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A struggle to aid Lesotho orphans It's so hard to make a difference

The Baltimore Sun

Lifelekoaneng, Lesotho-- --She sat staring at me, her gaze more vacant than hard. Numb, maybe. Her feet were a dirty whitish, as if caked in chalk. A breeze rushed through the broken windows of her little house, billowing the tattered curtains.

Her last meal, a bowl of porridge eaten the previous afternoon, was but a memory. It was almost noon. "Are you hungry?" I asked Itumeleng Ntsane, an AIDS orphan who had just turned 13. The answer was obvious before she nodded and quietly said yes.

How could this happen, I wondered.

An article I had written nine months earlier about the plight of Itumeleng and her two brothers had provoked an outpouring of sympathy from readers - and $3,000. I had linked up with a local nonprofit group whose leader had wonderful ideas. I had transferred a bunch of money to Leso- tho months earlier.

This is the story of what happened after the checks were written by well-meaning readers, and of how difficult it can be to translate dollars into deeds that will bring lasting benefits to those suffering a world away.

Much criticism has been aimed at the aid industry: Western largess might help many people, but too often the cash winds up in corrupt hands. Or it fosters dependency, distorts local markets or has a fleeting impact.

I did not find any of that. But I did find plenty of cause for frustration.

Initially, I met an institutional unwillingness to help these specific kids. Then, once I found the local group, I encountered something else: a lack of follow-through that I charitably assumed was due to the crushing need. The sad fact, I heard time and again, is that the plight of AIDS orphans is normal in this southern African country, where one in four adults has HIV.

The story that ran Oct. 8 cataloged the grim life of Itumeleng Ntsane and her brothers. Rapelang, then 15, was the eldest. He and Itumeleng cared for big-eyed, 8-year-old Tokelo, who was born with HIV and recently underwent treatment for tuberculosis. First their father, then their mother had died of AIDS, leaving them in the care of a grandmother. Then she too got sick.

After she died on Christmas Eve 2005, they were on their own, with minimal guidance or help from others in the village. By the time I met them in September last year, what once might have been a fairly happy life had taken on the look of mere existence. They ate and wore little, seldom bathed. Rapelang had no shoes. No one smiled.

An information box accompanying my article invited readers to contribute to SOS Children's Villages, which runs a family-style orphanage in Lesotho. Gratifyingly, many readers gave.

Everyone knows that the best place for children is with their family, or at least their community. But the Ntsanes had no family to rely on, and the village chief had made clear her disdain, going so far as to blame them for becoming "wild." Under those circumstances, staying in their community seemed unhealthy.

My hope was that SOS would take the money came in and help the trio. But since the Ntsanes weren't "their kids," SOS did not want the money, which soon wound up in my bank account.

Meanwhile, officials from UNICEF and Family Health International wrote a letter to the editor calling orphanage-like facilities "highly flawed." Instead, they encouraged readers to contact two other groups, the Toronto-based Stephen Lewis Foundation and the Firelight Foundation of Santa Cruz, Calif.

By now, reader contributions had hit $1,600 en route to $3,000, and I had to figure out what to do. I contacted the foundations mentioned in the letter to the editor. I had interviewed Stephen Lewis for the original story, but his foundation was unable to help, nor was another he suggested.

I tried Firelight and spoke to Jennifer Anderson-Bahr, a senior program manager. Through her I learned of a grassroots organization called the Community Development and Peace Promotion Movement, CDPPM for short, that seemed perfect. It is led by people from Lesotho, not Westerners and, CDPPM's office sat mere miles from where the children were living. The group agreed to help the orphans but weeks after my initial contact I was still waiting for its leader, Thabo Rajoele, to email me the plan he had promised weeks earlier.

So I decided to return to Lesotho just before Christmas. The Ntsanes were not at home. Their other grandmother had taken them to stay with her in Maseru, the capital. Why she did not do more for them the rest of the year is an enduring mystery.

The trip was hardly a waste. In Mafeteng, just down the road from their home village, I met Rajoele and youth volunteers at CDPPM's small office. Also present was a Peace Corps volunteer named Lizzie Schoon who was working with the group. With smiles all around, I handed over an initial $115 to buy food for the three kids.

That day, Rajoele accompanied me to their home. He personally counted the seven broken window panes, noted the need for a new front door. He pointed to an area in the backyard where a pig stall could go so they could raise and sell the piglets for income.

