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Taking vaccines to initiation schools

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Mohale’s Hoek – For centuries, initiation has been viewed as an important rite of passage and a cherished tradition among Basotho men.

Young men, some in their early teens, still go into the mountains for months where they are taught how to be real men and the responsibilities that come with that.

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in Lesotho in March 2020 that presented a challenge. How would the government reach out to these thousands of young men and their teachers, some who were isolated in initiation schools in the mountains, and get them vaccinated?

Martin Semanama, an officer in the District Administrator’s office dealing with chieftaincy affairs in Mohale’s Hoek, says when Covid-19 struck there was initially no clarity as to how they would tackle the disease.

“The men who lead the traditional affairs are generally old men and did not know the best way of dealing with the disease and how people could avoid infecting one another,” he says.

“It is important that the Ministry of Health (and UNICEF) came and educated these men so that they would be able to deal with these issues appropriately.”

Semanama says the Ministry of Health approached the DA’s office in Mohale’s Hoek and asked them to invite “these men running initiation schools” to speak to them.

“We are grateful to the Ministry of Health and those associated with them (for the endevour),” he says.

He says when the government lifted the hard-lockdown in 2020, they sent letters to all chiefs in Mohale’s Hoek informing them that initiation schools were now free to operate.

But there was one condition: that every person attending initiation should produce a vaccination card. The result, Semanama says, was a surge in vaccinations in Mohale’s Hoek.

Although there were minor hiccups here and there, Semanama says “the vaccination roll-out process went very well in Mohale’s Hoek”.

Kimanzi Muthengi, UNICEF’s Deputy Representative to Lesotho, says the Covid-19 pandemic has taught them critical lessons that will help the world react to future global disasters.

“The pandemic has taught us to be well prepared. It taught us to always have a stockpile,” Muthengi says.

“We are looking at a situation where there will be emergency funding to the donor community so that we can quickly respond to pandemics in terms of resource mobilisation.”

“The other lesson is the quick adjustment of programmes and the way we respond on the part of the UN and our partners.”

Muthengi says the ability for governments to work differently to mobilise human and technical resources to respond has been a great lesson”.

He says for UNICEF’s programming “having reliable partners, the Ministry of Health, the non-governmental organisations, the community and also young people have proved to be very critical in coming up with an effective response to the pandemic”.

Muthengi, who is also the Acting Country Representative, was speaking as UNICEF is in the final stages of the implementation of the Covid-19 response project funded by the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO).

The project seeks to help ensure that countries are supported and vaccines reach the whole population, including the most vulnerable.

Support has been through training for health workers, shoring up logistics and building confidence in vaccine take-up.

The ECHO project is a contribution to the overall Covid-19 response that UNICEF, the Ministry of Health and other partners have been involved in since the pandemic broke out in 2020.

In Lesotho ECHO helped in the procurement of the cold chain equipment and building the capacity of community health workers.

It has also assisted with the operational cost of distributing, supporting activities at the community level and social behavioural change campaigns.

UNICEF has been at the forefront of several preparatory logistical support and capacity development support to help Lesotho respond to the pandemic through the distribution of vaccination.

One of the main components of the ECHO project is the initiative to increase vaccination uptake among males.

Muthengi says this was a critical intervention because research has shown that vaccination among males is lower compared to that of women.

The national vaccination coverage for males is about 53 percent compared to that of women which is 70 percent.

This mismatch, he says, may be due to many socio-cultural reasons and myths around vaccination.

“Specifically, you may have heard that there were perceptions that vaccination will reduce male libido and such unfounded myths around vaccines,” Muthengi says.

UNICEF, the Ministry of Health, District Health Management Teams, community health workers and Red Cross Lesotho have been engaging targeted male groups to increase the uptake of Covid-19 vaccines.

The project specifically targets community leaders such as chiefs and those involved in initiation schools.

Muthengi says UNICEF is grateful for the support from the “Lesotho government which had given full support to Covid-19 interventions through the Prime Minister, the Minister of Health and directors.

