By Tsitsi Matope
BUTHA-BUTHE – The stench permeates the village of Damaseka and children can be seen covering their noses to protect themselves from the unbearable reek of rot.
But then, this is not a strange phenomenon in Damaseka and each time it happens, the villagers know death has struck once again and that a body needs urgent burial.
However, the burial process is not an easy one considering the traditional demands, which include slaughtering a cow. What this then means is although a corpse could be kept at home for at least three days before burial, there are times when this period is prolonged due to a number of challenges, among them poverty.
On this particular day last week, a man had passed away three days before after a long illness and the villagers were contributing some money to facilitate his urgent burial because his family had failed to raise the required funds.
“Most people, including myself, are coughing terribly in this village. As you can see, this is not a healthy situation,” the area chief, Kopano Mothuntsane, said.
Chief Mothuntsane further said most villagers who lose their loved ones usually have no choice but to keep the bodies in their homes since they cannot afford to hire vehicles to take the corpses to the mortuary in town.
The mortuary is situated about 20 kilometres from Damaseka and only four-wheel-drive vehicles can traverse the terrible road.
Separate interviews with some local residents also showed that taking bodies to the mortuary and burying them in coffins was a luxury for many.
According to the villagers, spending a lot of money on the dead was unnecessary as it meant wasting valuable resources meant to sustain the families of the deceased.
“Although we have many challenges in this village, the worst is when someone dies. We fear to imagine what could happen if the body is not buried within three days, especially during this hot summer,” Chief Mothuntsane said.
A picture-square area surrounded by mountains, waterfalls and a healthy crop of maize and sorghum, Damaseka looks like the ideal setting for a dream home.
Yet despite the natural beauty and rich soils, this is also a community in great need and a classic example of what the authorities mean when they describe an area as “far and difficult to reach”.
Far-to-reach, in the case of Damaseka, also means the inability to access basic services even when the area is not located deep in the mountains and ironically, not too far from the town of Butha-Buthe.
It also means struggling to travel on a bumpy gravel road that can suddenly “disappear” before resurfacing a few metres away — a road also jutted with boulders in many parts and painful to imagine heavily-pregnant women travelling through, either in vehicles or on horseback, to get services at Linakeng Clinic, 12 kilometres away or to give birth in town.
It was shocking to learn that although not so far from the district’s capital, every aspect of infrastructure-development has continued to evade this village of about 2 000 people.
Apart from very few households that own solar systems, Damaseka villagers do not even have the very basic amenities such as safe drinking water.
However, according to Chief Mothuntsane, the bad gravel road has been a big let-down and also the reason why some serious investors have always given the area a wide berth.
“If only our road could be upgraded, this could motivate people to extend their businesses from town to this area. We have nothing here and it shows we are forgotten. It would also make it easy for farmers to travel to sell their produce in town,” Chief Mothuntsane lamented.
Yet the issue of road-infrastructure is just one of the many challenges Damaseka has to contend with.
Villagers here still drink from Linakeng — the same river in which dead animals such as dogs are dumped upstream, with one carcass seen floating in the raging waters on this particular visit to Damaseka.
“We don’t know who dumps the dogs and some animal skins in this river. It is not done by local people because we all drink from Linakeng.”
While carcasses can be a concern, the fact that use of the “bush toilet” system is still prevalent in the area also means easy contamination of the river.
Every year, Damaseka suffers waterborne-disease outbreaks such as typhoid and dysentery.
“If only the government can drill boreholes for us and help us build pit-latrines, the health situation can improve,” the chief said.
Two Rural Water Supply workers who visited Damaseka on Thursday last week said they were surveying the area to see where they could erect storage water tanks.
One of the officers who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “We are surveying the area, but that is only as far as we can go for now until we get money to provide clean water facilities.”
Meanwhile, as the villagers contemplate how the provision of clean water would positively transform their lives, they also have to grapple with the difficulties of accessing secondary education.
After completing free education at Damaseka Primary School, it would be the end of the road for many of the children.
This is because Bakoro Secondary School is about 10 kilometres away, making it difficult for many children to attend classes every day.
“Usually girls here are married as soon as they complete primary school, between the ages of 14 and 17 years. Boys, on the other hand, can look for odd jobs or become livestock-herders in better-developed areas or simply turn to crime to earn a living,” Chief Mothuntsane said.
The disturbing effects of early marriages, he said, included poor family planning, which resulted in mothers as young as 24 years, having more than four children.
Tšale Moleka, the area councillor under Qalo Number Four Constituency, said it was not uncommon to see mothers as young as 28, already having six children.
“It is a big concern and it all boils down to the limited understanding of the importance of family planning by both the young mothers and their husbands and reproductive rights by the women,” Moleka said.
One such mother is ‘MaThato Rampai, who at just 27 years of age, already has five children. Despite her age, Rampai looks frail and apprehensive and after listening to her touching story, it became clear why this was the case.
The eldest of her children is 13 years old and dropped out of school last year after completing Standard Seven.
“She is here helping us in the field because the secondary school is too far,” Rampai said.
The family depends on zero-tillage — a farming system in which the seeds are directly deposited into untilled soil — on a small piece of land, which does not yield enough to sustain the household until the next harvest.
Rampai said her sister, a housemaid in Maseru which is about 200 kilometres away, had promised to find domestic work for her daughter.
“At least that way, she stands a chance of making something of herself. If she is lucky, she might find good employers who can send her to school.”
Asked if she was planning to have another baby after the five she delivered at home, Rampai said that choice was not up to her but her husband.
“I really don’t have a say in the matter because that is the responsibility of Ntate. He is the one who can decide whether I should start getting the family planning pills or have more children.”
Contraceptives such as the pill and condoms are provided free of charge by a community health worker operating in the village.
But according to councillor Moleka, the general trend is the community shuns the contraceptives.
“This applies to both the married and unmarried. The great danger is that prostitution is rampant here and this affects both the married and unmarried. It only takes M5 to sleep with a woman here. It might not sound like much in the city but M5 is a lot of money here because it can buy airtime, one of the most important commodities for us here if you have to communicate,” Moleka said.
Moleko argued the reason he felt most people were not protecting themselves against sexually transmitted diseases was the high rate of infections.
“Here, we have many people who are sick. Many have died and we don’t see the situation changing despite the presence of HIV and Aids support groups.”
Damaseka is one of the many impoverished communities where poverty seems to drive the epidemic because “nothing seems to matter anymore or because life seems to have no meaning at all”, according to Moleko.
This is a reality for 12-year-old Thabang (name changed to protect him since he is a minor) who lives with his grandfather close to Chief Mothuntsane’s homestead.
After seeing his parents struggle for years to make ends meet, his situation became even worse when they passed away when he was seven years of age.
Thabang was to later learn he also got infected with HIV when his mother was pregnant.
“My only fading hope lies with the help I might get from the government because my grandfather is old and too weak to continue looking after me. I am usually sick and it’s difficult for him,” Thabang said.
The boy, however, said the challenge was since registering for financial assistance with the Ministry of Social Development last year, he has not yet received any feedback.
“I don’t know what is going to happen if that help doesn’t come. I just don’t know.”