In addition, he spoke of sending Itumeleng to a sewing course and Rapelang to a vocational program. He had the great idea to seek out a female employee at a nearby textile factory to live with the kids and provide adult supervision in return for free rent.

When Itumeleng and Rapelang returned to their village -- young Tokelo stayed in Maseru because of his HIV and TB -- Rajoele briefed them on the plans. They were supportive if wary. Rajoele told me Rapelang did not trust anyone. For that reason, the plan shifted slightly: A second small house on the family plot would be rehabbed and rented out to someone who could still provide some oversight.

The new year began full of promise.

Because she had better e-mail access, Schoon acted as my liaison with Rajoele. In early March she sent me happy photos of the children getting food that was bought with reader contributions. I did not even recognize Rapelang at first because I had never seen the boy smile.

That was good. But what about the renovations?

In April, she e-mailed an estimate for the cost of fixing up the Ntsanes' two houses, which now included plans to construct a toilet, since the children had been using a neighbor's latrine. A couple of weeks later I transferred about $835 to cover the work and buy more food. (I also gave Schoon $70 to build a pigsty for orphans in a neighboring village.)

But in late May, Schoon said the work still had not begun and that she was pushing Rajoele. On June 11 she wrote again. Now Rajoele promised that the work would start in a week. Autumn had given way to winter, and I was anxious. At night it drops below freezing in their village.

A couple of weeks later it snowed. Yet Itumeleng and Rapelang still burrowed under blankets at night to keep warm as the wind flowed freely around their three squalid rooms. This was the situation I found July 11, when I arrived to see Itumeleng's discomfiting gaze. Rapelang was nowhere to be seen. It was school vacation, which for these kids mainly meant they weren't getting lunch.

The first order of business was to buy the food. The kitchen had only a few ratty ears of corn. We asked Itumeleng what she wanted and bought everything on the list, including paraffin fuel for a little stove and a head of cabbage. The cost was $130 ($50 of it my personal donation). The 4 pounds of chicken would last a few days (she had asked for meat only if we could afford it), but much of it would last weeks.

There were welcome signs of action on the day of my visit, as a work crew organized by Rajoele began replacing broken windows in both houses and installing a new door on the small house. The door had a lock, to protect the food from thieves.

"We are trying to survive, but it's not always easy," Itumeleng told me as she scrubbed laundry in a green basin. "Mostly it's very difficult for us to cope." She said sometimes she and her brother stay away from school because they are embarrassed by their dirty uniforms.

Rajoele's food purchases had ended in May because he said he needed that money for the home repairs. Before that, monthly goverenment food rations and a $14 stipend had stopped coming. Tokelo had qualified for the help only because of his HIV and TB, and now he had moved. So the two kids who remained literally had nothing.

So they literally had nothing. Well, not nothing. In the house I saw a spotless pair of pink and white sneakers, a Christmas gift from her grandmother, Itumeleng explained. They sat unlaced, possibly because she had washed them thoroughly. She wore them only rarely, such as while walking to and from her fourth-grade classroom.

Our food delivery and the sight of workmen had cheered her up a bit. "I'm happy to see something is being done for us," she said, not altogether convincingly, still not smiling, before we piled into the car and disappeared down the dusty lane.

A few days later I called Rajoele, who had been out of town at the time of my visit, and expressed my disappointment at the delayed repairs. He said the only crew foreman he could find had fallen ill with AIDS symptoms.

"It has been very, very, very cold," he said. "A positive person couldn't afford to work in such a cold. All the other healthy bricklayers, they were committed to different jobs."

When asked why he hadn't requested more money to feed the orphans, Rajoele said he was too busy with workshops.

Not to worry, he said: Progress is at hand. The workmen would install a new door on the second house and then build both the toilet and the pigsty. Rajoele had already bought the bricks and cement, using just over $600.

This November, he assured me, Itumeleng and Rapelang would attend the promised skills training programs. And a tenant for the second house would be found just as soon as it was fixed up.

As he spoke I thought of something Schoon had told me . "When you actually have the money," she said, "it shouldn't take this long."

Before leaving Lesotho, I entrusted to Schoon the $1,900 left from the $3,000. Rajoele said he still had about $200 of the $835 that I had transferred in April. I am still hoping the money, a small fortune by Lesotho's standards, will make a lasting difference for the Ntsanes - and soon.

scottmcalvert@gmail.com

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