Saturday, July 23, 2011

Lasting Impressions

Duke University engineering student Catherine Joseph volunteered with TTL seven months ago and recently returned for another short visit.

I had forgotten how brightly the stars shine here. The last time I was here in Mokhotlong, the season was summer. Each night, I would spot Orion, my favorite constellation, as he began his walk across the African sky, and I would track his progress during the late evening hours.

That was six months ago. Now, Orion is no longer visible during the daytime hours, and each time I look up, I struggle to find a recognizable constellation.

I imagine the experience of a child in the safe home is similar to that of me and the stars. While the loving bo’me are constantly caring for and loving the children, every few weeks, the babies look up into a sky of new volunteer faces. Searching unsuccessfully for a recognizable face, it seems likely the children would forget past volunteers as new faces and personalities flow through the safe home. Studies indicate that many of our long-term memories don’t begin until well after our first year of life. Since many of the children in the safe home are behind developmentally due to malnourishment and illness, I assumed that the one child that I met during my previous visit would have no recollection of me. I expected to be earning his trust as I knew I would have to earn the other children’s. But Khutliso surprised me.

The first step I took into the safe home playroom drew either curious looks or trembling lips from the children as I greeted the bo’me with the few Sesotho phrases I remember. My eyes were immediately drawn to Khutliso, recognizable by his distinct puppy-dog eyes peering out of his now chubby and healthy-looking face. His look of surprise instantly melted into a smile as he turned around, reached his hands out for mine and began to walk me around the playroom, showing off how much he has improved since I had last been there. Each day, as I enter the playroom, Khutliso finds me and we establish a little walking track around the playroom. We either walk for a long time, pausing only to dance or stomp our feet, or we sit and play with the other toddlers.

I still haven’t figured out if Khutliso actually remembers me, or if he just recognizes me as another person who will help him walk and make him laugh. And I’ll probably never be able to know with certainty. But these events have made me wonder how much the safe home babies will remember of their experiences here. Some children stay only a short time, so it seems likely that their memory of TTL will quickly fade into remembrances of outreach visits. But others, like Khutliso, spend many months recovering from malnutrition and illness, becoming accustomed to their surroundings and to the love and affection of the bo’me. And the older children, like Tsekiso, a three-year-old in the safe home, are likely able to observe and absorb more of their surroundings, making the safe home familiar and comfortable.

But how long do these memories last? Just the other day, one of the babies, Shai, was reunited with her family. As the bo’me said goodbye to her and she was carried from the safe home to the outreach car, she screamed with recognition that she was leaving home. But her objections upon arrival to her family’s home were far less vocal. Did she actually remember her home? And how long will it be before she forgets that the safe home was once her home?

These are all questions that I’ll likely never be able to answer. Only time will tell how much the babies will remember of the pain they once suffered and the joy that the caregivers at TTL were able to replace it with.

Catherine R. Joseph

Monday, July 18, 2011

Party in the Playroom

This post was authored by Morgan Benson, a Notre Dame student and Hesburgh-Yusko Scholar volunteering with TTL for two months this summer.

At my first birthday party, I stuck my face in the cake. It’s not a memory I have myself but one from my parents who held this party for me, even though I wasn’t going to remember a thing from it.

At first it seems sort of silly that they would even have the party. But after some thought, I realized that it was to celebrate the fact that, for the past year, I had grown and been loved. Birthdays are a day to recognize that fact and celebrate it with the people that care about you.

This is why there was a birthday party in the TTL safehome recently. Tsekiso turned three years old that last Friday, and Khutliso turned two on Saturday. Tsekiso and Khutliso are two of the oldest in the safehome with two of the biggest personalities, so when Chelsea and I heard they were turning a year older, we knew we had to celebrate.

Birthday sign made, cake baked, and accompanied by every bo’me and outreach worker we could invite to the party, we sang happy birthday to Tsekiso and Khutliso.

Frankly none of the kids knew what was going on. But everyone who had a hand in taking care of these boys for many months now gathered and celebrated the birthdays of two boys who got a second chance.

Neither of the boys stuck his face in the cake, but I think they enjoyed the party. Seeing them happy and smiling was a privilege TTL works for every day. They were surrounded by 20 of the people that have cared for them since they were so critically ill TTL had to intervene.

