some of them becomes a stepping stone to employment elsewhere. The Friends of Leseli continues to support this work that is now 30 years old and the head of the school is still the same lady who began the work with Kieke!!

Thirty years later a new project is in the throes of being born. Leselinyana - the little light - is in a different suburb of Maseru - Masionakeng. The Rev’d Merriam Foto (previously pastor there but now Chaplain to the University of Roma) has a dream of a slightly different project but with similar aims to Leseli. We met Merriam when she visited Dorchester a few years ago and as we have become very ‘South African’ about distance the 800 kilometre round trip seemed to fit quite well into a gap that had opened up from after Church on Sunday and during Monday. The only thing we needed to be careful about was to be back in the light on Monday since we had been warned by someone who drives the N8 regularly that it is not really safe after dark when the Buck of different types, including Kudu which are HUGE, regularly stray onto the road.

This part of the world has been badly affected by rain and it rained non stop from the moment we left Kimberley until the day after we returned. This made the journey to Lesotho and the journeys around the villages ‘interesting’ to say the least. The highlight of the outward journey was the giraffe just gazing across the fence as we travelled on the road between Kimberley and Bloemfontein! The ‘lowlight’ were the single lane road works that were about 7 kilometers long with a twenty minute or so wait for the traffic to arrive from the other direction!

We arrived at the Border in Lesotho - where we were met by Merriam and directed to the little house where the children are living! (I have written a full report with pictures about the different children, the house and their needs). There are three children and a ‘mother’ living in the little three roomed cottage and two other children come and live alongside them by day returning home to sleep. We feasted with the children on chicken, vegetables, salad, rice and maize and enjoyed getting to know them before travelling with Merriam and her husband to their house on the University campus where we stayed the night. The rest of the evening was spent with Merriam briefing me about the project and the children and we slept well, breakfasted on millet porridge and bread and set off on our travels for the morning.

Our first stop was the secondary school at Masinakeng where most of the children are receiving their education. The school is run by the Evangelical Church and has a new headmaster who seemed excellent. It is what is called an ‘English Medium’ school which means that all the teaching and all the conversation takes place in English. Rightly or wrongly English is seen as the passport to a good education and the best future prospects. (This is also true in South Africa) There is a smart uniform and there are books to be purchased and fees to be paid. Kieke has arranged to send Merriam the fees which are paid termly but with higher costs at the beginning of the school year (which is now as the children are just returning to school after their long summer holiday!).

Excluding Uniform the costs for the education of one of these young people for a year is M2,000 (about £200). It was a good time to visit as we were able to go shopping with Merriam later in the day to buy the usual round of beginning of term stationery (including Oxford Mathematical Instrument Sets in exactly the same tin that I, and I am sure many of you, will remember only too well!) The children - in other words the project - have to provide their exercise books as well and the usual paper to cover both exercise and text books. It’s now quite a long time since we did ‘beginning of the year’ shopping and it was a good opportunity for us.

The school had been reasonably easy to reach, if a little muddy, but the next stage of our journey was rather more hair raising. We set off to visit the project land. Mostly in this kind of area people either walk or have four by four vehicles. Mostly it doesn’t rain for more than a couple of hours the way that it had been for a whole week previously. Once you are off the main route from one major place to another the roads are red mud and our route was highly reminiscent of similar journeys that I had experienced when visiting Kenya with the Nasio Trust in 2010. Richard was awarded a ‘credit’ for his driving by Merriam and in my book he’s right up there with John Cornelius for driving along roads with ruts a foot deep, embedded with rocks and full of mud. We made it to the plot - and back again re-routing once and getting grounded (don’t tell the car hire company!) just once as well. Ford Figo’s are lovely little cars but probably not the right ones for this particular task!!

