Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Memories Beyond Mountains

In his final post about a week ago, Kevin recalled many of his first impressions of this place: endless mountains, wandering sheep, warm bundles of babies, and much more.

While in many ways it feels like I just arrived, my calendar insists that I’m already almost a month into my year-long fellowship. And even though I’m certain many of my initial impressions will remain fresh in my mind, I can already perceive how the crisp edges of each new experience have worn ever so slightly soft as they settle neatly into the folds of my long-term memory (or to the place where socks go when they disappear from the dryer, never to be found again).

Largely because I couldn’t even begin to fool myself about my absolutely miserable track record of journaling, maintaining a personal blog, or officially cataloging my life in any way whatsoever, I committed to writing out a list of my first impressions after my first week in Lesotho.

Similarly to Kevin’s recollections, the mountains are featured prominently on my list, as are the amazing variety of clouds that cast shadows on the slopes. And of course the sheep, donkeys, and horses meandering through both tamed and untamed spaces. Landing in what may indeed be the Wild West of Africa is just one of the many reasons I feel so lucky to be here; I’m originally from New Mexico and while I’m no cowgirl, I find undeniable comfort in open spaces, men (or women) on horseback, and mercurial mountain air that is in one moment a chilly, wind-whipped burst scented with dust and rain and then suddenly penetratingly hot and thirsty.

For the most part, these observations aren’t necessarily directly related to TTL. Yet at the same time, one of the most salient characteristics of TTL is its Basotho-ness. TTL is supported by a global community of generous advocates but is at its heart an organization that is run and managed locally, responding to local needs and local possibilities. That may sound almost trite, but it’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of this detail. Internal ownership of any solution--whether for health, poverty, education, sanitation, or another issue--is an essential ingredient to sustainable success. Though I’ve just arrived, I’m already as impressed by TTL’s success in this area as I am passionately protective of it.

TTL’s work and the geographic, economic, and cultural context in which it takes place are inseparable. Take the mountains, for example. They are indeed staggeringly beautiful, but if you are one of the thousands of Basotho living in rural mountain villages, the mountain terrain is also isolating--especially when roads are limited and extreme weather predominates (the climatic pendulum swings between torrential rains or drought-inducing aridity; currently, many parts of Lesotho are experiencing massive flooding and subsequent crop damage, the extent of which won’t be revealed until harvest season). TTL’s outreach team is, in many cases, the only connection such villagers have to health care and nutritional support.

There is no denying the complexity of the challenges involved in serving the population of orphaned and vulnerable children we target. There is also no denying the positive impact that TTL is having in Lesotho. As the coming year stretches out in front of me, I look forward to sharing stories of successes and setbacks with you, and will do my best to integrate as much of the texture of this very special place in the process.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Well, That's That

And here it suddenly is: my last day on the job. One year sits behind me.

Tomorrow I leave Mokhotlong for Maseru, and the following day I fly back to the United States. My year-long fellowship at TTL is complete.

I still vividly remember the day I arrived here, and the stream of thoughts that shot through my head: Crazy roads. Amazing villages. Cute babies. Wild mountains. Rapid language. Lots of sheep. Strange world. So different. Here I am. Lesotho. Africa. Rural as hell. Wow… Here I am, and I have a whole year ahead of me.

I remember unpacking in my rondaval, finishing, laying down on the bed and looking up at the thatched roofing. I was a little overwhelmed, felt the physical distance between my loved ones and me, but I was also excited. Really excited. I told myself to just take it one day at a time.

The next 364 days went by much faster than I thought they would. And here I am at the end.

It feels abrupt, awkward, sad, unreal, and, again, exciting. I'm leaping forward into the next chapter in my life -- just like I was on my first day in Mokhotlong.

As for what the next chapter will entail, I'm still unsure. I have a lot to figure out. What's my next adventure? No clue.

I'll miss my coworkers. I'll miss the boss. I'll miss the pace of life, the slow weekends here, the simplicity of town and the basic, every-day sense of adventure that comes to me on waking up in a foreign, remote and vastly-different country than my own.

I'll miss the smell of a clean baby in my arms, little hands wrapped around one of my fingers, and the privilege of playing every day with an ever-revolving crew of toddlers who I get to become close with.

I'll miss seeing those toddlers go through the transformations that occur here at TTL all the time, from malnourished and sick to happy, healthy and rambunctious.

