“I am inspired daily by the determination and faith of the orphans and grandmothers of Lesotho. These are my heroes. The fact that they can keep going when their hearts are broken is incredible.”
As educators, we want our graduates to be highly literate, to be skilled in math and science, to speak more than one language, and to adapt to the ever changing technologies that have, in many ways, defined them as the Net Generation. Yet surely this cannot be an end in itself. Now, more than ever before, with our world in such a vulnerable and volatile state, we should be inspiring our young people to put their knowledge and skills to good use. We should be nurturing strong characters, characters informed by a commitment to goodness, otherness and a belief that personal actions can change the world, if only bit by precious bit.
This is the lesson I continue to learn from my friend, Peg Herbert, a woman of peaceful yet unwavering strength, who has dedicated her life to alleviating human misery in the small African Kingdom of Lesotho. “By believing in people, including ourselves and our capacity for good, we can indeed change the world,” she says, then adding eight important words, words that makes the impossible seem tangible: “… one child or one grandmother at a time.” And that’s how she oversees the organization she founded in 2004, Help Lesotho, an Ottawa based charity that is saving lives in a country that is dealing with one of the world’s highest incidences of HIV/AIDS. Every day, Peg and her team witness heart wrenching sadness, and yet they find the strength to persevere.
After reading Race Against Time, Stephen Lewis’s gripping book about the AIDS catastrophe in Africa, I felt compelled, urgently, to engage our educational community in becoming informed, caring, and taking action as responsible global citizens. Working with a number of like-minded colleagues from our schools, we sought a Canadian charity with which to partner, and within days we were introduced to Peg Herbert and Help Lesotho. In the four years since that time, many of our students, parents and dedicated staff members (including teachers, librarians, teacher assistants, secretaries, bus drivers, custodians, management personnel and community outreach leaders), have understood, and they have responded with kind hearts and generous spirits. Our approach has been primarily one of education, in that we want our students to understand global issues such as the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, and Help Lesotho has been an important partner in that mission. What we have found, of course, is that when good people are aware of human suffering, they want to help, and there is no shortage of good people in School District 15! Our community continues to support Help Lesotho through various fund raising activities, and it is largely because of Peg’s personal warmth, and the faith she inspires in us that her organization’s goals align with our own, that our partnership endures.
Peg spends several months every year in Lesotho, where she provides leadership in Help Lesotho’s goal areas of education, gender equity and youth leadership. Her work, and that of her organization, has been recognized by Lesotho’s King Letsie III, who participated in the fifth anniversary celebrations of Help Lesotho, and who is the organization’s Honorary Patron. Peg, who has a Ph.D. in Education, specializing in educational and developmental psychology, taught at the University of Ottawa for several years, and it was there that she met a graduate student, Sister Alice, who invited her to visit her country. Peg did.
It changed her life.
Herewith, my interview with a Canadian hero who is saving lives and making the world a better place. I’m so proud to introduce the founder and executive director of Help Lesotho, my SuperPal, Dr. Peg Herbert.
Help Lesotho is a fairly young organization, having recently celebrated its 6th anniversary. Yet your presence in Lesotho, and the support you’ve been able to provide, are strong, sustained and tremendously important to the relief effort there. What are your reflections on how HL has evolved, and the things you’ve accomplished.
Frankly, I am incredulous at how much has been accomplished. The amount of work involved is self-evident but the remarkable thing is how average Canadians have joined us in making a difference to this small mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, southern Africa. I am grateful every day for each one who has.
Lesotho has the world’s third highest incidence of HIV/AIDS. We chose to live and work in the rural areas, up in the mountains where there are few, if any, resources to help. We have accomplished so much, now helping more than 9,000 children in our 15 partner schools and roughly 8,000 last year in our leadership programs because we have a fabulous Basotho staff there who are completely dedicated to their populations – whether orphans, vulnerable children, youth, grandmothers, or schools. They work tirelessly and effectively to develop and deliver sustainable programs which will build these communities in locally defined ways. If it were not for the faithfulness of our donors, including the children, teachers, principals and grandmothers of District 15, none of this would be possible. Most of our donors provide modest amounts regularly which has allowed us to increase the reach and scope of the work. I think Canadians well understand the benefits of education, HIV/AIDS and gender equity foci. Through education and psychosocial support individuals can take effective leadership in their communities.
