Distributing New Shoes to Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Lesotho

Distributing New Shoes to Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Lesotho

{Photo credit: MSH/Johanna Theunissen}Photo credit: MSH/Johanna Theunissen

Cross-posted with permission from the Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Regional Exchange (SHARE).

I used to smile at the sentimental nickname for Lesotho, “The Mountain Kingdom.” Following a few visits to the capital Maseru, I had the opportunity to travel to the district of Mokhotlong, in the east of the country. Here I discovered that this term is more literal than symbolic, and no laughing matter. Narrow gravel roads with incredible switchback turns had me engaging in lively discussion in the car to avoid thinking about how close I was to the edge. More important than experiencing the rugged beauty of the physical landscape, it was on this trip that I began to discover and appreciate the grace and resilience of Lesotho’s people. A subsequent trip to Mohale’s Hoek, a district south of Maseru (further explained below) reinforced my growing admiration.

The Management Sciences for Health (MSH)-led Building Local Capacity for Delivery of HIV Services in Southern Africa Project (BLC) was selected by TOMS, an American company, to distribute thousands of new shoes to orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in Lesotho. TOMS gives a pair of new shoes for every pair of shoes purchased, in a unique program called One to One™. TOMS promotes this distribution as a way of promoting health, education, and dignity—health by preventing diseases such as hookworm and tetanus; education by ensuring children can travel long distances over challenging terrain and comply with school uniform requirements; dignity by affirming the value of children who may never have owned something new for themselves.

The logistics of providing shoes in some of these rural areas is mind-boggling. However, the need is real and being part of it is incredibly rewarding. In some areas, children had been waiting for hours for us to make our way to them; in others we arrived to an empty field only to see children streaming toward us from distant hills. The crowds form more quickly than we could distribute shoes, and they waited patiently in long lines. My experience with the children has been delightful: they are joyful in their play; shy but eager to communicate and interact with adults; excited to have their pictures taken, and more excited to see them.

Funded by USAID, BLC is implemented by MSH and works in Southern Africa to provide leadership, management, and technical capacity building to government as well as civil society, in contexts ranging from public hospitals in Botswana to civil society organizations in Angola. In Lesotho, BLC works at all levels of the health system: national, district, and community, to support and improve the country’s OVC response. BLC provides grants to civil society organizations to deliver services to OVC, and it is through these networks that children, many in hard-to-reach places, have received much-needed support.

There are an estimated 363,526 orphans in Lesotho, representing 33.8% of all children in the country. Nearly half (45%) of all households are caring for at least one orphan, according to the Government of Lesotho: Ministry of Social Development, Situation Analysis of Orphans and Other Vulnerable Children in Lesotho, 2011. I recently spoke to one woman who is living with HIV and caring for her own child along with her deceased sister’s three children, as well as a woman who is caring for 11 grandchildren. They are matter-of-fact about the amazing sacrifice they are making, and are as delighted as the children to have someone interested in their stories (and to see their pictures).

On June 14, in Siloe Community Council in Mohale’s Hoek, the Government of Lesotho commemorated the International Day of the African Child and officially launched the distribution of TOMS shoes in the country. At the celebration, Lesotho’s Minister of Social Development, Matebatso Doti, stated in her speech, “This Ministry of Social Development is committed to contributing to children’s health and education so they can have a bright future. It is the responsibility of all of us to make sure that these children’s futures are secured.” While I quickly recognized this statement as a great sound bite, I later reconsidered: TOMS is using its business to make a difference in children’s lives, contributing to their health and education. They are actually taking up their “responsibility.” How do I use the gifts I have been given to do the same?

Johanna Theunissen is a Senior Communications Associate at the Building Local Capacity for Delivery of HIV Services in Southern Africa Project (BLC).