As for TTL itself, I know it will continue to thrive and grow without me.

And as for this blog, it will also continue on.

I'm happy now to introduce the newest TTLF Fellow, my replacement at TTL, and the newest author for this blog: Meghan Werner.

I'll let her introduce herself, but urge all of you to keep checking in with her for all the latest updates from TTL. I know she'll keep you posted!

Meghan: It's all yours. Enjoy it while it lasts. It will go by quickly.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Healthy Five Month Start

Today, the trend of babies arriving at the safe-home finally reversed, as one of them instead went home.

Our little, chunky, bright-eyed Retsepile, who arrived at TTL a few days after her birth at the beginning of September and has been here ever since, has gone home to her father.

Back in September, Matello found Retsepile at the hospital with her father, who said Retsepile's mother had passed away shortly after the delivery. Retsepile was 2.6 kg, or about 5.7 pounds, and was in a relatively healthy condition. Still, the couple had already lost two other babies, now the mother had died, and the father was scared Retsepile would also pass away without the support of her mother and because of the lack of resources at his disposal for feeding Retsepile.

TTL agreed to help the father by having Retsepile come to the safe-home, where we could provide her with formula and get her through the critical first months of her life.

Now, five months later, Retsepile is healthy and happy. And her father, who regularly visited her here and seems like an involved, caring parent, is ready to take care of her.

If it weren't for TTL's services and care, would Retsepile have made it? Luckily, we'll never have to know.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Dichotomy I Won't Forget

It isn't new, and it's always around, but it never gets old or seems normal or becomes more easily understandable. Never. Not even a little bit.

It is the heavy, intimate pounding of reality here, as it takes form simultaneously in its two most polar extremes: the drastic recovery of a child into health and smiles and a radiating personality, and the rapid decline of a child into heavy breathing, distress, and tragic death.

Of course, we fight for the former and against the latter. Still, though, and especially when there are lots of babies in the safe-home, sometimes we are fighting both battles on two different fronts. Sometimes, we have to take victory with defeat, practically at the same time, and in one's own mental space, the gymnastics of understanding such clashing results can become a twisted, tiring tumble through disconcerting thoughts and lots of "what if" questions.

Mothofeela-folomane, the little boy I just wrote about in my last post, died yesterday at the hospital. He had been too small, too ill, and we'd found him too late. Life isn't fair -- wasn't fair for him. I wonder what would have happened if we had found him just one day earlier. What if his house hadn't been so damp and cold and dilapidated because of the rain? I cringe at the thought of what his daily life was like toward the end -- HIV ravaging him, and malnutrition settings its teeth ever deeper. We lost the battle for his life after entering it too late, and it's sad.

But in another on-going battle, we have swung back hard and knocked down the many dangerous threats that were on the verge of overcoming another small boy.

Molefi, who came to the safe-home two weeks ago after Matello and I found him covered in flies and his own feces in the nearby village of Checha, has suddenly hit his stride toward recovery.

For the first week or so he was here, he was extremely lethargic and looked miserable as a result of his diarrhea, vomiting and overall struggle against dehydration. But since Dr. Chris from Baylor came to TTL last week and gave Molefi a full check-up and some new prescriptions, Molefi has been recovering at a remarkable rate.

He is now chowing down his bowls of plumpy nut and porridge, the same bowls that, before his turn-around, he would look at solemnly and turn his head away from. He is all smiles and giggles now, after being stoic and silent and melancholy before.

As I continue preparing to leave TTL next week -- when my year-long fellowship comes to an end -- I can't help thinking of all the kids I've seen during this year, and in both categories: those who have struggled and died and those who have made miraculous recoveries.

I know that in pursuing a mission like TTL's, there will inevitably be both realities to contend with. And it's tempting, in a way, to think that I will remember only the good outcomes, the success stories.

But, of course, that would be foolish and fake.

It is precisely the dichotomy between the tragic loses and the triumphant victories, and their combined and disobliging tendency to occur simultaneously, that has struck me the deepest, and which I know will remain etched in my head forever.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Responding to Destruction

Disaster isn't a reality you can ignore -- a fact that is becoming more and more obvious as we continue to see the effects of the flooding and rain on our clients, their crops, their family food security, and their overall well-being.

In addressing this reality, and in an attempt to prepare ourselves for the coming fight against its effects, TTL has officially begun efforts to start quantifying the destruction.