HL focuses very much on education, leadership for girls and young women, and support for grandmothers. Why are these particular initiatives so important to you?
This is a complex question, John. AIDS is fundamentally a female issue. Women and girls are more susceptible to the virus and to social issues surrounding the disease – including stigmatization, sexual violence and gender inequity. We have great programs for young men, that we are expanding this year but our first priority is to protect the girls and women. Grandmothers are raising the future of Lesotho (64% of the orphans are looked after by grandmothers) as the parent cohort has either died or gone elsewhere in search of work. By supporting 200 grandmothers at a time, we support hundreds of orphans. Gender equity is the foundation of real and sustainable social change.
I often wonder if the world would be quicker to intervene if the African AIDS crisis were occurring on American or European soil. What are your thoughts on the international response to the situation in Africa?
I think the issues in Africa are so complex, pervasive and persistent that donors become overwhelmed. It is my experience that a small country like Lesotho, with a population of two million, is possible to conceptualize and to imagine that change is possible. Africa consists of 54 countries – each with its own challenges. Lesotho is a constitutional democracy and one of the most homogeneous populations on the continent. There are not the ethnic and religious conflicts that plague other countries and this makes social change not only possible but desirable as a model of how one small country can move forward. It is indeed difficult to imagine what life is like there but that is our job – to provide effective communication to allow donors to see and to believe that change is actual and sustainable there.
The World Economic Forum recently released its ranking of nations according to their success in gender equity. Lesotho ranked 8th, the only African country to make the top ten, and well ahead of the US and Canada, which were 19th and 20th respectively. I found this surprising, given the deplorable socioeconomic conditions that exist there, and am wondering if there’s new cause to be hopeful. What does this particular ranking represent, and what dangers do you see in misinterpretation of the data?
Again, this is a great question and has a complex answer. Historically, the men of Lesotho were excellent miners and found employment in the diamond and copper mines of South Africa. These absent husbands and fathers returned quarterly or annually over many decades leaving women to run the farms and families. When more than 100,000 of these men lost their jobs in one fell-swoop in a change in South African post-apartheid realignment, their return to Lesotho brought HIV/AIDS with a vengeance. Many of these men died; most remaining lost their spirit. Again, the women stepped in.
In addition, Lesotho, highly reliant upon global aid, is motivated to reach donor standards and expectations. An embryonic democracy, Lesotho is striving to be a good one. For example, in the first second tier election in 2006, Lesotho imposed a 30% female quota on the results allowing many village women to seek and secure office for local government positions. The ranking of the World Economic Forum depends upon certain criteria and Lesotho has met them, with many girls in school and many females in decision making positions. The government and country deserve every credit for this progress and these admirable goals. This gives all those who are trying to help there hope that this small country can indeed achieve significant change over time and with the right kind of assistance.
And now it comes to the “on the other hand” part. These changes have not filtered down to the general public or the rural communities where we work. Women have almost no opportunity to negotiate sex or condom use. Grandmothers are a forgotten group. In our first group of grandmothers, 95% did not know what HIV/AIDS was although most of their children had died of AIDS. The rise of sexual abuse toward young girls is at an alarming rate. The number of girls who have no one to protect them permits sexual abuse to go unaddressed in most cases. A huge cohort of young, unemployed and angry men has left young women at great risk. Gender equity is more than quotas. It is a pervasive and difficult issue to address culturally – anywhere in the world. This is a long climb and an urgent matter.
Issues of decision making on property, life plans, finances, conflict resolution and land are not in the hands of women and until they are, no equity can be achieved. Women are still left with dependence upon male relatives after their husband leaves or dies. They may have everything taken away from them. Orphaned children may have any older male relative take any or all possessions from them. There is still a long way to go.
It is understandable that these issues are confusing and complex. The vulnerable populations we work with are those who do not yet see the advantages of the progress being made at the corporate level. Changing behaviour is always a long-term challenge and it is the individuals who suffer. Progress is possible – with enough support and education – this is our task and our work.
Stephen Lewis has said that “Children who are orphaned by AIDS go through a particularly excruciating experience. They do not become orphans when their parents die. They become orphaned when their parents are dying.” I find that to be a gripping statement, and I’m wondering how it resonates with your own experiences.