“The ministry’s staff has been in the forefront of receiving, storing and distributing and eventually having the vaccination reach their last mile. While this grant was supporting the pipeline we also had many stakeholders who contributed to providing the vaccines,” Muthengi says.

“Let me give appreciation to private sector members who were able to mobilise resources to provide funds for the African Union facility for the vaccines which in turn was able to ensure that Lesotho has a lot of access to the vaccines,” he said.

He said the general support from ECHO has enabled UNICEF to reach the last mile through the provision of cold chain equipment, mobilisation of the vaccine and socio-behaviour change campaign.

“This has been very central to the success of the programme.”

Chief Moopisa Makhosane

As a village chief, one of Moopisa Makhosane’s roles is to ensure that those running initiation schools comply with the set regulations.

The idea, Chief Makhosane says, is to ensure the safety of the young men who get enrolled in the schools.

“We inspect to see if those running the schools have met all the requirements, if they have been vaccinated and if there is enough food,” he says.

“We also check if the traditional doctors have the right qualifications and the age of the teachers. That is our job. We need to inspect these to ensure they are fit for the job.”

But even after UNICEF and the Ministry of Health officials explained the advantages of vaccination, some men running initiation schools were initially reluctant to do so.

“The men were initially afraid to get vaccinated because they had heard rumours that people would be able to trace their every move,” he says.

“But after noticing the benefits of vaccination, men have been very much willing to vaccinate.”

Makhosane says he would summon his people for a gathering when nurses visited his village. It was during these community gatherings where the people would be taught the benefits of vaccination.

He says it remains very important for any young man intending to go for initiation to first get vaccinated.

“Covid-19 remains a very dangerous disease,” he says.

“I would therefore encourage all those intending to go to initiation school to first go to the clinic to get their Covid-19 vaccination because this is a fatal disease. It can take a father, a child or the mother. It does not discriminate.”

Moherane Tsolo

Moherane Tsolo, 73, runs an initiation school in Thaba Tšoeu in Mohale’s Hoek.

He says a wake-up call for him came when Covid-19 began affecting some of the children under his care.

“Many children were hurt when they did not get the vaccine. That’s when we realised that the vaccine is important,” Tsolo says.

While others were in panic mode and were hesitant to take up the vaccine, Tsolo says he was calm and ready to vaccinate, thanks to “the guidance we received”.

“All our fears were removed,” he says.

He says it is important that men who are running initiation schools continue to “work together to protect children in our communities”.

Tsolo says he takes these children to the mountains for a period of six months.

Ralikonyana Ralikonyana

Any programme that seeks to change the behaviour of men would need the buy-in of key men at the centre of power in rural villages.

Once you get them on one’s side, half the battle for change would have been won.

That is the strategy that UNICEF has been using to get men in initiation schools get vaccinated.

At the centre of this strategy has been men like Ralikonyana Ralikonyana, 71, who has been engaged to be part of the discussions on traditional matters in his district of Mohale’s Hoek.

They deal with traditional issues such as initiation and how to handle challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic in relation to their culture as Basotho.

They are a key voice in influencing change.

“It is important that every child that goes to an initiation school be vaccinated so that they attend school with a healthy body,” he says.

“We are very happy with the training we have received today (from UNICEF) in Mohale’s Hoek. It is the light that we need. It will help in addressing areas we were not aware of.”

Ralikonyana was speaking after a half-day workshop on the Covid-19 pandemic held in Mohale’s Hoek recently. Traditional leaders, representatives from UNICEF and key men in rural villages attended the workshop.

Ralikonyana says the vaccination message was well received in Mohale’s Hoek.

“I am very impressed with the number of people who got vaccinated,” he says.

“All the groups have been vaccinated, that includes us as the people running initiation schools, students, parents. Most of them have received the Covid-19 vaccine.”

“I want to encourage the Majantja people (people from Mohale’s Hoek district) and those getting ready to go to initiation schools to get vaccinated. Once we all get the vaccine, we will all be strong.”