We have given our outreach teams a new "Water Damage Survey" that they will fill out for each client, detailing the condition of the road to the client's village, the condition of the home, the outlook for the upcoming harvest and a variety of other associated factors.

During the next few weeks, we will compile the information from these forms into weekly reports of conditions here on the ground, as we are seeing them first-hand. We will then use those reports to shape our physical response to the emergency -- whether that be in the form of bulked-up food packages, home repairs, or something else -- when the time comes for such a response. That time, as we see it, will likely begin with what will inevitably be a devastating and insufficient harvest season, in late March.

Not that the problems haven't already begun.

Just yesterday, one of our outreach teams returned with a client whose home in St. Martin is crumbling around his poor family. The rondavel's walls are dripping with moisture, and large patterns of mold have formed in off-white blotches and blackened spots. The heavy rains are literally washing the home away. Mothofeela-Folomane is 15-months-old and just 5.4 kg, or just under 12 pounds.

He is now at the hospital, and after his stay there, he will come to the safe-home for a stint of recovery. But after that, we're not sure whether his family will have a home for him to return to. This is one of the realities we will be trying to address with our water-damage forms and our associated response to what they tell us.

The next few months are going to be quite busy for TTL. Hopefully, we can put a dent in the destruction.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Disaster Flooding Emergency

Part of the reason for such a large influx of babies into the safe-home in the past couple weeks is that flooding throughout the country has had a devastating affect on rural communities and their access to outside aid, crop production, and overall home stability.

Entire communities have been completely cut off because of destroyed roads, and many international aid organizations are beginning to ramp up emergency response efforts in the country, as more rain is expected.

For some context, I have pasted below information about the flooding in Lesotho from the most recent weekly report on the issue out of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:

In Lesotho, heavy rains have claimed the lives of 30 people and 4,000 livestock. More than 30 houses have collapsed in the affected villages, and almost 50 % of the roads have been destroyed, rendering health centres and schools inaccessible.

The main pump distributing water in Maseru has also been damaged, which has interrupted water supply. At least 500 cases of diarrhea have been reported.

More than 60% of the fields planted with mainly maize, beans, sorghum and potatoes and 40% of garden crops have been destroyed by hailstorms and heavy rains.

Rapid assessments are being conducted throughout the country to inform the government on the immediate interventions to be implemented. The National Red Cross Society is assisting those affected with temporary shelter.

WFP's operations have also been hampered by the heavy rains. A total of 101 out of 429 schools in its school feeding program could not be reached, affecting 13,920 students. Four health centers in Thaba Tseka are inaccessible leaving 1,123 patients (pregnant mothers and children under 2 years) without their food rations. The country office is working on alternative measures to reach these beneficiaries.

Since reading this, I have reached out to the UN OCHA office, offering TTL's assistance in distributing food and/or other resources to the remote communities we serve.

For a country already in need of so much help, I fear an emergency like this is going to be devastating.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

When it Rains it Pours

It seems that when it rains here, it pours -- and I'm not just talking about the massively wet weather we have been having, which is causing flooding, washing out roads, destroying crop fields, ruining some rural homes, and making life muddy in general.

I'm also talking about the fact that, suddenly, we have 11 babies here in the safe-home: Nthabiseng, Retsepile (#1), Khutliso, Molefi, Retsepile (#2), Kabelo, the twins Thabelo and Ithabeleng, Neo, Nthabeleng and Retsepile (#3).

Nthabeleng, who shares a name with the big boss here, just arrived yesterday, while Retsepile (#3) just arrived today.

As 'Me Nthabeleng, who left last week for Maseru when we only had 7 babies here, said to me upon her return this afternoon, "With the safe-home, you never know what you'll get from day to day."

It's definitely a full-house. This afternoon, Eric and I joined Meghan -- the new TTLF fellow, and my replacement, who arrived last week -- in holding and playing with the babies along with the bo'me.

The toddlers are always fun to play with, but little Kabelo has also become one of my favorites. He's adorable and very calm, taking everything in and rarely crying.

Having this many babies at this point means something special for me: Through the end of my stay, which is in just two weeks, there will be plenty of opportunities to help out the bo'me, to give a bottle, or just to hold a baby for a while.

I'm glad that is the case. Once I'm home, I think I'll miss the babies the most.