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Iron Lady, gentle touch

’Matšei Moloi

MASERU — Lesotho’s health minister Dr Mphu Keneiloe Ramatlapeng says she still has a lot of unfinished business.
For the past 25 years, Ramatlapeng has served the nation, rendering medical care to the sick.
She has healed the infirm and mended broken bones.
She has also crafted and perfected the nation’s health policies.
As I sit down in her elegant home in Old Europa, I soon discover that the minister speaks in an authoritative voice, underlining a steely determination to get things done.
Her word, it would appear, is her command.
I also notice that she is an elegant dresser.
On the day of the interview, Ramatlapeng is donning a stylish costume — brown three quarter pants and a long-sleeved top.
She certainly looks like any other career woman in her late 30s.
Lesotho’s health delivery system has been under her tender, motherly care over the past two years.
She was appointed health minister in 2007.
“I have earned my place in society. I always try to do my job to the best of my ability.
“Failure has never been an option for me,” Ramatlapeng says.
She says being health minister is a very “demanding” role, but she has never been one to shy away from hard work.
“It is a very demanding job because I have to change the mindset of people,” she says.
Ramatlapeng says one of her biggest challenges has been dealing with a burgeoning HIV and Aids pandemic, said to be one of the worst in the world.
Lesotho has one of the world’s highest HIV prevalence rates with one in every three people out of the country’s 1.8 million people said to be carrying the virus which causes Aids.
Aid agencies estimate that at least 20 000 people die of Aids every year leaving about 300 000 orphans without parental care.
The government of Lesotho has declared the Aids pandemic a national emergency.
Ramatlapeng says she is deeply concerned about the impact of HIV/Aids on the nation’s health.
“HIV/Aids is a serious (matter); people should be serious about it because if they don’t act now, there will be no Lesotho in future,” she says.
“Last year, I visited health centres and observed that there was good infrastructure.
“However, service delivery was poor because nurses were not at the centres most of the time. Poor, sick people were dying mostly because of HIV-related illnesses.” 
She says there is lack of well-trained nurses in Lesotho.
She says her wish is to see the establishment of a medical school in Lesotho.
Lesotho does not have a medical school to train doctors and relies on foreign universities to train locals.
“I have a number of plans this year which include ensuring young people continue to study medicine in different countries.
“But my biggest ambition is to see a medical school being established here in Lesotho,” she says.
Asked what she thinks has been her biggest achievement as health minister, Ramatlapeng says it is the establishment of health facilities in remote and mountainous districts of the country.
Ramatlapeng says she never had it easy while growing up in Sea-Point, one of the poorest working class suburbs of Maseru.
“I’m the second born in a family of five — four girls and a boy. We grew up in Sea-Point.
“My mother was a nurse by profession and my father a civil servant in the Ministry of Communications.
“We had the same difficulties as the other children in the neighbourhood.
“Each day after school, I and the other children would sell mashala (coal) and vegetables to supplement our parents’ income,” Ramatlapeng recalls.
She went to school at Sefika and Mokhotlong primary schools before moving to Lesotho High School in 1972.
In 1979, she enrolled at the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR)’s Kharkov Medical Institute.
“There were complications in local politics at the time, so we were given the opportunity to study in different countries.
“I joined Kharkov Medical Institute and did a Masters in Medicine, which is equivalent to a Bachelor of Science in South Africa.”
In 1983, she enrolled at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, US where she obtained a Masters Degree in Public Health Science.
In 1985, she returned home and briefly worked at Queen Elizabeth II Hospital before being transferred to Mafeteng Government Hospital.
She ran a successful private surgery in Mafeteng until 2005 when she joined the Clinton Foundation, a foundation set by former US president Bill Clinton to fight Aids.
Between 1985 and 2004, she also lectured in epidemiology and public health at the National Health Training College in Maseru.
Ramatlapeng is widowed and has a daughter who is pursuing media studies at a university in South Africa.
She is the daughter of 92-year-old Ramphu and 86-year-old Fumane Ramatlapeng of Maseru West.

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