‘The population is dying’

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UNFPA Assistant Representative Retšelisitsoe Nko says Lesotho faces a real threat from diseases such as HIV 

The United Nations Population Fund-Lesotho (UNFPA) in April 2015 engaged Edward Retšelisitsoe Nko as Assistant Representativean immense undertaking for the 36-year-old.

Mr Nko speaks with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter Pascalinah Kabi about his job and how he hopes to use the position to champion the interests of Basotho youths in light of the country’s high unemployment and HIV-prevalence.

LT: You hold the distinction of being the second Mosotho to occupy the prestigious post of UNFPA deputy representative, which is quite an achievement for someone who is only 36 years of age. But could you tell us in brief, who Retšelisitsoe Nko is?

Nko: I am an academic, an enthusiastic writer and development specialist. I am someone who really cares about seeing the good end of Lesotho, and achieving not targets but developmental priorities.

Retselisitsoe Nko

Retselisitsoe Nko

I went to the National University of Lesotho (NUL) where I graduated with a Political Science and Public Administration degree. This made me very passionate about development and analysis.

My primary question has always been: why is it that developed nations call countries like Lesotho underdeveloped and why does Lesotho have an excessive labour-force?

Although I never loved law, I did Labour Law with the University of Cape Town, specialising in Human Rights and Industrial Relations. I wanted to understand our country’s labour-force and why it cannot match-up to this country’s development priorities. I then worked as an arbitrator at the Directorate of Dispute Prevention and Resolution (DDPR).

I have always had this motto: ‘If I don’t become busy I become silly’ so one afternoon, I surfed the internet to explore South African universities as I wanted to further my studies. After coming across a Governance and Political Transformation course, I pursued a Master’s Degree with the University of the Free State and was presented with an honorary academic excellence award for passing with distinctions. Subsequently, I worked as a Governance Advisor at the Irish Embassy here in Maseru.

After sometime, I felt I wanted to do a Master’s Degree in Development Studies but I was refused entry. I was so angry I confronted the University of Free State management and I was told, ‘young man, you are crazy; you have to do a PHD because you have such good grades’.

In 2011, I pursued my PHD, majoring in Development Aid Effectiveness and Governance, which looked at how we relate good governance and aid. Do we see aid contributing to good governance and do we see countries improving after receiving aid? How did I come across this job? One day, I came across a newspaper advertising this job. For the first time in my life, the requirements were just talking to me but at the bottom, it was clearly marked ‘women are encouraged to apply’.

All the people who had occupied this position in the past were women and to make matters worse, I was the only man out of the six shortlisted candidates, so I became frustrated looking at the probability of me getting the job. But I did get it in the end.

LT: As a young Mosotho, what are you bringing to UNFPA-Lesotho?  

Nko: UNFPA is a big, umbrella international organisation looking at making the world’s population healthy and when I look at Lesotho, it’s really a sad situation. Lesotho is in a crisis; the population is dying. Because of this background, what I am bringing to UNFPA is more energy and enthusiasm to engage Lesotho and Basotho, government partners, the private sector and business community, to form a coalition in fighting these diseases decimating Lesotho’s population.

I would want to use the elevated platform I have been afforded here at UNFPA to assist and give Basotho the relevant information about how we can protect and save our nation. When I look at how young Basotho are dying because of HIV and AIDS, teenage pregnancies and early marriages, I become determined to use this UNFPA mandate to advance voices and messages for the protection of us all.

There are countries with small populations like Lesotho, but they are very rich because their citizens are healthy. But in Lesotho, our economically active population between the ages of 20 and 29 years, is dying from HIV-related causes.

LT: So what is UNFPA’s broad mandate and how are you using it to help Lesotho?

Nko: The UNFPA’s mandate is to prevent HIV and AIDS and promote sexual reproductive health (SRH). Because of my current position, I want Basotho to be equipped with knowledge that would help them as individuals and families, to stay healthy.

When one visits a healthcare facility, one finds it with many young people and as a result, our productivity suffers. What I want is for the UNFPA to partner with government, civil society, communities, and politicians and say let us fight these conditions which are wiping out our population, for the country’s economy to grow.

