Sunday, November 28, 2010

Paballo Goes Home

Paballo, a definite candidate for cutest little girl in the world, is going home.

Here she is the day of her arrival at the safe-home and the day before her departure.

This is what TTL does:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Poem

Thanksgiving 2010

This past year has been a bit unnerving. Here's to giving thanks, sincere and deserving:

Thanks for my family. Thanks for my friends. Thanks for stability and ends meeting ends.

Thanks for my health. Thanks for my mind. Thanks for second chances, time after time.

Thanks for my shelter. Thanks for my bed. Thanks for education, for becoming well-read.

Thanks for experiences. Thanks for adventure. Thanks for my freedom, away from brute censure.

Thanks for humanity. Thanks for community. Thanks for talent, skill and ability.

Thanks for the future. Thanks for hope. Thanks for the reasons we have not to mope.

Most of all, thanks for resilience and my feeling near it. Thanks for the steady, iron-willed human spirit.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

1 Through 9

Things have been so busy here that today, when I finally took a moment to do a headcount, and realized we currently have 9 babies in the safe-home, I was a bit surprised. I wondered if I could name them all.

Happily, I could, but it took a few minutes.

Here's an update:

1. Paballo (Girl - 18 months) -- She is adorable and sweet. She is also still a crier, but now it seems I comfort her. The other morning, after she had been crying for quite some time, 'Me Nthabeleng suddenly showed up in the fellows' office and handed her over to me. She immediately stopped crying and said, "Ntate," in her sweet little voice. I smiled and Nthabeleng laughed. Paballo goes home on Friday, where she won't be as coddled. Hopefully she will adapt quickly.

2. Retsepile (Boy - 20 months) -- After yet another sickness that had him losing weight, he finally seems to be back on track. The TB treatment seems to be working. He is finally gaining weight and sitting up, and appears to have a bit more energy. He smiles when I play with him, but he is still unable to move around and I think he gets envious of the other toddlers' fun. Hopefully he will be able to join them soon enough.

3. Retsepile (Girl - 3 months) -- She is still small, but is considerably larger than when she first arrived at TTL in September, shortly after her own birth and her mother's death. All her life has been at TTL. She'll likely remain here for a while longer, as she currently has no care-giver to take care of her while her father works. We're hoping to solve that problem.

4. Tseliso (Boy - 2 months) -- He arrived not long ago, too small and frail. He has wide, curious eyes and a shock of dark black hair. He's feeding well and hopefully will gain strength rapidly.

5. Khutliso (Boy - 16 months) -- He arrived last week with his grandmother, malnourished and lethargic. I helped complete the client intake form and then held and tried to comfort him while his grandmother packed her things and left. His eyes were so sad, I had to make a conscious effort to appear happy, hoping it might ease his fear. Now he smiles at me every time I go into the playroom, and I think the first-impression trick may have worked. I think we'll be good buddies soon, and with the help of plumpy nut, he will hopefully put on weight quickly.

6. Nthabiseng (Girl - 6 months) -- She has also been at TTL all her life. Her twin, Pulane, was here as well, but passed away. She's come so far, from the tiny premature infant she was when she first arrived to the chunky-cheeked baby she is today. She will likely go home next month, and I know the bo'me here, who have raised her, will miss her.

7. Nthabiseng (Girl - 28 months) -- She just arrived on Friday, malnourished but smiling. Her bukana tells the story of multiple counseling sessions for drug adherence, and multiple defaults. Taking medicine for HIV unsteadily, and missing doses, is very bad for you, which is worrisome in terms of her overall success on the regimen. Her mother is apparently gone, "disappeared" not long ago, and her father dropped her off in her village in Thaba Tseka before departing for Maseru himself. Hopefully, staying at TTL, Nthabiseng will get to a point where she is healthy and happy, on the right medications, and we can return her to her grandmother in Thaba Tseka. She is a very sweet little girl, and she seems to like me, giggling when I play with her. I acted goofy and made a fool of myself early on in our relationship, which always helps.