I was just a guest at the party; the bo’me and outreach workers are part of Khutliso and Tsekiso’s TTL family who loves them and got together to celebrate their lives. And so there was a party in the playroom.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Searching for Solutions

TTL is proud to be hosting two undergraduate students from Notre Dame who are here as part of the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program ( In this post, Chelsea Lehman shares some of her first impressions of Lesotho and the challenges of addressing poverty and poor health in a country with virtually no economy.


You were my strength when I was weak
You were my voice when I couldn't speak
You were my eyes when I couldn't see
You saw the best there was in me
Lifted me up when I couldn't reach
You gave me faith 'cuz you believed
I'm everything I am
Because you loved me.

Celine Dion’s words blare into the main street of town out of the speakers of a grocery and household goods store we like to call “Big China.” I’m not sure which is more striking, the reality that nearly every store in town is owned and operated by the Chinese, or the music, an old U.S. hit sung by a Canadian. Dion adds to the slow bustle of domestic animals, the occasional car, and the Basotho lining the street, selling their small collections of imported goods: fruit, warm hats and socks, bargain jewelry, miscellaneous kitchen items. The origins of these items range from South Africa to London. Nowhere can a homemade craft or open air market be found, which most people consider the trademark of an African country. I admit I did…until I arrived three weeks ago, a Notre Dame student volunteering with TTL for two months. Even the Sesotho blankets, the signature item of Lesotho worn by nearly every Basotho, are imported from South Africa.

Why is this important? Surely it is trivial in the face of HIV, which is crippling Lesotho. After all, of the 1.9 million people of Lesotho, 25% are living with HIV, a disease that consequently has left 90% of those infected to also battle TB and has stolen the parents of an estimated 100,000 children. The government of Lesotho is attempting an aggressive fight against HIV through its provision of free testing and antiretroviral therapy to anyone who can access it. The issue, though, is that access continues to limit the reach of this program in a mountainous country populated predominantly by rural villages connected by dangerous roads that become ever more precarious with any kind of weather conditions.

I bring up the import situation because it illustrates a phenomenon: Lesotho effectively has no economy. Last week I spent an afternoon with Dr. Chris, a native of Zimbabwe and Baylor pediatric doctor who drives from Maseru for a week at the end of each month to provide care and ARVs (the drugs taken by HIV positive patients) to the people of Mokhotlong. It was an “ARV day,” which essentially involves driving out to a rural clinic in one of the villages of Mokhotlong, seeing dozens of patients, and outfitting each with a couple months’ worth of pills.

After explaining the system to me: what the government does, the HIV testing and bloodwork process, and how he decides which of the many ARVs on the market to prescribe to each person he sees, he looked at me. A sadness transformed his typically energetic and jocular demeanor. In response to a question I raised about the ability of malnourished people to respond effectively to ARVs, he said, “it’s not a problem. The drugs will still work. But the children are still going to be sick. They’re hungry. What we have to end is poverty.”

This is what I’ve spent my past couple weeks, and especially the last few days, thinking about. Paul Farmer cites a relevant Haitian proverb to make a comparison that illustrates precisely the point Dr. Chris raises: “Giving people medicine for TB and not giving them food is like washing your hands and drying them in the dirt.” A sustainable solution to disease commands the provision of the basic rights we take for granted: food, clean water, education, and healthcare.

But while a temporary good, simply giving people food every month is not sustainable. However, Lesotho’s economy, in its current state, gives aid organizations little choice. I’ve been wracking my brain for ways to revolutionize the local economy to provide the Basotho with heartier, more reliable incomes, but the fact of the matter is that no outsider can give Lesotho an economy. The Basotho people have been living off of imports and the dozens of various aid organizations for years. Subsistence living is their way of life, and now with imports and foreign aid they seem trapped amidst two very different systems driven by two often opposing ideologies.

Raised in a capitalistic society, I, like most Westerners, don’t understand their lack of innovation or motivation to make simple changes to improve their situation. But then I examine their traditional ways of doing things, as well as the ways in which aid has been given in the past, and I begin to see why they perceive their situation differently.

Every time I throw on my running shoes and pick up the road that leads out of town, I am reminded of what aid seems to mean to them. Without fail, after I attempt a “hello” or “how are you” in Sesotho, children ask me for “sweets” or “chin-chin” (money, in Sesotho) and herdsmen for my watch or gloves or shoes. This is what white people have done in the past, and over time it has become the rule. The Basotho expect it, but they cannot live on handouts forever.