From ‘witches’ to heroes
Help Lesotho initiative debunks myths about old women with empowerment
AS poor and struggling families try to explain the misfortunes that befall them – such as unknown illness, sudden deaths, poor performance in school, miscarriages, marriage failure, being unmarried and many others – they search for a scapegoat.
And witchcraft is the nearest scapegoat as it appears to explain everything Basotho and many other Africans cannot understand or easily explain.
Shabby looking old women with wrinkled faces and sometimes rotten and protruding teeth are the first port of call according to a 2006 International Federation on Aging Conference report.
“One of the ugliest forms of discrimination that older people are suffering relates to witchcraft accusations and their consequent exposure to degrading and inhumane treatment, in most cases, without being given the opportunity for a fair hearing,” read part of the report.
As part of efforts to nip this discrimination and empower seniors, non-governmental organisation, Help Lesotho, initiated a two-year programme targeting older people in Leribe, Butha-Buthe and Thaba-Tseka.
Help Lesotho is a non-governmental organisation founded in 2004 by Dr Peg Herbert to raise awareness on HIV/AIDS issues and to provide support to underprivileged people such as vulnerable children, girls, youths and grandmothers.
The initiative was spawned by the realisation that grandmothers were a key societal support structure and essential to the survival of many children in Lesotho due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
“With so many children left orphaned by AIDS, grandmothers have filled the role of parents and guardians. They have the burden and the unique opportunity to support their grandchildren to become educated young leaders,” says Help Lesotho on its website, adding the grandmothers required a multi-faceted and holistic support since many of them would have lost their children and family members.
“These grandmothers are largely uneducated and unfamiliar with the disease that has claimed their loved ones. As grandmothers assume the responsibility of raising orphaned children, they struggle to communicate and relate with children who have been born into a very different generation.
“Despite their own poverty, illness and hopelessness, grandmothers have opened their homes and hearts to Lesotho’s orphaned children.”
The two-year programme supports grandmothers by helping them cope with their grief and loss and develop strategies to best support the children in their care.
Help Lesotho held a five-day grandmothers’ conference that started last Tuesday to wrap up the programme in which 130 grannies participated.
Leribe granny ‘Mathabo Khoanyane told this paper she had oftentimes been labelled a witch due to her tall, dark and wrinkled appearance.
“Once you get old and start showing signs of frailty, community members immediately forget that you were once as beautiful as they are and start calling you names,” Ms Khoanyane said, adding that she also had to grapple with being a mother to her grandchildren.
“You must understand that each person deals with grief differently and with us it’s even harder because we are forced to mother our grandchildren while still trying to understand the issues surrounding HIV and AIDS.”
The 84-year old said she was forced to step in and mother her four grandchildren after their parents’ death.
“My memory is not as sharp as it was 40 years ago and I easily forget. Unfortunately, most members of our communities are not accommodating of such a condition, and refer to us as witches.”
She commended Help Lesotho for giving them hope and courage in a society where many people, even family members, saw them as outcasts.
Ms Khoanyane said helping grandmothers to deal with their grief and loss during one of their monthly meetings had helped them become better parents to their grandchildren.
“I have learnt that children are very complex beings that can easily be affected by their elders’ moods which could easily be imparted into them,” she said, adding they had also been equipped with entrepreneurial skills and hygiene tips.
“Apart from piece farming jobs, I am also into crafts and I use that money to pay for my four grandchildren’s school needs as well as other basic needs like food.”
In his remarks during the official opening of the conference, Help Lesotho National Director Shadrack Mutembei said the programme was centered on HIV/AIDS education, child care and support, dealing with grief and loss as well as empowering them with life skills.
“I remember two years ago, we went around Thaba-Tseka, Leribe and Butha-Buthe villages recruiting grannies for this programme and two years later, the grannies have achieved a lot,” he said.
“They have come a long way and today we are proud of how the grannies have turned out. They are now involved in income generation projects and all have gardening skills to provide their grandchildren with fresh foods.”
To ensure that the programme is sustainable, Mr Mutembei said they had also included community integration in the project.
“We have also made sure that these grannies become community leaders and advocate for the rights of older persons in their own communities. They have also formed community support groups and that makes it easier for communities to accept them as human being with rights,” he said.
Also addressing the gathering, Leribe District Administrator Morahanye Mokhabelane said he would have turned out as a better person if his grandmother had gone through Help Lesotho’s programme.
“I was raised by a granny who always tried her best to give me everything but she wasn’t empowered like you grannies here. Had she gone through this programme, I am sure I would have been a better end product,” Mr Mokhabelane said.
With grandmothers playing a critical role in raising their grandchildren in Lesotho, Mr Mokhabelane said it was unfortunate that there was a limited number of national programmes investing in older persons.
“Grandmothers are at the center of the HIV pandemic that has ravaged our communities, killing young ones while leaving grannies behind to deal with the consequences.
“Raising children in a poverty-stricken home while dealing with loss and grief is not an easy task for grannies and I am glad Help Lesotho stepped in to assist.”
This was echoed by Ministry of Social Development Director of Older Persons, Retšelisitsoe Tsuinyane, who said investing in senior citizens was critical for Lesotho’s development.
“You are now different from other grannies who haven’t gone through this programme. We are here to make sure that we erase societal myths that older persons are useless,” Ms Tsuinyane said.
Were it not for the role grandmothers play in their grandchildren’s lives, she said, the country would have been more burdened with diseases and other social problems.
Ms Tsuinyane also encouraged grandmothers to go and fight for their rightful place in the society.
“You need to know your rights, including not allowing people to steal your pension monies.
Ms Tsuinyane said she was happy that the programmes had vindicated grandmothers, proving to everyone that they were not witches but actually heroes.
“I see many so-called witches in this tent as per societal beliefs, but I need all of us to stand together and fight this discrimination,
“From beggars to heroes empowered with life skills, grannies are now better persons molding future leaders.”
She commended the organisation for empowering grandmothers with skills to advocate for older persons’ rights in their communities
Officially opening the conference, Ministry of Social Development Principal Secretary Khoboso Molungoa said older persons were playing a critical role in nurturing future generations.
“With more young people economically stable, government has an option to invest monies that would have been rather budgeted for social programmes into development,” Ms Molungoa said.
Other challenges facing older persons
According to the 2006 International Federation on Aging Conference, HIV/ Aids has and will continue to have a huge impact on older people. Like any other population group, they might get infected with HIV.
This unfortunately is a fact that many cannot accept. The sexual needs of older people are not considered seriously since many people believe that older people should not have sexual desires and should not engage in sexual activities.
As a result of this, current HIV/AIDS education campaigns do not target them even when they need the information for themselves and the grandchildren under their care.
They are constructed and disseminated in inaccessible media and language and basically fly above older people. They are consequently denied the opportunity to know their status and then take measures to prolong their lives or prevent the spread of HIV.
Dementia – a syndrome in which there is deterioration in memory, thinking, behavior and the ability to perform everyday activities – is another form of challenge older persons face.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), dementia is one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people worldwide.