This photo essay was part of OSISA’s Numbers as Faces campaign in May, 2021. Download the e-magazine. The interviews were completed in March, 2021.
By Leila Hall and Moleboheng Rampou
‘Lesotho shall endeavour to make education available to all…’ – Constitution of Lesotho
This is the third year in a row that 15-year-old Mamello Rasiloane’s education has been interrupted. In 2019, schools in Lesotho were closed for months due to teachers’ strikes. In 2020, schools closed for the majority of the year because of Covid-19. Now, in 2021, schools are gradually reopening, but many students from poor families are unable to return because of their families’ worsening financial instability – a result of the economic impact of Covid-19. Although primary school is free in Lesotho, secondary school is not, and many families struggle to find the necessary funds to pay for school fees, uniforms, and learning materials.
‘I last went to school in March 2020,’ Rasiloane tells us, shaking her head. ‘In 2020 schools were closed for a long time! In 2019, the teachers would strike and we would close, then we would go to school, then they would strike again and we would close. We weren’t getting proper education then, but in 2020 we didn’t get education at all!’
‘Mamello Rasiloane cooks outside her family’s home in Ha Ramabele in Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
Rasiloane uses hand gestures to indicate the back and forth of schools opening and closing. She has a bubbly, expressive personality and throughout our interview breaks into smiles or laughter. Dressed in an orange sweater and torn jeans, she takes us around her family’s modest household in the village of Ha Ramabele in Matsieng, Lesotho. She lives with her two grandmothers, her older brother, and her younger sister. Her mother – like many migrant labourers – lost her domestic worker job in South Africa last year because of lockdowns and border closures, and is now struggling to find part-time work in Maseru.
‘Many people like my mother lost their jobs last year and things changed in our homes,’ she recalls. ‘It was a hard year, with so many changes that we were not used to. My school opened this month but I haven’t been able to go yet, because my old uniform doesn’t fit me anymore. I’m waiting for my mother to have enough money to buy me a new one, then I can start going to school again.’
A bird’s-eye view of Mamello Rasiloane’s family’s home in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Thabo Mohloboli for The Hub.
‘Can I ask a question?’ she says, wringing her hands, with a sudden worried expression on her face. ‘I would really like to know how the government intends on helping out some of us who are still at home, who can’t afford to go to school because of so many problems. Some of our parents are having a hard time, they don’t work anymore, and they don’t have money for school fees. I want to ask how the government is going to help out?’
Ten-year-old Mosa Ntepelle is feeling anxious about returning to school next month. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
Ten-year-old Mosa Ntepelle is also worried about her imminent return to school. Because of the lost academic year in 2020, Lesotho’s Ministry of Education has indicated that all students will automatically be promoted to the next class. Ntepelle should have completed Grade 4 last year, but was unable to because of the school closures. Regardless, she will be starting Grade 5 this year when her school opens next month.
‘How will I keep up in Grade 5 when I don’t know anything from Grade 4?’ she wonders. ‘I think skipping a class like this will make Grade 5 difficult, and I don’t want to suffer. I would rather repeat Grade 4, then next year move on to Grade 5.’
Mosa Ntepelle has struggled to keep up with her schoolwork alone at home. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
Both of Ntepelle’s parents have died, and she now lives with her uncle and grandmother. None of the adults in the household work, and the family lives off her grandmother’s pension and subsistence farming. When we ask if she has managed to keep up with any school work over the past year, she shrugs.
Mosa Ntepelle carries water near her family’s home in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
‘We weren’t given any school work to do while we were closed, so it was only up to me to keep studying,’ she says. ‘I had to help with chores in the mornings, and then I would try and sit down to study. My grandmother would sometimes help me, and sometimes I would study with some friends.’
Fourteen-year-old Kananelo Nako cooking and working in the fields at his family’s home in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
Fourteen-year-old Kananelo Nako has also struggled to keep up. He is cooking split peas over an open fire when we talk to him. Throughout our interview he continues to work, looking up at us occasionally through the wood smoke to answer our questions. He explains that he spends his days helping around the house or in the fields, and that he often has to herd his grandfather’s livestock. His grandmother passed away last year, and in the midst of the activity around her funeral his school books disappeared.
‘I have no idea where they are,’ he says. ‘We didn’t get any work from school at all for the whole year that we were closed; we never got anything.’
Kananelo Nako tends to sheep in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
Nako is also unsure of when exactly his school will re-open. Once it does, he thinks it may be forced to close again due to Covid-19, and he worries about the long-term impact of these lost years on his education and his future.
‘I’m afraid of not being able to get a job when I’m older,’ he says with a frown. ‘I’ll just be there at home, struggling, maybe even unable to read and write.’
Kananelo Nako in the fields near his family’s home in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
Even before Covid-19, the majority of young people in Lesotho faced grim educational prospects. A 2018 survey indicated that less than half of Basotho children aged 7 to 14 had foundational reading skills, and even fewer had foundational numeracy skills. Only 1 in 10 children from poor, rural households were likely to complete secondary school. Last year, Lesotho-based experts from UNICEF and WHO warned that the 2020 school closures could lead to a national education crisis, and urged for the importance of finding ways to help students to continue to learn remotely, and to open schools safely as soon as possible.
