MASERU — Fifteen-year-old Ntsebeng Tlokotsi (not her real name) sighs with relief as she is given M1 080.
Along with it she receives a bag of maize meal and cooking oil.
It is a government handout, and she qualifies for this only because both her parents are dead.
Tlokotsi’s mother died four years ago, and her father in August.
Both were HIV-positive.
In the face of growing vulnerability and chronic poverty among its children, the government this year launched, for the first time in Lesotho’s history, a child-grant programme.
Tlokotsi is one of the first 5 000 beneficiaries.
Since August Tlokotsi has been living with her aunt Tiisetso, 23, in Semonkong in the Maseru district.
It is some 130km and three hours of hard driving on a poor gravel road from the country’s capital.
The difficult access to Semonkong is a hindrance in providing services to the community.
The tarred road from the capital ends at the National University of Lesotho at Roma, some 40km from the capital.
A thin stretch of what used to be a tarred path goes a farther 17km into Moits’upeli, before deteriorating into a ragged gravel path meandering over the mountainous terrain.
Semonkong, like many rural areas, has very limited health care, with only three clinics.
The government and Roman Catholic Mission clinics are both free, while the private clinic is not.
This hard-to-reach district is one of the three areas of Mafeteng, Qacha’s Nek and Maseru where the programme has been piloted.
One local council was selected in each district based on its proximity to services, the number of orphans and vulnerable children who live there and the area’s level of development.
The government programme also receives financial assistance from the European Commission (EC) in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
It gives beneficiaries an unconditional quarterly payment of about M360.
Through the World Food Programme commodities such as maize meal, cooking oil and pulses are also provided.
When it was launched in April, Mathuleng in the Mafeteng district was the first local council to receive the grant.
Last month Thaba-Khubelu in the Qacha’s Nek district was included before Semonkong, in the Maseru district, last week.
Because the programme is officially in its third quarter, children in Semonkong also received a back payment for the first two quarters.
A dollar in Lesotho can only buy a loaf of bread, or a can of soft-drink.
But for Tlokotsi, M360 every three months helps.
“It makes some difference in our lives as there is nowhere we could receive any form of cash to make our lives better,” she says.
Life in her community has been difficult for her since her HIV-positive parents died.
“It is not easy to live freely in this community without someone casting a mocking glance at me, or saying something dreadful about me or my family,” she says.
But there remains concern for how long the orphans and vulnerable children in Lesotho can expect handouts from donors.
Semonkong’s chief, Morena Mathibeli, says Basotho communities should devise their own sustainable projects to support these children, without relying on donors.
“We should regard this effort (by Unicef and the EC) as a temporary measure, and an encouragement for us to start helping these orphans ourselves,” he says.
The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare says the main objective of the programme is to assist the ever-increasing number of children affected by HIV and Aids.
National Aids Commission statistics show that the number of Aids orphans in Lesotho has increased from 108 000 in 2007 to 120 000 this year.
“We expect to reach a total of 60 000 orphans and vulnerable children through grants, counselling, guidance on safety measure against HIV and Aids, as well as decreasing food insecurity,” says the ministry’s deputy principal secretary Moliehi Khabele.
Khabele says the aim is to ensure that, at the very least, each child attends school and has three meals a day.
High levels of poverty, chronic food insecurity and the high prevalence of HIV have seriously endangered the children of Lesotho.
Many leave school early to look after their siblings, or fend for themselves after their HIV-positive parents die.
Tlokotsi was fortunate she had family to rely on after her parents passed on.
She is a Form A student at Amohelang High School in Semonkong.
Before his passing, her father had managed to pay only half her school fees of about M500.
Her uncles have promised to pay the remainder of the fees.
If her fees are not paid by this month, she will not be able to sit for her end-of-year examinations.
They also promised to pay for the rest of her high school education.
But in a country where almost half the population live on less than a dollar a day, the future is never certain.
“I do not know how long we are going to survive this way, and I do not know how long my uncles will keep supporting me with fees,” she says.
So there is no doubt the child grant will help pay for her school fees and other necessities.
And Tlokotsi says she is glad for the extra money.
With it she can buy herself a second uniform. She will no longer have to use the same one every day. — IPS.