Stephen Lewis understands Africa and the pain the people suffer. There is a whole vocabulary used in development to describe the state of the children. This is why the term ‘orphans and vulnerable children’ is used. The term ‘single orphan’ refers to a child who has one parent even though this one guardian may be ill, dying or absent elsewhere looking for work. The term ‘double orphan’ refers to a child who has no parent at all. What we see increasing is the sexual abuse against these orphans as there are few to protect them anymore. We also see the exponential increase in the hunger of the children. They are starving, desperate to go to school, lonely and depressed. The psychosocial support and leadership activities we provide are targeted to these issues. HIV/AIDS and gender equity education are embedded in everything we do. Frankly, it is heart-wrenching and drives us to work ever harder to help them.
“Because I know that our programs are well structured and locally relevant, I can focus on the difference we can and are making rather than become subsumed in the pain and misery of the people we serve – who have lost almost everyone they love. The work we do is not easy. Nothing is easy there. One must stay focused to keep going.”
You spend a good deal of time in Lesotho. What sustains your spirit amid such pain and despair?
This is a good question. The situation is painful on a personal level and I am exposed to the private stories of so many fine young people and grandmothers. I know what sustains me is my decades of experience working with disadvantaged children and youth, my faith, the encouragement of our donors and my resolute belief in the work we are doing. Because I can guarantee that not one penny goes array in our work, I have the confidence to approach people. Because I see lives transformed every day, I have the conviction that our work truly addresses the underlying issues that will make a huge difference over time. Because I know that our programs are well structured and locally relevant, I can focus on the difference we can and are making rather than become subsumed in the pain and misery of the people we serve – who have lost almost everyone they love. The work we do is not easy. Nothing is easy there. One must stay focused to keep going.
As you will recall, the King of Lesotho, a fine man, travelled at his own expense last year to come to Ottawa for five days to meet and thank Help Lesotho donors. He is the patron of our organization and I cannot think of a greater testimonial to our work.
When you and I first met, and you shared stories with me about the Basotho and the horrible conditions in which so many of them live every day, I was shaken with an awareness of my own North American privilege. When you return to Canada, how do you make sense of the excesses of our world, when you know, first hand, the realities of life in Lesotho?
Again, this is a pertinent question. I do find it difficult – actually more difficult than I am prepared to talk about. I believe personally that the benefits we have here are so that we can be strong enough and well resourced enough to help others – not just feel entitled to more. On the other hand, I do not want to judge individuals. I am comfortable judging our society as having lost its priorities and enmeshed in self-absorption – this kind of self-reflection is essential. On the other hand, I am exposed to so many wonderful people here who do sacrifice and who care. Our donors give what they can and every dollar is appreciated. I have to manage myself in this regard. I rarely go into shops, do not buy much and surround myself with fine people who have a larger world view than their own pleasure and security. I cannot make sense of the world and its injustice but I can help one small country.
Good people want to make a difference, but they often don’t know how. What can students, teachers and school leaders being doing at this critical time?
Actually, it is easy to help. One needs firstly to understand that the best help is to believe in collective action – small donations together provide funds for change. Every day I see examples of children, teachers, parents and school leaders who believe that change is possible – one child, one school, one donation at a time. This is the secret. When it does not matter who gets the credit, it is possible to create miracles.
Educators and children can raise awareness and funds to support orphan relief and education for those who need it the most. Our site www.helplesotho.ca has lots of suggestions and examples. I hope your readers will join us. District 15 is a perfect example of a group of schools, teachers and children who have faithfully raised funds to educate their Basotho friends. The children of Lesotho want to go to school more than anything and general funds allow us to meet the needs as they arise – albeit food, clothing, books, schools fees or medical attention.
Mother Teresa once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” Considering the scope of the AIDS crisis in Africa, does that statement hold true?
John, I stake my education, career, beliefs and every hour of my days on the premise that building strength and leadership in one individual is the most sustainable thing possible. These are benefits no one can take away from you and which apply in all circumstances. All movements and all social change starts with one person. We must not get seduced by the pervasive cynicism as the appropriate response to the pain of the world. By believing in people, including ourselves and our capacity for good, we can indeed change the world! One child or grandmother at a time!
Who inspires you?
I am inspired daily by the determination and faith of the orphans and grandmothers of Lesotho. These are my heroes. The fact that they can keep going when their hearts are broken is incredible. The depth of their misery is beyond our understanding and yet they can smile, appreciate each small and good thing and put one foot ahead of the other is a testimony to the human spirit. We have a great deal to learn from them. I know the people of whom I speak and I love them dearly for their courage.