Red Cross brings hope to Kena

Lesotho Times - - Feature - Pas­cali­nah Kabi

MAFETENG — Sit­ting help­lessly next to her bedrid­den mother five years ago, 14-year-old Palesa Shale (name changed to pro­tect her iden­tity) would cry and pray for her only sur­viv­ing par­ent’s mirac­u­lous re­cov­ery.

Palesa is now 18 years of age but clearly re­mem­bers those “very dif­fi­cult” days which changed her life for­ever.

Her mother has since re­cov­ered and is now liv­ing with HIV, but the teenager re­mains scarred by that fright­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ence which nearly robbed her of her last par­ent af­ter los­ing her father when she was still a tod­dler.

“I can clearly re­mem­ber when and how it all started as if it was yes­ter­day. My mother fell ill to­wards the end of 2012 and in no time, she was bedrid­den; she could not move. I was at Kena Pri­mary School do­ing Stan­dard Seven at the time, and would miss lessons if my mother hap­pened to be worse that day,” says Palesa.

De­spite the ill­ness, Palesa’s mother would not al­low any of her five chil­dren to touch her wounds. Palesa was the el­dest of the sib­lings.

“I couldn’t un­der­stand why she did not want me to touch the wounds when clean­ing her al­though she was clearly not feel­ing well. I be­lieve she al­ready sus­pected or knew that she was Hiv-pos­i­tive, and feared I might be in­fected if I came into con­tact with her open wounds,” Palesa told the Le­sotho Times.

“I didn’t know what was wrong with my mother at the time, but I kept pray­ing and hop­ing she was go­ing to be OK one day, and take care of us.”

Palesa says life was get­ting more dif­fi­cult by the day for her fam­ily as they would go “for days”, with­out food be­cause their bread­win­ner was now bedrid­den.

“Life be­came un­bear­able be­cause there was no one to fend for us and we kept hop­ing things would change for the bet­ter,” she said.

Due to fre­quent ab­sence from school be­cause of her mother’s ill­ness, Palesa’s stud­ies suf­fered and the once bright pupil did not pass with fly­ing colours in her Pri­mary School Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate ex­am­i­na­tions.

And due to lack of funds, the teenager could not pro­ceed to Form A and de­cided to re­peat Stan­dard Seven at Kena in­stead of stay­ing at home.

‘The rea­son why I had to re­peat was not be­cause I had failed, but it was due to lack of school fees. I de­cided to go back to Stan­dard Seven just to while up the time while hop­ing a Good Sa­mar­i­tan would come along and pay my tu­ition fees.”

That Good Sa­mar­i­tan was to come in the form of the Red Cross and in Fe­bru­ary 2013, Palesa en­rolled for Form A at St Ro­drigue High School.

“Around Fe­bru­ary 2013, ‘M’e Ntho Mokone from Red Cross So­ci­ety vis­ited Kena Pri­mary School af­ter she had learnt of my plight. She in­formed me that Red Cross had made ar­range­ments for me to at­tend St Ro­drigue High School and I was sup­posed to start the fol­low­ing week,” she said.

“I was over the moon as I re­alised that my life was about to change. There was now hope.”

By this time, Palesa’s mother had tested pos­i­tive for HIV and put on an­tiretro­vi­ral drugs.

“She now knew her HIV sta­tus and her health was im­prov­ing be­cause she was tak­ing ARVS. But this came with an­other chal­lenge — that of stigma from my friends who were now re­fus­ing to play with me say­ing be­cause my mother was Hiv-pos­i­tive, I must also be in­fected with the virus.”

This con­stant re­jec­tion forced Palesa and her sib­lings to visit Kena Clinic for HIV tests, hop­ing to put the stigma to rest.

The five young­sters tested neg­a­tive for the virus.

“I made sure my friends knew about our re­sults and the re­jec­tion stopped,” Palesa says.

Af­ter get­ting as much in­for­ma­tion as she could about HIV, Palesa says she de­cided to be ex­tremely care­ful about own sex life.

“My mother’s sta­tus didn’t force me to make this de­ci­sion; it only opened my eyes to a whole new world. While I knew through the Red Cross’ Kids Club that the virus isn’t trans­mit­ted through sex­ual ac­tiv­ity only, I also learnt that be­ing a teenager doesn’t mean en­gag­ing in sex­ual in­ter­course hence I de­cided to wait for the right mo­ment,” Palesa said.

“I strongly be­lieve sex has to wait; sex will still be there when I com­plete my stud­ies. I don’t want to have a child be­fore mar­riage or con­tract HIV and jeop­ar­dize my dreams of be­com­ing a den­tist.”

