THABA-TSEKA — Two donkeys, a cow and a M300 monthly pension from the government is what separates Manthabiseng Tšoeu, 66, and her seven grandchildren from poverty.
About 52 percent of the people in Lesotho live in abject poverty and most of them are in remote rural areas like Mohlanapeng, a village 35 kilometres or so from the sleepy town of Thaba-Tseka, where Tšoeu shares a dilapidated three-roomed house with her seven grandchildren.
Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Currently in the throes of an HIV pandemic that turned 30 last week, there is little hope that the country with only 10 percent of its total area arable will be able to conquer the scourge of poverty.
The young and productive people who used to either work for a living or tilled the land for food have been wiped out by the pandemic which is killing nearly 20 000 people in Lesotho every year.
The burden of caring for the orphans has fallen on the elderly who are too old to work or young people who are too young to work.
It’s a toxic mix of a country ravaged by an incurable disease and unable to feed itself.
Hunger makes Aids more potent and Aids makes hunger more prevalent.
In Thaba-Tseka, as in the rest of Lesotho, the two are terrible twins that have combined to cause irreparable damage to society as well as its economic and social wellbeing.
Families have been dissipated.
Yet in the midst of all this gloom there are still stories of hope and courage.
Granny Tšoeu’s story is one of perseverance against odds.
It’s a story of a woman who has refused to sit and moan about her misery.
She has brewed beer to give her grandchildren an education.
She has sold tobacco and bread to dress and feed them.
Her life has been one long struggle but she is determined not to give up.
Hope, she said, is what keeps her going.
What makes life particularly difficult for people like Tšoeu is that, for years now, people in Thaba-Tseka have not been able to produce their own food.
And that has nothing to do with lack of initiative on their part.
The people of Thaba-Tseka are a hard working lot that only happen to live in an area susceptible to severe elements.
They have grappled with severe hunger caused by either excessive or too little rain.
This year the omens seemed auspicious.
The rains came just in time for the farming season and like many others in the district Tšoeu and her grandchildren ploughed their land and planted what they could.
But then midway through the season excessive rains destroyed their crops.
That means another year of serious food shortages in the district.
Once again people like Tšoeu will have to live on handouts from donor agencies like the World Food Programme.
If death had not claimed her daughter Nteboheleng, Tšoeu’s life would have been a bit better.
There would have been more hands to support her and fewer mouths to feed.
But life doesn’t work that way.
Nteboheleng died in 2005 leaving her mother to care of her seven children.
Tšoeu’s M300 government pension is not enough to feed the family but, like many grandmothers in Lesotho, she graciously carries the burden.
“I’m trying the best I can to raise my grandchildren to be better persons in future,” she said in an interview last week.
“I was heartbroken by the passing of their mother Nteboheleng, my third born child.”
Nteboheleng worked in South Africa where she sold clothes and food for a living.
She was the family’s sole breadwinner.
“She would come home having bought her children and myself new clothes. She was a pillar of strength,” Tšoeu said.
Then sometime in 2005 Tšoeu got a knock on her door that would later transform her from being a dependent to a provider of seven children.
Someone had brought back a gravely ill Nteboheleng home from Soweto.
Nteboheleng was dying of tuberculosis (TB).
A few months later Nteboheleng died leaving her seven children in Tšoeu’s care.
“It is hard to let go of her, she was a gift from God,” says Tšoeu.
Things got worse when Tšoeu’s husband also died in 2006.
There are many grandmothers in Thaba-Tseka who are raising orphaned children.
As more mothers and fathers succumb to the pandemic more children are orphaned.
With 23.3 percent of its two million people infected, Lesotho has the third highest HIV prevalence rate in the world.
Only Botswana and Swaziland are worse off.
According to the 2004 Lesotho Demographic and Health Survey, Thaba-Tseka’s HIV prevalence rate, at 18.2 percent, is significantly lower than the national average.
Only Mokhotlong district has a lower prevalence rate at 17.7 percent.
HIV prevalence is highest in Leribe (29.7 percent) and Maseru (25.5 percent).
Yet even with that seemingly lower prevalence rate, Thaba-Tseka has been ravaged by the disease.
It has almost wiped out the entire productive population of some villages, leaving the elderly to fend for young orphans.
Thaba-Tseka has its fair share of the nearly 200 000 Aids orphans in Lesotho.
Many families here are either headed by children or grandparents who in most cases are too old and too weak to work.
What makes the impact of HIV and Aids dire for districts like Thaba-Tseka is the lack of health facilities.
Most villages are several kilometres away from Thaba-Tseka’s only health centre, Paray Hospital.
Of the 258 people that Paray Hospital tested in May alone 45 were infected.
Mosili Liphoto, a counsellor at the hospital, says the results startled them.
“This gives you a picture of the seriousness of the problem we have in Thaba-Tseka. We are still battling with the epidemic. It is even a bigger problem when people, especially males are ignorant,” Liphoto says.
She says most men were not willing to play their role in the fight against HIV.
“There are some areas which our projects are not able to reach because they are only accessible to men like animal enclosures in the mountains and initiation schools. Such areas remain untouched by our prevention, counselling, testing and treatment programmes.”
Ntsoaki Lerata, National Aids Commission administrator in Thaba-Tseka, says another factor that is contributing to the increase in new infections was the habit of concurrent and multiple sexual partners.
“The culture of having more than one sexual partner is popular in Thaba-Tseka. Most of the perpetuators of this practice blame poverty for it. Most women have confessed to having extramarital affairs with hopes that their secret lovers would provide,” Lerata says.
Poverty also worsens the situation, Liphoto said.
“Most people here are not employed. They are poor. People who are on treatment fail to adhere. They say the pills make them hungry and so they stop taking them because they do not have enough food. Defaulting from HIV treatment is the worst thing anyone can do,” she adds.
To make ends meet Tšoeu sells home-made beer, tobacco and bread in her community.
She says she would be selling her goods to workers who are building a health facility at her village a kilometre from her homestead.
“There have been donations from the World Food Programme but they have not changed anything in our lives. I wish that a support group for orphans could be established so that they could be helped,” Tšoeu says.
Yet she admits that even if a support group is established the burden of raising Nteboheleng’s children remains her alone.
The good thing is that she is not complaining and is not about to tire.