Unemployment’s silent victims

MASERU — The hot spring sun is blazing. A group of young kids in Ha-Tsolo are busy with song and play.
They have turned the open space next to their homes into a playground.
But six-year-old Pusetso Ratsúpu and his siblings — Relebohile, four, and 22-month-old Ntsoaki — are not part of the fun.
They have isolated themselves from the group.
They look tired, worn out and unhealthy.
They are not as energetic as most children of their age. Their skins are ashen and dehydrated.
They watch anxiously as their friends play.
Every now and then Ntsoaki cries for their mother, ‘Marethabile.
Pusetso and Relebohile have been complaining they are hungry since morning.
They have only had soft porridge since morning, ‘Marethabile who has just turned 30, says.
‘Marethabile and her husband Thabang Ratsúpu, 34, struggle to provide proper food for the family.
They are both unemployed.
Life is a struggle for the family of five. Ratsúpu says the situation is hopeless.
He has not had a proper job since the family moved to Maseru from Thaba-Tseka in 2005.
He was hoping that in Maseru he would get a job that pays enough to feed his family but the past four years have been miserable.
In some bad instances the family has gone for days without a proper meal.
“I have not been able to provide food for my family for days now.
We have been surviving on papa (thick porridge).
“That is not the kind of food that keeps a person healthy. Our health is deteriorating day by day,” says a worried Ratsúpu.
He fears for his children’s wellbeing.
He says he is more worried about their youngest child as she is the most sickly.
“She has been sick ever since she was born.”
“She would not get better despite her mother’s efforts to breastfeed her,” he says.
“They are not getting healthy food. They are not growing strong like other kids. They get sick easily. They have not even started school.”
He says they catch the cold easily.
“The kids, especially the youngest is always sick with common cold and diarrhoea. She has also been vomiting. She lost a lot of weight.”
He says doing “piece jobs” is his only means of getting money to buy food.
Unfortunately he has been unlucky in the past four months. No one hired him.
“I work in people’s gardens for money. They give M30 to M60 depending on the size of the garden. However I have not had any job since July.
“The past four months have been the toughest.”
He has not been fit enough to do his alternative piece jobs.
“I was very sick in the past few months. I was bed-ridden. My health has also deteriorated. I am now not able to do some piece jobs because I do not have enough strength.”
Ratsúpu’s children are part of Lesotho’s shocking statistics of malnourished children. 
At least 42 percent of children below the age of five were said to be suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to a 2007 National Nutrition Survey.
The survey shows that in some districts like Thaba-Tseka the rate of chronic malnutrition among children under the age of five is as high as 18.2 percent.
Recent surveys paint an even bleaker picture.
The May 2008 Lesotho Vulnerability Assessment Committee survey revealed that 352 000 people would need humanitarian assistance in 2008/09.
The survey found that of this number 229 000 from peri-urban, foothills and southern lowlands were facing a food deficit.
Yet the problem is not only prevalent in the rural areas.
The number of people in towns starving or occasionally hungry is also astounding.
A report conducted by the World Food Organisation in conjunction with the government of Lesotho found that a significant proportion of urban dwellers were also hard hit by hunger.
The Vulnerability and Food Insecurity in Urban Areas survey issued in August revealed that 13 percent of the 450 000 people living in areas considered urban were highly food insecure.
This meant that they were starving, eating less or are facing a danger of going hungry unless they get urgent food assistance.
The survey attributed this situation to increases in the cost of food and fuel.
The decline of cereal production was also sighted.
The underlying message in all these reports is that most people in this country are not having enough to eat.
But the major victims are the children.
Elderly people are forced to feed their extended family members and grandchildren orphaned by HIV and Aids.
Seventy-year-old ‘Malesebo Konti is one of the thousands of aged people in Lesotho who are forced to look after orphans.
With little or no income to sustain this extra burden such families eventually starve. The children become malnourished and growth is stunted.
Konti’s grand children are malnourished.
She says she cannot afford to buy food to feed them.
Even though she receives her monthly elderly grant of M300, it cannot buy enough food that would last until the next pay day.
Her grandchildren are not well fed. Their bodies are small and thin.
The eldest of Konti’s grandchildren, 13-year-old Thabiso looks younger than her age.
“They are not growing well. They do not eat the right food. I would love to give them the food but I cannot afford them.”
The other child, 10-year-old Nthatuoa is extremely thin.
Her legs are covered with rash. She scratches hard on her patchy skin as she cannot ignore the itchiness.
The youngest Potso and Mpotseng, seven-year-old twins, also look underfed and sickly.
Their nostrils are blocked with mucus.
“I believe they would not be this unhealthy if I was able to give them good food. They are starving,” Konti said.
A report by Partners In Health Lesotho said the number of malnourished children was increasing at an alarming rate.
According to the website, Partners In Health and clinical staff saw one or two children per week suffering from malnutrition.
“Most of these children presented with symptoms of pellagra — vitamin deficiency disease caused by lack of niacin (Vitamin B3) and protein.”
The frequency and severity of malnutrition cases increased dramatically, the report said.
“Doctors and nurses at the clinics documented a sharp rise in the number of children coming in with severe malnutrition — frank kwashiorkor, malnutrition caused by inadequate protein intake in the presence of fair energy total caloric intake and marasmus.
“Depending on the clinic, there are as few as 10 cases and as many as 20 per week.
“We are concerned that these children are only the first to show the result of the devastating food crisis in Lesotho.”
When cases of malnutrition increased in Lesotho, Partners In Health launched a supplementary feeding programme to provide nutritional support to all malnourished children in the mountains, the report said.
Every child enrolled in the programme receives a package containing 60 kilogrammes of maize-meal, nine kilogrammes of beans, four litres of cooking oil, and six kilogrammes of a nutritious corn-soy blend to help them gain weight.
In addition, all moderately malnourished children older than six months receive a special high-protein, high-energy peanut butter fortified with vitamins and sugar.
The 2009 World Food Programme food security analysis said Lesotho was one of two southern African countries which experienced a lower than average harvest.
“Pockets of food insecurity persist particularly in these countries,” said the analysis.
This number was likely to increase as the more marginalised households are further pushed into vulnerability as a result of soaring food prices, said the 2008 Lesotho Vulnerability Assessment Report.

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