8. Kokonyana (Girl - 7 months) -- Severely underweight and on plumpy nut, she is a cute little girl who seems uneasy much of the time. I think she is still getting used to being fed. She wails every meal. Hopefully she will learn to like food soon, as she needs as much as she can get.

9. Mpho (Boy - 5 months) -- He has been at TTL for quite some time. His mother has been ill since his birth, during which his twin passed away. We are hoping his mother recovers. In the meantime, we have seen some improvement in his chronic skin rash and are hoping it will go away for good soon.

It is quite a sight to see the safe-home in action with so many clients currently residing here. Each of them has such an amazing story of survival. They are all fighters, tough before they should need to be.

It's also heartwarming to see their progress. Like TTL's motto says -- "One Child at a Time."

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Living and working at a safe-home for babies, it's easy to lose track of time except as it relates to the babies themselves.

On a day-to-day basis, the progression of time seems marked only by specific realities of the babies' lives, like how many days in a row one child's weight has increased, or the length of another child's hospital stay.

Overall, the moments that mark my mental calendar are special milestones in the babies' lives, like when a child walks unassisted for the first time, blurts out a first word, celebrates a birthday or goes home healthy. In a world where many children die before reaching these early milestones, the significance of TTL's vulnerable clients reaching them is accentuated. Witnessing these moments is a miraculous way to mark the passage of time.

I first thought of the special nature of milestones here recently, when an entirely different sort of milestone was reached on this blog: 10,000 visitor hits.

While not as emotionally compelling as a child's first steps, the number is important in its own right as an indication of the large and growing network of individuals who care about TTL and what is going on here.

Living in Mokhotlong, seeing what TTL is doing on behalf of children on a daily basis, I gain strength from my sense of that network. Writing this blog has become cathartic for me, partly because I see it as a direct line to all sorts of people who I know can and will help TTL in times of need.

We want to keep giving babies renewed chances at health and happiness. We want to make sure they reach the milestones of young life that shouldn't be denied anyone. As TTL continues to seek new and better ways to serve children in the remote reaches of Lesotho, our network of family and friends continues to gain importance in that fight. The more people who care, the better prepared TTL will be to face the future.

Reaching 10,000 hits on this blog is a milestone I'm genuinely happy to have reached, and I thank all of you for caring and taking the time to check in on us here at TTL. There is no doubt we need you.

Last I heard, out of a national population of about 1.9 million in Lesotho, there are an estimated 270,000 orphans. That's about 14 percent of the population, a staggering statistic that highlights just how many children in this country are in need of critical, life-saving support.

To continue providing that support, to continue giving little babies the chance to walk for the first time or to speak a first word, we're going to need all the help we can get -- and you all checking in on how we are doing, 10,000 times over, makes me confident that we will indeed get it.

So, thanks!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Holding Down

Frustration and anger came yesterday in throbbing, repetitive doses as I held down a little boy's arms so a nurse could give him two shots in the thighs. He wailed on the hospital bed. I furrowed my brow and tried to concentrate. I tried to understand but couldn't, didn't want to.

It was neglect for the sake of neglect, utter disregard for a child, and I was angry. I still am. I feel powerless. I'm shaken.

Rethabile is a double orphan and a former client of TTL who spent six months in the safe-home last year. He went home happy and healthy, to a family that includes his grandmother and his aunt. The TTL staff had high hopes.

It wasn't long before our outreach team realized the family was neglecting Rethabile, giving the food provisions to other children, leaving Rethabile filthy, untouched, unloved, unfed, unwanted.

There was much back and forth before Rethabile was graduated from the TTL program.

Fast-forward to last week, when Rethabile's aunt brought him to TTL once more. Now a severely malnourished boy of 28 months, he had a severe rash that was causing welting all over his body and head. He had severe edema -- excess watery fluid collecting in the cavities or tissues of the body -- in his arms, hands, legs and feet. His feet were so swollen they looked like balloons that would pop with a needle prick.

His aunt had skipped the hospital because she didn't want to stay there with her nephew, even though that was clearly where he needed to be. She just wanted to dump him at TTL.