Staff Reporter

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Dead on arrival

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My sister delivered a stillborn baby when she was on her way to the clinic,” ’Matemoho Letšela, 23, barely holding back tears.

Letšela says her sister, whose name she withheld, suffered birth-pangs when she was alone at home in Khonofaneng village in Mokhotlong.

She was then rushed down the slopes of a mountain by some passers-by on foot, striding on the slopes of a rocky mountain, crossing deep gorges as she sought to get to the Molika-Liko Health Centre some eight kilometres away.

When she arrived at the clinic, the baby was declared dead on arrival.

Welcome to Mokhotlong, Lesotho’s mountainous region known worldwide for its big and clean diamonds where the people do not have basic services.

Letšela said her sister collapsed when she was on her way to the clinic and was only seen by some passers-by.

By the time passers-by saw her, it was already too late for her and her baby.

She was eight months pregnant. 

“She was still far from the clinic and away from the villages,” Letšela says.

“She had no one to help her until she lost her baby. She was helpless the whole day until it was too late for her to survive,” she says.

 “She had already lost a lot of blood and could not make it to the hospital.”

Letšela shared her sister’s story with thepost during a tour conducted by the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to assess the impact of their assistance in Mokhotlong and Quthing districts a fortnight ago.

Letsela pleaded with the government to provide services in Mokhotlong’s hard-to-reach areas to avoid unnecessary deaths like her sister’s.

“My sister was eight months pregnant so the long walking distance might have been the cause of her early delivery and ultimate death,” she says.

She says there are still some villages in her area that are way far from where she stays, villages like Lichecheng where a patient must travel early in the morning, sleep on the way and reach the clinic the following day.

Cars cannot reach those remote areas, she says.

At Letšela’s area, they only have one bus that travels from home to town at 9am and will be back late at 8pm.

Even though they would love to always catch a ride whenever they are going to the clinic, sometimes they just do not have the money.

Letšela is three months pregnant now and says she cannot wait to reach 37 weeks so she can go and stay at the accommodation facilities provided by the clinic.

 “That is the advice from our midwives and I am willing to take that offer,” she says.

“I don’t want what happened to my sister to happen to me.”

When thepost met Letšela at the clinic last week, she had left her place at around 4am walking alone to the clinic and arrived after 10am.

Relebohile Tšepe

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Doctor tampers with corpse

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THE Mokhotlong Government Hospital has agreed to pay M200 000 as compensation to the husband of a deceased patient after a doctor unlawfully tampered with the corpse.

There is a deed of settlement between the hospital and Jacob Palime, the deceased woman’s husband.

Jacob Palime rushed to the High Court in Tšifa-li-Mali last year after the hospital failed to explain why the doctor had tampered with his wife’s corpse at a private mortuary behind his back.

His wife’s body had been taken to the Lesotho Funeral Services.
Palime lives in Phahameng in Mokhotlong.

In his court papers, Palime was demanding M500 000 in compensation from the hospital “for unlawful invasion, intrusion and interference with” his rituals and rights over his dead wife.

He informed the court that his wife died in September 2020 at Mokhotlong Hospital.

“All requisite documentation pertaining to her release to Lesotho Funeral Services were effected and ultimately the deceased was accordingly transferred to the mortuary,” Palime said.

The court heard that Palime’s family was subsequently informed about the wife’s death.

The family however learnt that one doctor, acting in his professional capacity, went to the mortuary the next day and tampered with the corpse.

The doctor subsequently conducted certain tests on the corpse without the knowledge of family members.

Palime said their attempts to get an explanation from the hospital as to the purpose of the tests and the name of the doctor had failed to yield results.

“It remained questionable and therefore incomprehensible as to what actually was the purpose or rationale behind conducting such anonymous and secret tests,” he said.

Palime told the court that the whole thing left him “in an unsettled state of mind for a long time”.

He said his family, which has its traditions and culture rooted in the respect for their departed loved ones, regards and considers Mokhotlong Hospital’s conduct as an unlawful invasion, intrusion and interference with his rituals and rights over his deceased spouse.

