THE Lesotho Red Cross Society (LRCS) will this month celebrate 50 years of providing humanitarian services to Basotho.
In this wide-ranging interview, Lesotho Times (LT) Reporter Pascalinah Kabi talks to LRCS Secretary-General Kopano Masilo on the role played by the organisation in the country over the past 50 years.
LT: As LRCS, what are some of the milestones you will be celebrating in the 50 years of operation in Lesotho?
Masilo: Red Cross is celebrating 50 years since its establishment on 11 November 1967 – just a year after Lesotho’s independence. Before then, it was called the British Red Cross Branch in line with our history as a British protectorate.
The 50th celebration is a celebration of 50 years of humanitarian service. In any country, a Red Cross organisation is established by an act of parliament and in 1967, the Lesotho Parliament passed a law called Lesotho Red Cross Act.
Red Cross started as an organisation which offered very basic primary healthcare services, including maternal health. But over the 50-year period, we are now running four clinics in the country – Thaba-Bosiu Clinic, Kolojane Clinic in Berea, Mapholaneng Clinic in Mokhotloang and Kena Clinic in Mafeteng. All these clinics are situated outside main cities because we want to ensure that health services are accessible to the rural population.
In the past 50 years, we have made a big contribution in the fight against HIV/AIDS. When the pandemic was declared a disaster in 2000 by the government of Lesotho, Red Cross introduced a home-based care programme. You will recall that when the pandemic exploded, our health system was overburdened by patients staying in hospitals and in urgent need of help; until it was not possible anymore for hospitals and clinics to keep people in the facilities. It was then decided that families should nurse their own relatives back to good health while in their own homes and that is when we introduced this programme.
We trained community members to support families taking care of their loved ones and it helped a lot in capacitating families to be able to live with patients and nurse them back to good health.
The HIV/AIDS issue also brought in a new phenomenon of HIV orphans and Red Cross took the challenge and introduced an Orphan and Vulnerable Children (OVCs) Programme. We are glad that we have helped so many OVCs with psycho-social support to normalise their lives without parents. We also mobilised resources to have their schools fees, uniforms and other needs catered for. As I speak, we have many testimonies of beneficiaries now working as teachers.
But currently you will realise that Lesotho is grappling with cancer and Red Cross is working on a Cancer Screening Programme, bearing in mind that cancer experts said cancer can be managed if detected early. We are going to scale these cancer campaigns up.
The organisation has grown so much that we are physically present in the 10 districts of Lesotho – with physical offices where Basotho can access services. We have observed that in the past 50 years there is not a single period where Basotho experienced major challenges and Lesotho Red Cross was not part of a solution.
Our reflection is that the 50-year period we have succeeded to be with the people either in the natural disasters like severe drought resulting in severe food insecurity, every year we have always been there to provide food security services in the form of food parcels, capacitating communities with skills on conservative farming in line with climate change as well as distributing seedlings.
We feel that we have always been there even in conflict zones areas, LRCS has always been part of the Basotho journey. We can recall the major political unrests like the 1998 and others. If you look back, Red Cross was always there to provide the humanitarian services needed by Basotho who were camping at the palace and other places.
We have always done our best to ensure we were present during the conflict areas, not only politically-motivated conflicts but even social conflicts like the Mafeteng district where villages were fighting over pastures.
The Mafeteng conflicts went as far as having villagers burning their rivals’ houses and there were also injuries and Red Cross was there to provide temporary shelter and other basic services.
As a first aid organisation, we have since grown in stature and currently, all major companies and factories have been capacitated with first aid skills. We are contributing a lot in the safety of employees in these major companies. We also offer first aid services in the country’s national activities. So we are celebrating 50 years of humanitarian services to the people who need it and we are celebrating this milestone by making a new commitment to the nation of always being there to help wherever a challenge arises.
LT: Do you think Lesotho has the capacity to respond to major natural disasters?
Masilo: We have been trying to analyse if Lesotho has the capacity to respond to challenges if we were to experience serious disasters like those happening in other countries, with the latest example of the terrorist attack in Somalia. We need to accept the fact that humanitarian needs are increasing in the wake of complicated natural disasters due to either climate change and any other factors like politics which contribute to massive migration.
As we are celebrating these 50 years, as Lesotho Red Cross we are asking ourselves if we are able to offer such massive humanitarian services and we have since realised that we need to work hard in strengthening the country’s emergency services by introducing reasonably huge ambulance services.
To respond to your question, we do have the ability to respond but at the moment, we have not done enough to build the systems enabling us to respond immediately or within expected times; mostly because natural disasters in Lesotho are slow-onset, making us a little bit relaxed on how fast we can reach the affected people should we experience serious natural disasters.
But that culture has to change. Unlike in other countries where they experience natural disasters like mudslide, you will find that in Lesotho the nature of disasters are classified as small-scale with only five houses in this village burnt down and three others in a different village. We might take this as a small-scale disaster and take our time to respond but this is in actual fact an indication that we are ready to respond to big natural disasters. We cannot be taking years to respond to such small-scale disasters and say we are ready for bigger problems.