LT: As a young person, how are you going to use your elevated position to champion issues affecting Basotho youths and ensure they are economically active?

Nko: That is one of my job-descriptions and as head of innovative programming, I am leading programmes engaging the youth to find means and ways through which they can survive.

For instance, we are about to introduce innovation funding in which we will be giving the youth some small start-up funds to establish their own initiatives which are normally around SRH and good health promotions.

I will give you an example of how we will achieve this; we have three resource centres in three of the country’s 10 districts, working closely with the Ministry of Gender and Youth, Sports and Recreation. The plan is to have these resource centres in all the 10 districts.

We have volunteers and our own UNFPA Skills Development Officers based in the districts and we will soon be conducting trainings on comprehensive sexual education (CSE) and behavioural skills challenges. Out of these trainings, we will be asking the youth to come up with creative ideas which can help them make a living out this educational programme.

If it means going to a village shop-owner and asking that for every candle sold, they put a condom on it so that people can understand the importance of using a condom, it’s a project that can be funded because it will be bringing innovation and helping save the population.

I remember that during an Innovation Day commemoration in Semonkong, the youths there informed us that they now know how to sew leather side-bags. What they were suggesting was to put a branded small, inside pocket saying “it is your right to say no to unprotected sex”.

They are producing these beautiful bags while also carrying these very important messages, and this means income as well as CSE and that is innovation.

Other youths were suggesting that because our resource centres are mostly far away from their schools, making it difficult for learners to access them, they want schoolbooks to have printed CSE and SRH messages which the youth could then consume and easily remember. They are going to print them and this simply means making an income for themselves. Different districts are also expected to come up with good, innovative ideas for occasions such as World AIDS Day and make money out of such initiatives.

LT: There is this perception that Basotho are not afraid of HIV and AIDS but rather pregnancy. In your research, have you come across this?

Nko: It is serious cause for concern but when you sleep with a woman without protection, the first thing they think of is “where do we get the morning-after pill” not “this has been a mistake, can we go and get Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).”

The second thing is our youths don’t think about getting an HIV test after this “mistake” but rather rush for pregnancy tests. So I think it is not a question of fear but we should also ask: are we making the messages reach the people?

People don’t have the correct messages and correct information, which is why we are trying to get messages across by establishing community networks. We can even start by having  community networks for herd-boys to give them the platform to discuss issues of condoms and HIV.

We further have a Sexual Behavioural Change Coordinator (SBCC) who is primarily working on counselling people, so trust me, it is not a question of fear, it is a question of behavioural change.

Even though 65-70 percent of our youth say they have knowledge about HIV and AIDS, they are at best ignorant so the more we pass the information, the more we work with our government and partners like the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association (LPPA) and Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (LENEPHWA), the more our people will have the knowledge. It’s just like the more students read the more they learn.

We further need to ensure that people have access to commodities and treatment. We will not be talking about treatment as such; UNAIDS can talk about it while we talk about prevention.

LT: It is generally taboo in African families to talk about sexual issues. Do you have CSE and SRH programmes targeting families?

Nko: Even though they are not at best deeply rooted in the villages, we do have programmes of that nature. But like I alluded to earlier on, the youth resource centres furnished with computers and recreational centers, during their interaction, children learn CSE and SRH messages. I am proud to say we have some area chiefs regularly visiting such places. The only link that is a little bit flimsy for now is that of faith-based organisations as there are some churches which are still not quite pro family planning services. On 12 October this year, UNFPA pleaded with churches to preach on messages surrounding child marriages, etc.

It will take time for our communities to finally get to a position where they will freely talk about issues of sex with their children but we have to start for us to get there. For instance, I have a 12-year-old daughter I must talk to about issues of hygiene, sex, pads and not being interested in relationships at the moment but education.

So the idea is for us to try and pass messages that parents and teachers will use in a constructive way. We also give young people an alternative; if you say “don’t have sex” give them an alternative and that is what our resource centres are doing.

We are further trying to build recreational capacity in our country and resuscitate our recreational spirit because we want something to occupy our youth; to give them an option.

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