“This is more-so because the hospital had all the opportunity to have conducted any or such alleged tests immediately upon demise of the deceased while still within its area of jurisdiction and not after her release to the mortuary,” he said.

Palime said despite incessant demands, the hospital has failed, refused, ignored and neglected to cooperate with him “to amicably solve this unwarranted state of affairs”.

Palime told the court that there were no claims against the Lesotho Funeral Service as they had cooperated and compensated him for wrongly allowing the doctor to perform tests on the corpse without knowledge or presence of one of the family members.

’Malimpho Majoro

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Villagers whipped as police seize guns

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Dozens of villagers in Ha-Rammeleke in Khubelu, Mokhotlong, were on Monday night rounded up and beaten with sticks and whips by the police during an operation to seize illegal guns.

The villagers told thepost that they heard one man crying out for help saying his wife was sick. And when they rushed to his house, they found the police waiting for them.

The police had stormed the man’s house and ordered him to “cry for help” to lure men from the village.

The men and women were then frog-marched outside the village where the police assaulted the men with sticks, whips, and kicked them.

One man said when he arrived at the house, he found other villagers who were now surrounded by armed police.

“At first I thought they were soldiers but later picked up that they were SOU (Special Operations Unit) members,” he said.

He said they were subjected to severe torture.

“They beat us with sticks at the same time demanding guns from us,” he said.

The police and soldiers also raided other nearby villages in Khubelu area but in Ha-Rammeleke villagers say they identified only police from the Special Operations Unit (SOU).

Several villagers who spoke to thepost asked for anonymity for fear of retribution.

This was the second time within a month that the security forces have raided the villages in search of illegal guns after a spate of gory murders in the areas.

The murders are perpetrated by famo music gangs who are fighting over illegal gold mining in South Africa.

The first raid was on Wednesday preceding Good Friday.

Villagers say a group of armed soldiers stormed the place in the wee hours collecting almost every one to the chief’s place.

“We were woken-up by young soldiers who drove us to the chief’s place,” one resident of Ha-Rammeleke said.

When they arrived at the chief’s home all hell broke loose.

A woman told thepost that they were split into two groups of women and men.

Later, women were further split into two groups of the elderly and younger ones.

She said the security officers assaulted the men while ordering the elderly women to ululate.

Young women were ordered to run around the place like they were exercising.

She said the men were pushed into a small hut where they were subjected to further torture.

A man who was among the victims said the army said they should produce the guns and help them identify the illegal miners.

He said this happened after one man in their village was fatally shot by five unknown men in broad daylight.

He said the men who killed the fellow villager had their faces covered with balaclavas and they could not see who they were.

 

The villagers chased them but they could not get close to them because they were armed with guns.

“We were armed with stones while those men were armed with guns,” he said.

“They fired a volley of bullets at us and we retreated,” he said.

The murdered man was later collected by the police.

The army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Sakeng Lekola, confirmed that soldiers stormed Khubelu area in response to the rampant lawlessness of unlicensed guns.

Lt Col Lekola said their presence in the area followed two incidents of shootings where one man was fatally shot and a child sustained serious gunshot wounds.

“There were reports everywhere, even on the radios, that things were out of hand in Khubelu,” he said.

He said in just a day they managed to collect six guns that were in wrong hands together with more than 100 rounds (bullets) in an operation dubbed Deuteronomy 17.

These bullets included 23 rounds of Galil rifle.

Lt Col Lekola maintained that their operation was successful because they managed to collect guns from wrong hands.

He said they are doing this in line with the African Union principle of ‘silencing the guns’.

He said it is an undeniable fact that statistics of people killed with guns is disturbing.

“We appeal to these people to produce these unlicensed guns,” Lt Col Lekola said.

Lt Col Lekola said they could not just watch Basotho helplessly as they suffered.

He said some people are seen just flaunting their guns.

“They fear no one,” he said.

Police spokesman, Senior Superintendent Kabelo Halahala, said he was aware of the operation in Mokhotlong but did not have further details.

Majara Molupe

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