Mean­while, Palesa is one of 2400 chil­dren af­fected by HIV the Le­sotho Red Cross So­ci­ety helped with school fees, gro­ceries and lifeskills be­tween 2005 and 2016. The ini­tia­tive was be­ing funded by the Bri­tish Red Cross So­ci­ety, and was of­fi­cially closed on Satur­day in Kena, where Palesa took time to ex­press her grat­i­tude for the ini­tia­tive.

Ad­dress­ing the clos­ing cer­e­mony on be­half of Kena Red Cross So­ci­ety Care­givers, ‘Ma­ma­rake Marake said it had been a dif­fi­cult jour­ney for the vol­un­teers.

“Peo­ple were sick. Men, women and chil­dren were dy­ing of Hiv-re­lated ill­nesses. The dis­ease left thou­sands of chil­dren or­phaned,” Ms Marake said.

Among the chal­lenges the care­givers faced, ac­cord­ing to Ms Marake, was dis­cussing con­dom-use with the vil­lagers.

“At first, it was dif­fi­cult to openly talk about us­ing con­doms to the com­mu­nity as the sub­ject was con­sid­ered taboo. But with time, we gath­ered enough courage and peo­ple started warm­ing up to is­sues around HIV and AIDS and some of those who were bedrid­den slowly re­cov­ered due to Red Cross’ in­ter­ven­tion. It took years and pa­tience to get to where we are to­day,” Ms Marake said.

Ms Marake added even though the pro­ject had come to an end, the com­mu­nity could still count on help from the care­givers.

Liv­ing Pos­i­tively Tha­bang Po­tiane is liv­ing with HIV and has urged the Kena com­mu­nity to sup­port each other and en­sure they take their med­i­ca­tion even though the Red Cross So­ci­ety pro­ject had run its course.

“Peo­ple who were trained through this pro- ject are re­main­ing be­hind and will con­tinue to help us in this bat­tle against HIV and AIDS, but I must thank Red Cross for help­ing us through the dif­fi­cult times we have been fac­ing and con­tinue to grap­ple with,” Mr Po­tiane said.

He fur­ther said at the time the pro­ject started, it was dif­fi­cult for care­givers be­cause of the way the sub­ject of HIV and Aids was be­ing in­tro­duced to the com­mu­nity.

“This is the main rea­son why more and more peo­ple have died in si­lence as they were afraid of be­ing stig­ma­tised,” he said.

Mr Po­tiane also pleaded with peo­ple liv­ing with HIV and Aids to re­li­giously take their med­i­ca­tion to live longer.

Kena Red Cross So­ci­ety pro­ject man­ager, Ntho Mokoena, re­vealed since 2005, the or­gan­i­sa­tion had helped over 50 000 chil­dren whose par­ents died from Hiv-re­lated ill­nesses.

“When we first came here, we re­alised that one of the rea­sons peo­ple were dy­ing from Hiv-re­lated dis­eases, was stigma, as well as lack of med­i­ca­tion and in­for­ma­tion. The stigma was fur­ther fu­eled by an ar­range­ment that Tues­days and Thurs­days were re­served for HIV and Aids pa­tients at the lo­cal clinic and more peo­ple died be­cause of this,” Ms Mokoena said, adding the ar­range­ment was later re­versed.

“The dis­ease had left so many chil­dren with­out par­ents and we cur­rently have 2400 HIV and Aids or­phans on our list. It is very rare that you find a child with both par­ents in this area. The in­fec­tion is higher be­cause of mi­gra­tion as most men from this area work in the South African mines.”

How­ever, de­spite all the past chal­lenges, Ms Mokoena be­lieves Kena was ready to move on with­out Red Cross lead­ing them by the hand.

“It is not go­ing to be easy but we have con­fi­dence in the com­mu­nity here that they will not regress. They now know that shar­ing among them­selves is very im­por­tant. For in­stance, each year, dur­ing African Child Day, ev­ery fam­ily con­trib­utes food to­wards the cel­e­bra­tions and ev­ery sum­mer, farm­ing fam­i­lies give child-headed fam­i­lies fresh maize and veg­eta­bles free of charge,” she said.

“Com­mu­nity mem­bers have also vowed to en­sure the Kids club runs smoothly as it nur­tures and gives or­phans and vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren a sense of be­long­ing.”

Kena Chief, Mathealira Shoaepane, be­lieves his vil­lage has made “a lot of progress” in curb­ing the spread of HIV and TB through the help of Red Cross So­ci­ety.

