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
‘My cousin’s son and his wife got the virus last year,’ recounts 68-year-old ‘Malepekola Moshe, who lives in the remote village of Ha Ramabele in Matsieng, Lesotho.
‘I got a call from the wife saying that her husband is coughing badly. She said he was so hot he felt like a heater, and he was having a hard time breathing. He was sweating so much that it was like he had taken a bath. He’s a taxi owner in Maseru, so he must have got it while transporting people. And then the wife got sick too. This was something we were all experiencing for the first time, so it scared us very much. But they went to the hospital and eventually they recovered.’
‘Malepekola Moshe feeds her chickens. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
Moshe tells us this story as she feeds her chickens and tends to her vegetable garden. Despite the myriad challenges of the past year, she is energetic, animated, and happy to talk to us.
‘Malepekola Moshe in her vegetable garden. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
‘You see this garden?’ she says, pointing to her rows of tomatoes and leafy greens (moroho). ‘That’s how I live! Off the garden and the fields. We just finished eating all the fruits, and I bottled some of them. My husband sometimes buys cooking oil, but when there isn’t any, I still eat moroho cooked with just water and salt.’
As is the case for many in rural Lesotho, Moshe and her family rely heavily on subsistence farming. This reliance has increased over the past year, however, due to the dire economic impact of Covid-19 and its associated lockdowns.
‘Malepekola Moshe feeds her chickens. Photo:: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
‘There are 12 of us in our household,’ Moshe explains. ‘Myself, my husband, our children, and our grandchildren. With the lockdowns last year, I lost my job, and my children had to come home because they too lost their jobs. We found ourselves living in such poverty. I used to think that if corona ever arrived in our house, it would take us all out, quickly. We had nothing to eat, we had no essentials. Usually, if I am out of work, then my children can help out. But this time around we were all just at home.’
In addition to the loss of livelihoods and income, Moshe reflects on the impact of Covid-19 on the fabric of her community. She claps her hands together for emphasis and exclaims: ‘This thing has changed the way we live!’
‘Malepekola Moshe washes her hands using a homemade tippy tap in her yard. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
‘Before, we used to visit each other with no problem. Now, when we started distancing and staying at home, it was understood as if you don’t like people, or as if you think you’re better. I had to start telling people not to come to my house without their masks on, and that caused a lot of drama!’ ‘We used to all help each other. If someone didn’t have something, like soap, you would give it to them. But with this corona, we found ourselves looking out for our own families only. If you didn’t have something, you felt you couldn’t go to somebody else to ask. As a community, we stopped helping each other out like before.’
A bird’s-eye view of ‘Mapheello Mots’eleli’s household in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Thabo Mohloboli for The Hub.
In a different household in the same village, 69-year-old ‘Mapheello Mots’eleli sits in front of her home, carefully gathering bundles of dried grass, which she stitches together with thick red thread to make traditional brooms.
‘These are my source of income,’ she tells us, ‘but it’s hard to make a living from them. The profit is not that much. Sometimes people take them and pay late. Sometimes we have to spend the money on other things, and then there is no money to buy more material. What does that mean? More hunger.’
‘Mapheello Mots’eleli gathers bundles of dried grass to make traditional brooms. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
Mots’eleli shrugs her shoulders and sighs. Unlike Moshe, she does not personally know anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19. She speaks of ‘many deaths’ in the village last year, but she cannot be sure if any of these were a result of the virus. For her, the most tangible and immediate forms of suffering that Covid-19 has brought are hunger and deepening poverty.
‘We have all been so hungry,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘There are times one finds oneself even craving simple papa [maize meal]. In this village and others, some people got donations, like food packages, but we have not been given anything. We are here, hungry still. I wish those people in the government would come into the villages and see the heartbreak that is our lives. This sickness is killing us in so many different ways.’
‘Mapheello Mots’eleli stitches traditional brooms, with her grandson seated beside her. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
Mots’eleli is raising her grandchildren, all of whom are currently out of school. Despite the fact that schools in Lesotho are steadily re-opening, she does not have the money to send them back, and worries about their future.
‘Everything shut down when this thing [Covid-19] came,’ she says. ‘Our children lost their jobs, their children could not continue with their studies, and chaos started. In this household none of the children are going to school because there is no money, and things are getting worse. They need the education, but I doubt they will be able to go.’
Mokuena Senekane tends to his sheep. With crime in the village on the rise, he is increasingly worried about the threat of stock theft. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
67-year-old Mokuena Senekane is similarly worried about the impact of lockdowns and school closures on young people in the village. We stand at the edge of the fence around his property and he points to a pond in the distance, where a group of boys are carrying a fish between them. Senekane explains that he often takes his sheep out towards the pond, and has to repeatedly admonish children for playing there.
‘Children have been drowning in such ponds in other villages,’ he says. ‘It’s a huge problem. Parents are busy and they don’t even realise that their children are down by the water. They play and fish there all day because they have so much time on their hands, and nothing constructive to fill it with. Now that schools are opening, some are downright refusing to go back. They have grown used to spending their time fishing, or hunting for small animals in the forest. And how can we stop them, when they are successful in their hunts, and when there is no food at home?’
Mokuena Senekane takes care of his chickens and vegetable garden. Like many in his village and in rural settings across Lesotho, he provides for his family’s needs through subsistence farming. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.
Senekane also reflects on the recent rise in crime in the village. He tells us that many small businesses in the community, including his own, have been broken into over the past year. He does not express any anger over this fact, however, but rather shows his sympathy and understanding.
‘Hunger!’ he exclaims, raising a finger in the air to make his point. ‘Yes, these young people are criminals, but they are hungry and they have no other means. Covid halted so many people’s lives; so many people lost their jobs. The virus brought so many changes that we never thought we would encounter in our lifetime. Last year was difficult, but I think this year might still be another difficult year.’
Mokuena Senekane and his daughter in their yard in Ha Ramabele, Matsieng, Lesotho. Photo: Meri Hyöky for The Hub.