We escorted her to the hospital, where we told her we would pay for the bills and check in on her again the next day. The next day, we found she had left after talking to some nurses, who told her to see the doctor. Not wanting to stay at the hospital, she had taken Rethabile back to his village -- and in such horrible condition.

I was confused by the situation. I knew the aunt and grandmother were caring for other kids as well, and that the food situation in the home was unstable. I know of the difficulty of hygiene in a packed rondaval, and sympathized.

Still, knowing Rethabile was suffering, TTL had to do something.

Yesterday, Matello, our outreach coordinator, managed to get the police to go with her to Rethabile's home to talk to the family. Once there, they were appalled.

I had just returned from Maseru when Matello arrived at TTL with Rethabile and his grandmother, who had agreed to accompany her grandson to the hospital at the insistence of the police.

I drove the group to the children's ward, and Matello and I spoke about the situation.

Rethabile looked even worse than before -- no surprise. He was filthy. Matello pointed out his long fingernails caked in dirt and stuffed with dried papa. He had a constant cough. His feet were still swollen, and were ice cold to the touch.

All the other children in his family had appeared well. Weren't sick. Weren't malnourished. Why him?

After the doctor admitted him, I helped the nurse hold him down as he received the first of many shots. I was also holding down the anger. I felt it rising and cleared my throat.

The thoughts ran quick: Who in their right mind…? Why…? Didn't they realize…?

Then: Was it their fault? Was the poverty to blame? Were there alternatives? Were they as devastated by this as we are? Was this neglect or lack of resources?

Then I thought of the other healthy kids, and the uncut fingernails, and the refusal to go to the hospital until the police came, and the filthy clothes...

The anger boiled up again, and again I suppressed it, consciously making sure that it wasn't escaping through my hands as I held poor Rethabile to the bed.

"It's OK," I cooed gently. But I wonder if that's true.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Muddy Birthday Story

Today I turned 25. It was definitely a memorable birthday.

Namely, I spent a few hours this morning trudging through deep mud and heavy rain in an extremely remote village, anxiously asking various herd boys if I could borrow their cows to help pull my truck off the muddy mountain slope where it was stuck.

It all started this morning, when Matello, our outreach coordinator, and I set off to a village in the Mateanong region of Mokhotlong to drop a special TTL client back at home.

Retselisitsoe has a cleft palate, and TTL has remained in touch with her over the years -- even though she doesn't need our normal means of support anymore --while trying to figure out a way to help her receive surgery. We recently began working more closely with Operation Smile and the Smile Foundation, and they helped facilitate a meeting with a doctor in Maseru on Monday for Retselisitsoe and another TTL client with a cleft lip.

Retselisitsoe had a few rotten teeth pulled, will heal for a month, and then will go back to Maseru to have her surgery, while TTL's other client will likely go to South Africa for her procedure in coming months.

The ride to Retselisitsoe's home, amidst the lasting rain clouds that had first arrived over Mokhotlong the night before, was gorgeous -- but treacherous. Mountainside villages poked out of the heavy, low-lying clouds we drove through, the yellow thatched roofing of the rondavals accenting the lime-green, grassy newness of Spring. The road, cut deeply with crisscrossing rivulets and larger streams as well, was bumpy.

I approached particularly muddy patches like a shortstop sliding into home, gaining a bit of speed before leaning back to cruise through.

Just after turning off the main dirt road onto a smaller path leading up the mountain to Retselisitsoe's village, the truck literally began sinking into the ground -- the same ground that two days prior had been flat and dry. Despite the four-wheel drive, I couldn't back up. I inched forward by maneuvering the wheel left and right and tapping the gas, then turned slowly off the side of the road onto a large patch of grass that I thought would allow me to turn around. The truck sunk deeper. It was all mud. We were stuck.

I looked at Matello, she looked back, and I said, "I don't know what to do."

The words sounded silly in my head, and I forced myself to take a deep breath, gather myself and think.

