Looking After the Least of These
In Lesotho, Habitat and its partners respond to the housing needs of its most vulnerable population: orphaned childrenBy Teresa K. Weaver
In the small, mountainous kingdom of Lesotho, vast stretches of arid landscape seem freeze-dried in time. More than 80 percent of the population works in subsistence agriculture, and young boys shepherd small flocks of sheep and goats as their ancestors did. Women dressed in colorful wool blankets and conical straw hats tend cooking fires outside round, stone huts known as rondawels.
Such scenes may lull observers into a false sense of timelessness. But the modern day has moved into Lesotho with a vengeance: Urbanization has happened too quickly, overwhelming local governments and social services and stretching all the traditional safety nets to the point of snapping.
And the HIV/AIDS pandemic has turned a bad situation desperate.
In this nation of 2 million, officials estimate there are 180,000 orphans, defined as children who have lost one or both parents. About 100,000 are orphans because of AIDS. In rural areas, extended families can no longer absorb all the children who need a home; and in the cities, orphans routinely end up living on the streets, doomed to a life of panhandling and hopelessness.
“The need is huge, and it is urgent,” says Shadrack Mutembei, national director of Habitat for Humanity Lesotho. “But I think there’s hope!”
In Mohalalitoe (Maseru East), on the outskirts of the capital city, seven children have settled into a new life with a sweet-natured woman named Mantsane Tsatsi. The children — and most people in the community — refer to her simply as Nkhono, or Granny.
The family histories of these seven children, ranging in age from 2 to 14, are an unbearable litany of abuse, abandonment, parental mental illness and AIDS. Under Granny’s watchful eye, they are all thriving.
“These children are happy,” says Matlali Sere, wife of the minister at the Apostolic Faith Mission next door. “They feel safe here.”
Matlali and her husband are currently caring for an independent minded 1-year-old girl named Rethabile, whose mother suffers from illness and epilepsy and whose father abandoned her. When Rethabile turns 2, she will become the ninth member of Granny’s household.
In a nation of so much need, there is always one more child waiting for a home.
At Work in Lesotho
But in the past few years, Habitat Lesotho has refined its core mission to respond to the dire needs of these orphans and vulnerable children in concrete, sustainable ways, pairing its unparalleled homebuilding expertise with the social support of churches and other nonprofit organizations.
“In many communities, Habitat has been a catalyst for bringing organizations together,” says Matthew Maury, former area vice president for Africa and the Middle East. “More and more, we have to understand how shelter plugs into holistic improvement. It’s not enough just to consider what a good house looks like. We have to think about what a good community looks like.”
Habitat Lesotho has begun building simple, sturdy foster homes and orphan-headed homes, designed for up to eight children and in some cases, one caregiver. Habitat’s church partners have been instrumental in identifying the children in their communities who are most in need, along with congregation members or neighbors who might be willing and able to care for a houseful of youngsters. Other key partners — including Dorcas Aid, World Vision and SOS Children’s Village — step in to furnish the houses and attend to the ongoing health, education and food security needs.
Habitat Lesotho also works closely with government agencies, including the Ministry of Local Government, to acquire land and to make long-term reforms in inheritance rights and secure tenure. Through a network of volunteer paralegals, Habitat Lesotho has helped teach nearly 9,000 people how to legally protect what is rightfully theirs.
Since 2007, Habitat Lesotho and its partners have built eight foster homes and trained eight caregivers, providing safe shelter and new hope for 125 orphans and vulnerable children. A ninth home for orphans is under construction. (Habitat Lesotho also has built 52 rooms known as “safe spaces,” which are designed to ensure that widows, female orphans and children at risk have clean, secure places to sleep in existing homes, away from male relatives and housemates.)
These are homes, not institutions. Because of the limited size of the house — and the care that goes into matching children with siblings and caregivers when needed — the bonds that form are deep and familial. In one newly formed family, a 10-year-old boy is asked if the others really felt like his brothers yet. He answers simply, “We are brothers.”
Caregivers tend to be older women — some who have successfully raised their own families and are ready to take on this new challenge, and some who never had children of their own but have the time, energy and heart for children who have nowhere else to turn. Whenever possible, Habitat Lesotho supports existing families so that orphans may remain with extended family in familiar villages.
A Day in the Life
“I don’t get tired,” Granny says. “I like taking care of children. I like seeing them happy.”
Her dreams for her new family are simple: “I want to see them all get educated and also have a relationship with God,” she says.
The children’s dreams are a little more precise: Tlotliso, a shy and serious girl of 11, wants to be a nurse; Tsoanelo, the oldest boy at 14, wants to be a policeman; Tsepo, 11, and Moshoeshoe, 10, dream of being soldiers; and Lehlohonolo, 10, sees himself as a pastor someday. All are getting good marks in school, Granny reports.
Tlotliso is very dutiful with the youngest girls; one of her daily chores is to bathe them. The four boys are responsible for washing dishes and sweeping the house, along with tending to an impressive vegetable garden behind the house that yields spinach, carrots, beetroot, maize and beans.
On a late-spring October morning, Tlotliso does her math homework in one shady corner of the yard, while all four boys play a spirited game of marbles, using a course they’ve created with fragments of cinderblocks.
The two smallest girls sit on the stoop applying crayon to coloring book, singing quietly, oblivious to all the activity around them. Granny sits in a plastic chair in the slim shade offered by the house at midday, smiling and nodding whenever one of the children looks to her for affirmation or just attention.
It is barely contained chaos, like any family at home.
The concrete-block house has three small bedrooms — one for the girls, one for the boys, one for Granny — and a large kitchen and living area. As with most houses in the community, there is limited and often no electricity, and they get their water from a pump in the front yard. Separate male and female latrines sit nearby.
Privileged to Make a Difference
The church also offers counseling to the caregivers, acknowledging the emotional and spiritual demands of such work.
“This is the most rewarding thing,” Qhobela says, “knowing that we are making a difference in children’s lives. We know it is God’s will. To serve Him in that capacity, I take as a privilege.”
Qhobela has been engaged in this mission long enough to see tangible, measurable results. “The biggest differences are in terms of their health,” he says. “Some of these children, when we first took them in as residents, were extremely malnourished.
“When you look at them today, they are healthy,” he says. “They are happy.”
Habitat affiliates in several other African countries — Uganda, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa — also have intensive programs that address specifically the needs of orphans and vulnerable children. Though a little different from the traditional Habitat model, this kind of subsidized building project reaches the poorest, most vulnerable people in this impoverished country, giving them a real chance to be healthy, happy, productive members of society.
“At times I look at these kids and say, ‘Lord, where could they be?’ ” says Qhobela. “What could be happening to them if we didn’t have an intervention of this nature?”
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