I must admit that I rather enjoy sitting on the large, brown mudstone boulders that litter the landscape around my tin-roofed house. Never too hot, perfect for watching life go by under the southern African sun. Besides, there really is nothing else to do.
It takes me a few minutes to adjust my gaze when I see her creeping toward me. Mother Mathulo lumbers up a mountain path under the midafternoon sun. I have known her for three years, and never once has she shown any sense of struggle. Ever since her brother-in-law succumbed to the “skinny disease,” she bears the burden of four extra children, as their mother passed a year earlier. She earns the equivalent of $24 per month cleaning houses to feed and clothe 10 children. Exhausted from the walk, she stops to rest on the rock next to me overlooking the barren mountain landscape. With each life-giving rain, the rust-colored hills shed another thin layer of topsoil into the torrid Senqu River. She offers me a warm smile as I examine the lines in her face, noticing she looks aged well beyond her 34 years.
“How are you, brother?” she asks while trying to regain her breath.
“I live well, mother, and you? You look a bit tired,” I answer in a concerned voice.
“No, no, I am fine. It is just such a long walk, I need to rest.” she says. “I am an old woman.”
We both laughed nervously, possibly to disguise embarrassment on her part and fear on mine. These days, when you see someone struggling, tired from such a short walk you tend to worry. Nowadays, many young people are cut down in the prime of their youth. Friends who used to “school” me on the soccer field now lay wasted in bed, weighing no more than young children. Buddies who used to sit on hillsides watching sunsets with me could no longer open their eyes, sent prematurely to eternal sleep in the small cemetery in a corner of the village. You become used to death, almost relieved when you hear the latest funeral is that of a village elder.
I start to think about my adopted home of Lesotho. As a small country surrounded entirely by South Africa, it once provided a haven to Nelson Mandela and his comrades during their epic struggle against oppression. Its people are proud, celebrating a history using diplomacy as much as force to stave off the imperial designs of competing tribes and colonial expansion. Laughter is ubiquitous, adding levity to daily toil. Villagers wake to greet the steel-gray dawn, bringing life to an arid, desolate landscape. Songs fill the still air as girls and women fetch water and dung for cooking fires, while young boys and men lead their prized livestock deep into the mountains in search of sustenance.
Lerato, like her adopted sisters, dutifully arises at 5 a.m. to the sound of cattle stirring in their corral. At age 12, she attends grade three classes at the local primary school. In three hours, she will share a stark learning environment, devoid of resources, with 70 other children. Before leaving for school, she must collect water using an old tin bucket that she balances gracefully on her head, walking with perfect poise and balance while sleep still weighs heavily on her brow. She lights a fire so Mme. Mathulo can begin to prepare breakfast. It will consist, as every meal does, of a cornmeal dish called papa, and possibly some diced cabbage.
The smell and smoke of burning cow dung fills the small stone-and-thatch round house. Thabo, her 3-year-old brother, wanders into the room. He spent the last three days confined to his bed of old cornmeal sacks tucked in the corner of the house. He has been sick since birth and will never know his mother. Today, he seems more playful. Resources in the household are meager, and so he lacks medical attention. Lerato plays “hide and seek” behind her hands with him, a game she learned from a former development worker who used to live in her village. Her smile has disappeared long ago. At times she plays like other children, but mostly she sits quietly by herself, lost in her own thoughts. She nursed her dying parents, both succumbing to the “skinny disease” coupled with sores and tuberculosis. She doesn’t often speak of her parents. Instead, I imagine her dancing in her mind with her mother in comforting visions of times past.
Donor money used to flow like water into this small nation. Foreign powers used it as an excuse to monitor its formerly oppressive neighboring government. Now life is different. Remnants of ambitious yet failed projects dot the landscape. Broken water taps, rusted tin buildings, dilapidated garden fences and other signs of more prosperous times testify to what once was a hopeful effort to assist a burgeoning democracy. With the election of its most famous refugee to the presidency of the neighboring republic in the mid-’90s, Lesotho lost its strategic importance in the world scene.
The talking heads on my shortwave radio speak with urgency of the need to respond to the plague of modern times, exhorting one another to devote every last resource to combat this menace. I try to choke back the contempt swelling inside as donors continue their mass exodus during the time when they are needed most.
