Cares of the carers in crisis-hit southern Africa

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By John Sparrow in Lesotho

Ask Red Cross volunteer Malikhang Matsoakeletse what troubles Lesotho’s foothill villages and she will take you to her clients: the hungry and lonely elderly, the struggling mothers, the orphaned children, those with HIV, and the impoverished grandparents caring for their children’s children.

On the morning we met her, Malikhang’s rounds took us to the home of Mafilipi Nthaha, 56, who cares for her nine-year-old grandson, a bright boy who wants to be a footballer. Who knows, perhaps he will, but tonight he will probably go to bed hungry.

Mafilipi is struggling. A food crisis is consuming great swathes of Lesotho, Malawi, Angola and Zimbabwe, and the field where she normally plants maize and sorghum has been swamped by flood and parched by drought. She has run out of seed and her land is barren. She does have a vegetable garden but survives mostly on maize meal borrowed from neighbours. Malikhang helps whenever she can.

Tlhokomelo’s father – Mafilipi’s son – died in 2011, and his mother left when he was a toddler. Now his grandmother is left to bring him up on her own. Hers is one of several thousand households receiving assistance from the Lesotho Red Cross Society.

Malikhang is a determined woman. She is used to the troubles of her neighbours; her response is calm and practical. She isn’t easily given to pessimism, yet she says the situation is dire. “I have never known anything as bad as this. It is by far the worst we have faced.”

Farming, she says, is on its knees. Successive harvests have failed, and many animals have died in the cycle of drought and flood. “I’m afraid that people will be next,” she says.

A recent Lesotho Red Cross Society programme in partnership with the German Red Cross and with financial support from the European Union helps families establish gardens that produce a year-round supply of vegetables. Seed fairs which took place through the year provided access to seeds suitable for both the location and season and training was provided to ensure that the seeds didn’t just provide one harvest, but would go on making a difference for years to come.

Malikhang shows people how to preserve and bottle their produce, and also helps individuals and groups to build livelihoods. The kitchen of her home contains hundreds of chicks which will become a source of income for orphanages, HIV support associations and other groups.

Malikhang keeps a close eye on the most vulnerable villagers, including those in need of medical assistance. But she also helps promote the importance of hygiene and mental well-being, both vital during times of crisis. Malikhang talks eagerly of the projects she is involved in, but reluctantly about herself, her needs, her hunger, the child in her care.

The truth is she has the same needs as everyone else.

Her husband is a farmer but they have no land of their own and normally live from sharecropping. They plant and harvest other people’s fields and share the yield with the owners. The crisis has put an end to that: half of almost nothing doesn’t count and last year they were unable to plant.

Her granddaughter, now 16, was born to an HIV-positive mother and abandoned as a baby. Today Malikhang is concerned for her future: they cannot afford the fees of a high school education.

Having nothing is one thing but having nothing to give is what hurts most. She talks about the hungry children who call at her house in search of food. But her reserves have gone.

“I don’t have anything either. I feel so bad when I can’t help them,” she says.

Sometimes she thinks she should leave the village, look for a job in town. She’s smart, resourceful and Red Cross-trained.

“But how can I do that? I can’t turn my back on the people here. I can’t turn my back on the children.”

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Lesotho Red Cross Society are also providing emergency food assistance to households severely affected by this crisis. Additionally, the local Red Cross societies in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Angola are helping people grappling with food insecurity in their countries in partnership with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.