The land we had travelled to see comprised three plots which have been made available for the project Leselinyana and another patch of land that has been promised. The vision for this land is to build rondavels for living a kitchen and dining room / meeting hall and to make these the centre of a sustainable community which would provide care for the youngest children, education and a place to live for people who do not fit into society. One of the reasons it is called Leselinyana (little light) is that if the dream can be realised it will provide hope and shelter for some of the young adults who cannot leave Leseli and others like them but for whom provision in what is essentially a school will always be limited. Merriam’s dream is that the members of this mixed community would receive education and counselling according to their needs and learn a wide range of practical skills enabling them to become self supporting within an environmentally sustainable community. Merriam has written an outline project proposal which is available from Kieke.

Our next step was to go and collect Napo from the project house. Napo is 18, has been orphaned for many years and is dependent on crutches. Because of his disabilities Napo has not been successful in secondary school and we were going with Merriam and his aunt to see if we could find out whether there is any progress in getting him into a special boarding school for young people with disabilities. Just turning up at the school seems to help - although it is still closed for the holidays Napo has now been told to attend for an interview/assessment on 14th February.

Our final visit is to Leseli. It was a wonderful contrast to see a well established project alongside all the hopes for Leselinyana a project in its infancy. Leseli began in a garage and the project grew as the school grew and it has grown and grown!!

Leselinyana is a big dream but its beginnings in the effect it is having on the lives of individual children is a good one! Who knows where this dream will lead? Merriam has the support of a management group and willingness from the Chief’s family to support the project but to us it felt a bit ‘stuck’ just for the moment. The management group is about to meet and there is real hope in that one lady who works at the University and is about to retire is willing to give some time. At the present time the exact next steps and approximate costing of them are not decided. It will be really good to hear what the committee decides at its next meeting.

Merriam is a busy lady with many responsibilities and driving the main project forward alongside her work as a University Chaplain and as voluntary mother / supervisor making sure that the existing children in the project are properly cared for are three big tasks!!

We could help make those tasks easier by ensuring that money is given to meet the needs of the existing children (Merriam and her husband have taken the two original boys into their family and support them.) We know that it will cost about a two hundred and fifty pounds a year to support each of the four children - Mamochatsi, Hlaoli, Morero and Relebohile in Masioneng High School. The costs for Napo’s boarding and further education are unknown. It will cost £600 per year to pay Nkita for her work. Then there is money for food and electricity (which the house is still waiting for). There is only an oil stove for cooking until the electricity comes and we were able to leave some money for the purchase of a calor gas cooker which will be safer and more effective.

This visit made us especially grateful for the support that Dorchester PCC had given us as the additional costs of travel would have made us think twice about undertaking the journey and its additional costs. This leads me to more thinking. Merriam and her family are provided with a house on the University Campus which is in poor condition. She is not provided with computer, internet access or a meaningful stipend. The comparison between Merriam’s accommodation and the Roman Catholic Halls of Residence for students that are so expensive most of them are empty is appalling. These are the responsibility of her church and the comparison makes me realise not only how privileged I am but also how privileged some of the South African Anglican Clergy and Teachers whom we have met are by comparison. Perhaps privileged is not quite the word I am looking for because it is right that people are enabled to do their work properly.

If this project is worth supporting it may be that Merriam herself needs some support in the form of transport / internet expenditure. She has neither - depending on the taxi busses for transport and friends for internet where she can. She made the most of our visit by taking us to places she also needed to visit. Administrative costs for charitable work are always a bone of contention but I am interested to note that I have spent two days visiting the project in Lesotho and at least the same amount of time marshalling the information and photographs, reflecting on both visit and information and putting it into two communicable documents. I’m fortunate to have had the support of the Diocese, the Parish and two charities to get myself here, establish internet connection, arrange transport and have the luxury of time to help us all understand more about this project and the impact it will have on the lives of these children. There are sharp questions to be asked about administration costs - but perhaps even sharper ones to be asked if there is no support for those who lead and administer projects.

(Blogged by Sue Booys on sabbatical in South Africa)

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