The region suffers from an ominous blight. The human immunodeficiency virus, the scourge of southern Africa, has a firm grip on the nation. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 70 percent of the 42 million people infected with HIV worldwide. According to UNAIDS estimates, 31 percent of Lesotho’s productive population (about 330,000 people ages 15-49) is infected with the virus. Lesotho owns the fourth-highest prevalence rate in the world, lagging only slightly behind three of its regional neighbors — Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland.
It permeates our lives, arousing fear and resignation to suffering and early death. The country lacks the infrastructure of its neighbor South Africa to mount an effective response to the epidemic. The health care system is taxed beyond its limits, but it is of little consequence, as most people do not possess the necessary knowledge or resources to take advantage of it, particularly in rural mountain areas. People flock to local healers, seeking solace from this overwhelming plague, as Western medicine promises little help in curing the disease. Many healers mean well, while some seek to capitalize on the current panic. Most just feel helpless in the face of the unknown nemesis. Accusations of witchcraft fly, further creating an aura of stigma and fear. The unwritten list of victims continues to mount among society’s most vulnerable.
The deadly virus doesn’t confine its wrath to those who are infected. Of the more than 11 million children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, 73,000 live in Lesotho. This number grows daily, as HIV claims more lives. Many children have already lost one parent and suffer extreme economic, social and psychological hardship. These future leaders of the country will lack education while suffering exploitation and abuse on a scale unimaginable a mere decade ago. These factors will surely affect the future political, social and economic structures of Lesotho, while creating a generation of adults whose perceptions may be hardened by the difficulties of their youth.
While donor organizations compete for scarce funds, they target countries that make the headlines worldwide. Governments of resource-rich nations seem to allocate aid money as a political tool to strengthen their positions on the world scene. For a country such as Lesotho, the well has run dry. At a time when the productive portion of the population is decimated, orphaning increases at an alarming rate and young Lesotho residents face an uncertain future, aid organizations flee en masse. People who provide grassroots-level services in HIV/AIDS prevention and care struggle to find their feet despite dwindling resources and growing need.
Death may strike someone you love at any moment. This is a far cry from the privileged days of my youth in upstate New York. Death was reserved for distant aging relatives or beloved family pets. I remembered listening to fairy tales of a paradise awaiting those little boys and girls who did the right thing. What was required? Telling the truth? No one told us the truth. We tried to keep our rooms clean, be nice to our teachers, say please and thank you — all superficial gestures, testaments to a limited sense of the world. We must have been blessed, because we had so much. Bad things must have only happened to those who deserved it. Was that not the way? In retrospect, that naivete seems disconcerting yet comforting. Now, the common sense of my youth has irrevocably disappeared, replaced by cold disdain for the promise of Eden.
My thoughts are interrupted by the gentle entreaty of a delicate voice. It is like waking from a mild nightmare to the morning sunlight, where vague feelings of fear are replaced by relieved contentment. Lerato stands before me in a tattered yet strangely elegant dress, no doubt the former raiment of some long ago Easter service. She smiles slightly, politely requesting the attention of her former neighbor.
“Father, how do you live?”
“I live well, my child. And you? Beautiful as ever, I see.”
“No, father, it is you who are beautiful,” she responds in broken English, eager to expose her newly acquired talent. It is a game we play, eliciting laughter and smiles from one another. Mostly, though, it is a way to celebrate a deep affection for one another.
I decide to continue in my interpretation of her native tongue, “So what brings you all the way to town to see such an ugly old man?”
“Ah, no, father, a beautiful old man. I have news, news from Mother Mathulo. She has given birth to a little boy and wanted you to know. He is well and she is resting, so you will not see her for a while. She thought you would worry, so she wanted me to tell you. But I must go now, it is a long walk to home, and the rain is coming!”
I felt suddenly light, as if a heavy mist broke to reveal the shining sun. My old friend was struggling to bear the burgeoning life inside, not succumbing to ubiquitous death. New life, bright hopeful eyes to gaze upon the world. Amid so much death, a new soul emerges to restore faith, although in what I am not entirely sure. Maybe the joy lies in the renewal of spirit, washing away fear and darkness, if only for a moment. That moment is worth a thousand days under the normal burden of life. In the distance, I hear music rising from my old home. I listen contentedly as songs fill the sky in the village, welcoming the new soul into our midst.
Ken Storen is the managing director of a nongovernmental organization in Lesotho that works in the areas of HIV/AIDS, orphan support, agriculture development, literacy training and water system development.