MAKHALENG – At the age of 12, Lehakoe Ntho* lost all her childhood endeavours and assumed a parental role to her three siblings, including a two-year old brother, after losing both their parents to AIDS in 2013.
Now 17 years old, Ntho looks twice her age; weary and sorrow are expressed all over her face. Even as she forces a smile, fatigue swiftly dominates what would otherwise be a beautiful teenage girl.
For those who witnessed Ntho’s rapid growth from childhood to parenthood in just over the past four years, confess she has seen it all for her age.
In an interview with MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism at her Mpatana village last month, Ntho narrated how tough it was raising her nine and six-year old sister and brother, respectively, and the youngest. They are 14, 11 and seven years old today.
Asked how she managed Ntho simply says she got used to it “because there was no one else to raise them”.
Ntho does not remember exactly the months their parents died in 2013, but she is certain they passed-on in two consecutive months with the mother dying first.
“And the last time I saw our relatives was at the funeral our father, which came shortly after our mother’s,” she told the Centre.
At the time of passing-on of their parents, Ntho was doing her final year in primary education.
Despite prevailing circumstances, Ntho managed to pass her primary education and attained a certificate that eased her entry into the St Roderigue Roman Catholic Girls High School.
But her two other siblings had to drop out of their primary school “because I could not manage to fulfil their educational needs,” she tries to hide her pain saying this.
Like a strong parent, Ntho is quick to console herself by adding that they were lucky the relatives did not take away their parents’ properties, which some of it she used to provide for the living for the four of them.
“We were lucky because relatives have not taken our parents’ furniture or any property, except for abandoning us like we don’t exist”.
Ntho only got to know that their parents died because they were HIV-positive when her two brothers were also diagnosed with the same in the following years.
Every three months, Ntho walks six hours to accompany her brothers to receive their Anti-Retroviral Treatment at Scott Hospital in Morija.
At some point she thought of giving up on life, “but thanks to one of my teachers in primary who offered and committed herself to advising me on how to handle all these challenges”. The same teacher had paid for all her educational requirements at the St Roderigue.
She said all she knew was that her parents were both sick but did not know the cause or the disease they were both suffering from.
“All I picked was that my relatives who used to visit my mother every time my father came home from the mines in South Africa were no longer visiting us during her illness”.
During school holidays, Ntho always left her 14-year old sister in charge of the family and walks four hours to catch a taxi to Maseru where she plies her trade as a street vendor, selling fruits and sweets.
Still through her Good Samaritan primary school mentor, Ntho would stay in Maseru while she does the business until schools re-opens.
According to HELP – Lesotho Organisation report dated December 19, 2017, Lesotho has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world, which is 25 percent of the population. Over half of 300, 000 adults living with HIV in Lesotho are women. There are more than 200, 000 orphans in Lesotho, most whom are AIDS orphans, according to the report.
However, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)’s strategy for accelerating HIV/AIDS epidemic control (2017 – 2020) sets a bold course of achieving control of the epidemic in the “10 high burdened countries” – Lesotho among them – by the end of 2020.
PEPFAR notes that the pandemic control will be achieved “in partnership with and through attainment of the UNAIDS 90-90-90 framework”.
This means that 90 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS will by then know their status; 90 percent of people who know their status will have access to treatment; and 90 percent of people on treatment will have suppressed viral load from their body systems.
Among other programs funded by PEPFAR is the provision of the Prevention of Mother to Child Treatment which could have helped Ntho’s mother give birth to her sons HIV free. But, with Ntho’s efforts to continuously ensure the little boys adhere to their treatment amid the 6 hour long travel to Morija to fetch their treatment, they also have hope for a better future and increased chances of living longer.