“Ninety per­cent of chil­dren liv­ing in this vil­lage are or­phans and this sit­u­a­tion breaks my heart be­cause I know most of their fa­thers; they were my age-mates,” Chief Shoaepane said.

Asked what he was do­ing to en­sure af­fected mem­bers of his com­mu­nity con­tin­ued to lead pos­i­tive lives af­ter Red Cross’ de­par­ture, Chief Shoaepane said he had al­ready made ar­range­ments to do­nate land to the care­givers for farm­ing pur­poses.

“Red Cross gave th­ese chil­dren a bet­ter life and this must not come to an end now that they are leav­ing. It is our re­spon­si­bil­ity to raise th­ese chil­dren and en­sure they have enough food ev­ery sin­gle day. That’s why they are go­ing to get this land on which they would grow food for the af­fected chil­dren,” the chief said.

On her part, Le­sotho Red Cross So­ci­ety Pro­grammes Di­rec­tor ‘ Matšepo Mo­let­sane, said the or­gan­i­sa­tion de­cided to work in Kena af­ter King Let­sie III de­clared HIV a state of emer­gency in 2010.

How­ever, Ms Mo­let­sane said it had not been easy to pen­e­trate the Kena com­mu­nity.

“Talk­ing about HIV and Aids was such a taboo that ’M’e Ntho was ac­cused of de­stroy­ing this vil­lage and en­cour­ag­ing pros­ti­tu­tion when she taught peo­ple about con­dom us­age. She was re­ported to Morija Po­lice Sta­tion for her work, but she sol­diered on,” Ms Mo­let­sane said.

“Kena was rav­aged by HIV and Aids. Peo­ple were dy­ing and in al­most ev­ery house­hold the adults were in­fected and it would take care­givers the whole day to nurse the pa­tients.”

Ms Mo­let­sane fur­ther said the Red Cross pro­ject was ini­tially meant to end in 2010, but had to be ex­tended to this year. She also lamented fail­ure by some pa­tients to re­li­giously take their med­i­ca­tion be­cause of lack of food.

“The val­u­a­tion showed that more pa­tients re­gressed af­ter aban­don­ing their med­i­ca­tion be­cause of lack of food as the medicine is taken af­ter meals.

“We then in­tro­duced a food se­cu­rity com­po­nent which meant peo­ple were go­ing to be in charge of their own food pro­duc­tion and the sit­u­a­tion im­proved.

“The pro­ject trained care­givers on con­ser­va­tion farm­ing and they, in turn, im­parted their skills to the pa­tients and their fam­i­lies,” Ms Mo­let­sane said.

“At the end of this month, we will be pack­ing our bags. To­day we are say­ing the pro­ject trained peo­ple who are go­ing to con­tinue help­ing the com­mu­nity af­ter we are gone.”

Ms Mo­let­sane also said Red Cross was still go­ing to mon­i­tor the Kena pro­ject to en­sure nurs­eries and the clinic do not be­come white ele­phants.

In her re­marks at the clos­ing cer­e­mony, Kena Clinic man­ager, ‘ Ma­paseka Mokoatsi thanked Red Cross for en­sur­ing pa­tients and their fam­i­lies were food-se­cure and en­cour­aged to ad­here to their med­i­ca­tion.

“Even though it was dif­fi­cult at times, there are mul­ti­ple mile­stones recorded by this pro­ject and we are glad that we man­aged to save lives at the time Kena was rav­aged by HIV, Aids and TB,” Mokoatsi said.

“This med­i­ca­tion can only be taken af­ter a meal and it was wor­ry­ing that our pa­tients did not have enough food. How­ever, Red Cross care­givers worked very hard to en­sure pa­tients and their fam­i­lies were food­se­cure.”

On his part, Le­sotho Red Cross So­ci­ety Pres­i­dent, Kopano Macheli, said he was happy with the way the pro­ject had run.

“From the time we started work­ing here un­til now, we have 150 healthy chil­dren born by Hiv-pos­i­tive moth­ers and that is a huge suc­cess for us. We have sub­stan­tially con­trib­uted to­wards an Hiv-free fu­ture gen­er­a­tion, so there is hope for this com­mu­nity.”

Mr Macheli how­ever stressed that Le­sotho Red Cross was strongly against projects that spoon-feed com­mu­ni­ties in­stead of em­pow­er­ing them.

KENA Chief Mathealira Shoaepane stands in one of his vil­lage’s ceme­ter­ies. The chief said 90 per­cent of chil­dren liv­ing in his vil­lage are or­phans largely due to HIV.

THE Kena Red Cross Care­givers were awarded cer­tifi­cates by Red Cross dur­ing satur­day’s clos­ing cer­e­mony.

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