For us to be able to respond to big disasters, we have to start now when we do not have serious problems. The question is, how quick are you able to come in and help, bearing in mind that the main purpose is to protect a life.
As Lesotho Red Cross, we have always been able to reach there at the earliest time because of our district structures but as a country, we are far from being ready to respond to any serious natural disasters that can befall us. Firstly, for this country to be able to respond quickly, we need to have resources stored in one place ready for such a day but there is no government building store with emergency equipment which can be easily accessed in time of need. For example, even our capacity to extinguish fires is lacking.
LT: How has it been like operating in a country characterised by political instability for the past 50 years?
Masilo: As the Red Cross organisation, we are able to help wherever we can and although nobody wants conflict, it has happened in Lesotho and we managed to help.
However, the political unrests have serious problems because there have been incidences where Red Cross as a neutral organisation has been perceived as siding with others.
This is mostly seen through actions such as damaging Red Cross equipment. Even though the attacks were not at a large scale, it tells you that the situation is very volatile.
It further means that if Red Cross pulls back, there would be loss of lives as there will be no one ready to help them who is as neutral as Red Cross. We are still continuing to operate with our humanitarian work, and we are always ready to help victims of political tensions.
We even offer first aid services during elections. I must mention that as long as the bouts of unrest do not affect the humanitarian work, we will not be affected as even the people that support us assist us based on the needs of the people.
LT: Red Cross, like any other non-governmental organisation, is heavily dependent on international funding which is shrinking. How is that affecting your programmes?
Masilo: That is true. This reality makes life a little bit challenging because the humanitarian services or needs are growing in this country. Red Cross depends on external aid and when that aid is not there, it’s painful that we are unable to help people.
Going back to the issue of OVCs we have helped, it is because we have enjoyed a good support from other Red Cross organisations like Norway. We also have made huge contributions on water and sanitation and without external support, it means we will not be able to address people’s needs.
That is why, as we celebrate 50 years, we have made a commitment to build a strong national society with Basotho. You will also remember that the King and the Queen are patrons of LRCS and when the King delivered his speech during the Red Cross breakfast meeting, his message was that while our Red Cross has done so much for so many people with the support of its friends somewhere, this Red Cross has to continue doing that with the support of Basotho. That speech was actually calling on Basotho from all walks of life to help Red Cross in order to assist fellow Basotho.
If we were able to help so many orphans in the past but today when they come knocking on our doors we are unable to help them, that means we are facing a serious problem.
But we have made a commitment to continue working hard to help the people without external support by building local support with individuals. We cannot rule out the fact that people of goodwill are still many in this country and our role is to make them aware that they can work with Red Cross to assist their fellow citizens. We have established a pledge system for people willing to spare their M100 on a monthly basis to assist fellow Basotho through Red Cross. We are getting good responses. You will be amazed that the external support is from other countries’ nationals who part ways with their monies every month into a fund to support Africa.
LT: How are you celebrating the 50 years anniversary?
Masilo: The celebration will be launched by a gala dinner on 18 November and the 50-year celebration will take the whole year – ending in November 2018. The 10 districts have been given a platform to deliberate on how they want to assist their own communities during this celebration, with the underlying message that people should feel the comfort of the existence of the Red Cross.
We are going to embark on a lot of activities in the communities including huge tree planting to restore the environment as well as holding First Aid campaigns.
We have also decided to launch some scholarships during the gala dinner for OVCs as part of the 50-year anniversary celebrations because we have learnt that education is more sustainable than offering food and clothing. I cannot foresee a situation where an individual helped by good Samaritans is not thinking of helping others in future. We are also going to renovate some schools which are in a state of disrepair for our children. Basotho should expect a series of events in their villages.
LT: What are you hoping to achieve in the next 50 years?
Masilo: I hope that we will have a Red Cross with a capacity to save and protect lives of Basotho through the support of other Basotho.
We also get support from our government, but we want to increase that assistance. When Red Cross grows, the government can rest easy knowing that it has given us the capacity we need to provide humanitarian services to the people.
We must appreciate that when assistance is provided by the government, it usually takes time because naturally all governments are slow. Yet disasters are not slow. Governments also have limitations like public acceptance, but with Red Cross you assist everybody.
All African Red Crosses have committed that 50 percent of their resources should be local, and others have achieved that while Lesotho’s resources are mostly external. We want to have very efficiently running ambulance services. We have since realised that most people die on the roads because of lack of proper first aid services. It is really an achievable dream.
We are also looking at improving our health services, starting with a new clinic providing the same services Basotho seek in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Our feeling is that there is a lot of erosion of monies buying health service in South Africa and being a country that is struggling economically, Lesotho Red Cross can contribute a lot by providing same health services people seek in South Africa. Other Red Crosses have already pledged to assist us with their best medical equipment and expertise.
We also want to strengthen the capacity of the people to live with the challenges they are faced with, with less assistance.