Despite these calls, however, most students from poor, rural households found that they received no educational support – and doubt continues to surround whether schools will be able to open safely this year, with all the necessary Covid-19 measures in place to protect teachers and students.
‘Makamohelo Masiloane with her 10-month-old daughter in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
‘Makamohelo Masiloane – an unemployed mother of three – tells us that she has been struggling to help her eight-year-old daughter to keep learning.
‘The government really did not think through how closing schools would affect us,’ she says. ‘During that period they hardly came up with plans to help. We didn’t receive any material or assistance. When schools first closed, my daughter was still interested in her books, and I would try to help her. But as time went by, she lost interest and focused less and less. Whatever I said or tried, she wouldn’t listen to me.’
When we ask about the possibility of online learning and resources, Masiloane shakes her head and tells us simply: ‘I don’t have those modern phones that go onto the internet.’
Last year’s school closures also interrupted the government’s national school feeding program. Masiloane reflects on the impact of this on young learners and their families.
‘They used to get one meal a day at school,’ she explains. ‘When schools were open, they would come home and eat whatever I had managed to put together that day, but I would know they had also eaten at school. When you don’t work, and you’re all at home, sometimes you have nothing to feed them.’
Now, with her daughter set to return to school next month, Masiloane feels anxious about the fact that her daughter will be skipping a grade, and is unsure if her school is equipped to protect learners from Covid-19 infection.
‘Makamohelo Masiloane’s eight-year-old daughter plays with her friends in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Thabo Mohloboli for The Hub.
‘Her whole class was promoted to the next grade,’ she says with a frown. ‘I think there will be problems for some children. They will just keep being pushed forward, without knowing or understanding anything. As they go up a grade, just like that, they will find it more difficult to catch up with others; things will get heavier and heavier for them.’
‘I also keep wondering if there will be enough safety at these schools. Maybe in high schools the students will understand when you tell them to social distance, but not with these young ones. When lunch or break time comes they will be playing together, holding hands, and so on. Also in many of our schools the classes are tightly packed. I do wonder, as a parent, how their safety is going to be maintained.’
Masiloane is not alone in her fears. Covid-19 outbreaks have already been recorded in several schools since the beginning of the year, and a teachers’ union recently urged the government to outline a clearer and more comprehensive Covid-19 prevention plan for schools.
‘Mabafokeng Maino in the fields near her home in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
‘Mabafokeng Maino, a teacher at St. Louis Primary School in Matsieng, says that the staff and parents at her school have taken it upon themselves to ensure that Covid-19 safety measures are in place, with little support from the government.
‘We’ve built tippy taps!’ she tells us. ‘We called parents and we built them together. As teachers, we’ve come up with a new timetable to ensure that the students take breaks at different times, to allow for social distancing. We’ve also spoken to parents to make sure that the students all have masks. The government gave us a small package of masks, but there aren’t enough for every child, and they didn’t give us sanitisers or anything else.’
Maino also wishes that the government would have done more to support continued learning for students last year. She rolls her eyes when we mention online learning.
‘We keep hearing about ‘online learning’, but that is impossible for most. Some of our students come from really remote villages, deep in the mountains. Their parents can’t afford to have cell phones, let alone smartphones. Last year I really thought the government would help us teachers by coming up with a plan to distribute written material to students. Something to make children still feel attached to their school work. But they didn’t.’
‘Mabafokeng Maino in the fields near her home in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Thabo Mohloboli for The Hub.
Looking ahead, Maino’s bigger concerns are now related to the long-term impacts of the school closures on her students. She tells us that many students will likely not be returning at all. For those who do, she worries about how to cope – as a teacher – with helping them to readjust to school life and to make up for lost time.
‘I wonder deeply what kind of pupils we are going to have, who have not been in school for this long? Some are going to refuse to actually go to school. One of the biggest problems is that some are now married or pregnant, and this means that their future has now been cut.’
‘How exactly are we as teachers going to work? These children did not go to school at all last year, and the year before that they were home very often because of the strikes. Now a child who has not completed Grade 1 is taken to Grade 2 this year. How does the teacher straddle and bridge that gap, going just a little bit into Grade 1, while trying to move forward into Grade 2?’
‘Mabafokeng Maino, a teacher at St. Louis Primary School in Matsieng, worries about the myriad challenges that teachers in Lesotho will face as schools around the country steadily re-open. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
‘The other thing is that this child has been home for so long, where they had all the freedom in the world to do anything they wanted. When we open, I imagine we will spend the first few weeks just dealing with discipline, and even with counselling, as many come from families where they have been living with fights and even abuse over the past year. This [Covid-19] situation really affected people mentally. There were so many petty squabbles in communities. We have to remember that this kind of anxiety does a lot of bad things to a young mind. We are going to be dealing with all of these challenges this year.’