“I am persistent and determined to succeed in life” - celebrating safe, strong children affected by HIV in Lesotho
Last month, the worldwide community of experts in HIV and AIDS came together for the 22nd International AIDS conference -- “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges” -- in Amsterdam. In a press conference about the state of the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, Aleya Khalifa of UNICEF shared: “The world is committed to ending AIDS by 2030. However, demographic shifts in various regions could threaten this global progress. In particular, the child population in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to increase from 500 million today to 710 million in 2030 and keep growing to 960 million in 2050, and those are children under 20. This region is also home to over 80% of new infections among children and adolescents.
…In sub-Saharan Africa, we expect over 5 million new HIV infections for children and adolescents between now and 2050 if current trends continue…This calls for sustainable support, care, and treatment and better planning for future generations.”
While much more work needs to be done to care for all children affected by HIV, at Firelight we also believe it is equally important to celebrate and understand the stories of HIV-infected and HIV-affected children who are now strong, healthy, and safe. Firelight knows that local community-based organizations (CBOs) have always been on the frontline of the response to the HIV/AIDS crisis and supporting their tireless work and advocacy across sub-Saharan Africa is in fact why we were initially founded. Today, Firelight is immensely proud to stand in partnership with these organizations’ as we all work to create deeper, more sustainable change for children and the communities in which they live.
Community-based organizations changing children’s futures in Lesotho
For almost a decade, Firelight has supported community-based organizations in Lesotho, which has the second highest HIV prevalence rate (25%) in the world, slightly behind Swaziland (27.2%). Even today, HIV and AIDS is the biggest contributor to children becoming orphaned in Lesotho. HIV has destabilized communities, forced children to become caregivers to their grandparents and younger siblings, and increased child poverty and school dropouts. Firelight knows that community-based organizations are uniquely placed to respond effectively to this crisis, having the distinct power to engage and activate community members while also playing a role in broader political and civil society conversations.
Since 2009, Firelight has been supporting the role of Touch Roots Africa (TRA) as a community grantmaker for smaller local organizations, meaning that they can thereby fund and build the capacity of smaller community-based organizations (CBOs) that have strong relationships with the individual communities they serve. The smaller CBOs supported by TRA are essential community resources - often the first point of psychosocial support in communities devastated by HIV, a training platform in income-generating activities for families that are trying to meet the basic needs of their children, and a referral point linking children and families to services offered outside of the immediate community.
Firelight’s unique “tiered mentorship model” enables a strong indigenous organization like TRA to fund and mentor smaller organizations as well as provide essential lived experience in organizational development and tailored, contextually-appropriate technical guidance to each CBO. Touch Roots Africa, as the community grantmaker as well as Lead Partner, conducts various trainings for the support groups in both technical areas (e.g. child protection, psychosocial support, monitoring and evaluation) and organizational development (e.g. governance, financial management, conflict resolution). TRA combines this training with further one-on-one mentorship, regular site visits, and exchange visits between the CBOs which Firelight also supports.
Below, TRA shares with us stories of success from one of the six CBOs they currently support -- Phomolong Support Group. CBOs like Phomolong Support Group have been empowered to better care for and provide protection for children affected and infected by HIV, changing forever the paths of these orphaned and vulnerable children, their families, and their communities.
“With all the challenges in the community, we remain positive” - Phomolong Support Group
In 2003, communities in Lesotho were being ravaged by the impact of HIV and AIDS. A generation of parents were quickly dying, leaving behind vast numbers of orphans and vulnerable children to be cared for by their elderly grandparents or older siblings. The Phomolong Support Group was born out of this crisis, formed by twelve community members who came together to provide emotional, spiritual, and financial support to both the vulnerable children and overburdened elderly members of their community.
In the words of Mathuso Moroeng, Chairperson of Phomolong Support Group:
“Desperate for financial support, we went from door to door asking for assistance in any form. Many times, we were chased away from households. Even with such limited resources, our group pressed on, trying to bring healing to a community that was suffering from the impact of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. We struggled for years before we gained any recognition and support: in 2010, Touch Roots Africa discovered the good work we were doing, and we began receiving the yearly grants and ongoing capacity building we desperately needed.
Now, we are happy to report that we have the skills and resources to improve the management of our organization. We are able to better protect our children - providing food packages to child-headed households on a monthly basis and paying school fees for vulnerable children. With funding from Touch Roots Africa, we have also been able to purchase input materials to help our member families establish sustainable income-generating activities - broilers, vegetable gardens, and small grocery shops - to support the ongoing needs of their children.
