MAKHALENG – Lehakoe Ntho* is not the typical teenager- not in the way she looks or even in terms of the hardships she has endured along with her siblings.
Ntho is 17 but she does not look anything like a vivacious carefree adolescent. Even as she forces a smile, it is not enough to mask the inner sorrow and fatigue that comes with carrying the weight of the world on her slender shoulders. If anything, Ntho looks twice her age and that is all because the loss of her parents to the dreaded AIDS scourge in 2013 forced her to quickly grow up and assume parenting duties for her three siblings.
At the age of 12, Ntho not only lost her childhood innocence but also had to give up on her own dreams to assume the role of looking after her siblings, including her brother who was just two years old at the time.
But Ntho is the picture of resilience and perseverance. Painful as it is, hers remains a story of hope.
In a recent interview with the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism at her Mpatana village, she narrated how hard it has been providing for her siblings who are now 14, 11 and seven years old.
She says she simply had to “get used to it because there was no one else to raise them”.
She does not remember the months their parents died in 2013 but she is certain they passed on in consecutive months with their mother dying first of HIV/AIDS. Thereafter they were left on their own as the relatives who used to visit every time their father came home from the mines where he used to work in South Africa stopped coming as soon as their parents succumbed to their illnesses.
Ntho only got to know that their parents died of HIV/AIDS after her two brothers were subsequently diagnosed with the same condition.
Before then, she only knew that her parents were seriously ill but she did not know what they suffered from.
“The last time I saw our relatives was at the funeral of our father, which came shortly after our mother’s,” said Ntho who was in her final year of primary school when she lost her parents.
Despite her circumstances, Ntho managed to pass her primary education and attained a certificate that enabled her to enrol at the St Roderigue Roman Catholic Girls High School in Makhaleng in the Maseru district.
But two of her siblings had to drop out of primary school “because I could not manage to fulfil their educational needs”. She tries hard to hide the tears welling up in her eyes as she narrates this ‘failing’ on her part.
She however, concedes that things could have been worse for them had their relatives deprived them of their inheritance as has been the case with many families in Lesotho.
Instead, she says their relatives left them on their own and did not attempt to snatch their parents’ property including their home and furniture.
“We were lucky because our relatives did not take our parents’ furniture or any other property. All they did was abandon us like we don’t exist.
“At some point I thought of giving up on life but I’m still here thanks to one of my teachers in primary school who committed herself to advising me on how to handle all these challenges”.
The same teacher paid for all her educational requirements at the St Roderigue which she still attends.
Every three months, Ntho still has to walk six-hour journey from their home accompanying her brothers to receive their Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART) drugs at the Scott Hospital in Morija.
According to HELP – Lesotho Organisation report dated 19 December 2017, Lesotho has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, at 25 percent of its population. More than half of the 300 000 adults living with HIV in Lesotho are women. There are more than 200 000 orphans in Lesotho, most whom are AIDS orphans, according to the report.
However, the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)’s strategy for accelerating HIV/AIDS epidemic control (from 2017 – 2020) sets a bold course of controlling the pandemic in the “10 high burdened countries” including Lesotho by the end of 2020.
Speaking on PEPFAR, the US Ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, said her government, was “proud to partner with the people and government of Lesotho in accelerating Lesotho’s progress towards achieving HIV/AIDS epidemic control”.
“Through PEPFAR’s 10 years of partnership with Lesotho, the United States has invested over M4 billion in the fight against HIV/AIDS. What that means in real terms is that we provided 3, 4 million HIV tests to Basotho, treatment for nearly 200 000 people living with HIV/AIDS, voluntary medical male circumcision for close to 177 000 men and medicine for 78 000 pregnant women to ensure they do not pass the infection to their babies.
“This is a massive effort and we are truly proud of our collaboration with the government of Lesotho, specifically the Ministry of Health and our implementing partners. As we look ahead to the next financial year, we are committed to saving lives through PEPFAR. In order to so, however, we need your commitment to accountability, efficiency and impact,” Ms Gonzales added.
HIV/AIDS was first discovered in 1981 and Lesotho which reported its first HIV case five years later in 1986 has the second highest HIV’AIDS prevalence rates in the world after ESwatini.
Lesotho has, with the support of PEPFAR, made huge strides in addressing the scourge of HIV and Aids with a recent study revealing that 90.2 percent of people living with HIV were now on antiretroviral (ARVs) treatment.
This figure surpasses the second of three ambitious 90-90-90 treatment targets seeking to end the Aids epidemic by 2020.
The first 90 target seeks to ensure that by the year 2020, 90 percent of all people living with HIV know their HIV status and the second target seeks to ensure that 90 percent of all people diagnosed with HIV receive sustained antiretroviral therapy. The third target is to ensure that 90 percent of all people receiving ARVs will have viral suppression by 2020.
Among other programmes currently funded by PEPFAR is the provision of the Prevention of Mother to Child Treatment which could have enabled Ntho’s mother give birth to her sons free of HIV.
But, with Ntho’s continually undertaking the six-hour journey to Morija to fetch their medication and her efforts to ensure they religiously consume it, the boys have every reason to be confident that they will lead full normal lives.
*The name has been changed to protect the minors’ identity.