"Let's take Retselisitsoe home," I said. "Then we can try to borrow some cows to get us out."

We hiked the rest of the way, about 20 minutes, to her rondaval, where her grandmother met us with thanks. The going was muddy and wet, and we all kept sliding a few inches on the soles of our feet with each new step. I took off my baseball cap and put it on Retselisitsoe's bare head, and she looked up at me from under the brim.

Her getting surgery is worth all of this, I thought. One thing at a time.

While her grandmother went to talk to the village chief about helping us get our truck out of the mud, Matello and I sat in the rondaval quietly. I looked over at her, and pulled my chin out of my palms long enough to say, "It's my birthday."

Matello looked surprised, and then we both laughed at the humor involved.

Retselisitsoe's grandmother returned, and said the chief was sending some men to help. I didn't think manpower was going to work. I thought cows were definitely our only option.

Along the hike back to the car, we kept asking people about cows, with no luck. Just up the hill from the truck, Matello yelled to some herd boys. They pointed to where the cows large enough to pull a truck were, and I spotted them -- like ants on a distant mountain slope.

Still, the boys came to help themselves, joining us and the men the chief had sent. Eventually, there were a total of four men and four boys at the truck with us.

They pushed as I tapped and played with the gas pedal. They maneuvered rocks under the wheels, in different positions as the truck spun around. Finally it was back on the road.

We made it back to TTL about an hour and a half later. I was muddy and thankful to be home.

What a birthday, I thought. And worth every muddy step.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Snowballing updates

The past few weeks have been busy ones, and but for our Internet connection being out, I would have written sooner.

Much has changed here at the safe-home.

Clever little Boraki has gone home, drastically more healthy than when he first arrived.

The elder Retsepile is now sitting up often and smiling all day long. He smiles wide and waves to me each time I enter the playroom. The TB treatment seems to be working, he is no longer vomiting and has no diarrhea. He is gaining weight finally. Seeing him is amazing. He is such a far cry from the boy whose life the doctor gave up on just a few weeks ago. I am so happy we have finally found the right course of treatment.

Recoveries here at the safe-home seem to work in snowballing fashion, with a slow progression of improvements suddenly gaining momentum until the child is improving by leaps and bounds. I hope Retsepile hits this stride soon.

We have two new clients in the safe-home: Tseliso, a tiny boy who was born at the end of September and whose mother passed away; and Kokonyana, a 7-month-old girl who is lively but underweight.

Kokonyana isn't scared of anyone, and immediately began playing with me the first time she saw me. She's got an adorable little face.

Still, chubby-cheeked Paballo remains the sole toddler at TTL who is able to move around the play room on her own, which she does occasionally in a funny sort of all-fours walk.

In past situations like this, with former groups of babies, the toddler in Paballo's position has become a bit of a playroom diva, confidently wandering around with an air of entitlement to any toy or book she wants. But not so with Paballo.

Her new position seems to have given her a sense of vulnerability rather than power, and the result is that she tries to cling to 'Me Mamosa, who she adores, all day long.

I have, however, managed to infiltrate this little plot to monopolize all of Mamosa's time, and have successfully become accepted by Paballo as one more person who she'll let hold her -- usually, and with conditions.

Namely, those conditions are that I carefully orchestrate a string of diversions that will distract Paballo from her otherwise favorite activity of obsessing over where Mamosa is.

I walk her around the office and point at birds and horses out the windows. I lead her around the playroom, pointing at and picking up various stuffed animals, acting as if each one is a newfound treasure. I hold her favorite, noise-making toy in front of us and start pulling its levers with as much enthusiasm as possible.

While it's working, Paballo is all smiles and giggles.

When it fails, she suddenly starts crying loudly, as if she's just realized I am an impostor. This most recently occurred during lunch time, when I failed to keep her engaged during the 20 second interval between her lunch and her after-lunch bottle.

Her face goes from a broad smile to a look of victimized accusation -- "How did you lure me into this trap?"

I can't help but laugh. Just as soon as the bottle has once again gotten her attention, she is laughing too.