Today we see that children and families in our communities are doing much better than before. And despite the challenges we see in our community, we remain positive. We are grateful for the close partnership we have and the capacity building we receive from our partners, Touch Roots Africa, and Firelight.”
Phomolong Support Group is a stronger, more resilient organization with the support of Touch Roots Africa and Firelight - which means they have increased capacity to support children like Tim and Rea (names changed to protect privacy), whose stories the group shares below.
Tim - a second chance at an education and a future
“At the age of 16, Tim lost his mother and was left with the responsibility of raising his two younger sisters -- to provide guidance, food, clothing, and school fees for them, with no external support. Unable to make ends meet and to also attend school, Tim was forced to drop out after grade 8. The impossible pressure of having to care for his siblings, as a child himself, was compounded by the grief he desperately tried to manage. Tim calls these the “worst years” of his and his sisters’ lives.
Two years after his mother’s death, Tim was introduced to us, the Phomolong Support Group. He was initially afraid that we would take his sisters away from him, but slowly by slowly we won his trust and enrolled him and his sisters in counselling, applying the training in psychosocial support we had received from TRA. We also encouraged Tim and his sisters to join the youth club so they could interact with their peers and begin the process of social reintegration. After a few months, we began to see the children regain their confidence and their ability to laugh. The counseling they received and their participation in the youth club truly gave the children a second chance at happiness.
With funding from TRA, we were also able to provide Tim’s household with food packages on a monthly basis, as well as the school fees and materials that allowed his sisters to attend high school and Tim to enroll in tertiary school. As of today, Tim has completed a two-year course in plumbing, welding, and metal work, and he is currently doing freelance welding work for individuals and schools.”
Rea - “I am persistent and determined to succeed in life”
Rea is a young woman who lives with her uncle and younger sister in the T’sosane area, on the outskirts of Maseru, Lesotho. Before Rea had even completed her first year of high school, she lost both of her parents to HIV and AIDS. After they died, she and her sister moved in with their grandmother.
Rea was introduced to Phomolong Support Group for grief counseling while staying with her grandmother. “When my grandmother told me about the youth club I was not willing to go because I did not want to be around people I did not know. In the beginning, I couldn’t make any friends. I was very sad, withdrawn, and angry. But the group’s persistence and the opportunity to meet people in the community were enough to persuade me to start attending youth club meetings and trainings,” Rea says.
Rea participated in the group’s training workshops - facilitated by TRA - which focused on child protection, life skills, and prevention of HIV and AIDS. “The skills I learned through the trainings and the loving support I received from group members and the youth club have been invaluable to me and my sister. I now have support and comfort from my peers, and I have become a loving, person who treats everyone I meet with a kind heart and respect. Most importantly, I am persistent and determined to succeed in life.”
Rea dreams of being one of the most successful business women in her community and has now completed a Diploma in Business Management. “I give a special thanks to TRA, Phomolong Support Group, and the youth club for bringing hope to my life.”
CBOs building a stronger, safer future for children in Lesotho
Firelight believes that it truly does take the strength of the whole community to improve the lives of children - empowered community-based organizations, families and youth, community resources, and funding partners together working together towards a common goal.
As one community member says, “I see an improvement in the community because people are taking responsibility for caring for children. Public gatherings are held in the community to raise awareness on issues of child protection and psychosocial support. The trainings have been very helpful as they made us understand and act on the situation of vulnerable children in our communities.”
She continues, “Although there is so much death and poverty running rife in the community, the future of our community is much brighter today than it was before. It took a collective effort from members of the support group, community leaders, Firelight Foundation, and Touch Roots Africa to give the community and the children a better future.”
Firelight knows how important it is to strengthen indigenous community-based organizations, often through the tiered mentorship and support that comes from enabling a local Lead Partner and community grantmaker like Touch Roots Africa. In Lesotho, actively engaged by stronger community-based organizations, communities have now been empowered to truly change the future of their own children, despite the challenges wrought by the HIV and AIDS crisis. As always, Firelight is proud to stand in partnership with organizations and communities that fight to ensure a bright future for each of their children.
 AIDS 2018 Media Centre. “Sub-Saharan Africa: New Insights, New Impact.” 25 July 2018. http://www.aids2018.org/Media-Centre
 “HIV and AIDS in Lesotho. AVERT. Updated 10 April 2018.