Through funding from the Department for International Development (DfID), I have recently spent six months working with local communities to support health education and disability projects in Lesotho. My weeks were split between the Resource Centre for the Blind (RCB), the country’s sole and oversubscribed paediatric facility for visual impairments, and S.O.S Children’s Village & community clinic for orphans and vulnerable children. The hands-on and ground-level work really opened my eyes to the challenges facing life, health and wellbeing in Southern Africa and I now feel prepared to commence an MSc Medical Anthropology at Durham University this October.
Although known to most as Prince Harry’s gap year destination, Lesotho has the third highest HIV infection rate in the world where one in four people are infected with the virus. Owing to the grasp that HIV and infectious diseases have on the country, the average life expectancy is currently set at just 42 years – almost half that of the UK.
In light of this, disability projects are often shadowed from foreign aid funding and favoured by issues which have more measurable and quantifiable outcomes in the Western tick-box culture, such as HIV/AIDS treatment or increased Anti-RetroVirals (ARVs) coverage. However, the myth that impairment can be infectious still pervades disability experience and is a mentality that affects social cohesion for people living with disabilities. For example, on one
occasion I was pushing a youth in a wheelchair when a passer-by shouted obscenities without reason or provocation. Furthermore, the terminology attached to disabilities also took some getting used to, as learning disability or intellectual impairment often translates as ‘mental retardation’ in discourse and official paperwork. This used to make me feel a particular sense of unease, as our use of language reflects the respect and equality we ascribe to people.
The fallacy that people living with disabilities have nothing of value to offer their communities also exists, which was a challenge high on the agenda. Even with visual impairments, which is a disability easily compatible with the twenty first century, many of the residents had never even fed themselves before coming to RCB. My goals at the centre were therefore to develop the manual dexterity skills of the residents and provide muscular stimulation through the creative arts. Interestingly, whilst trying to nurture basic computer skills with the residents it became all too apparent that they were much more interested in knitting and crochet which could meet their immediate needs; winter warmers and pocket money. Their creativity and knack for handiwork was a true indication that limited sight does not mean limited ability. The biggest hurdle for me at RCB was an absence of a strong level of English, which led me to learn Braille and understand their needs through a common language.
Volunteering in the SOS Clinic allowed me to practice the anthropometric measurements which were first introduced to me in my Anthropology undergrad. It was interesting to see the cases of stunted growth and track cases of growth faltering over the course of my placement. Accordingly, health education and promotion sessions with GCSE/A Level classes illuminated the lack of sexual health awareness and showed how vulnerable young people really are in Lesotho. Most poignantly, the pupils didn’t know the difference between a condom or contraceptive pill/injection, which is a simple fact that can irrevocably affect one’s HIV status.
In my spare time I volunteered at the Queen Mamohato Memorial Hospital, which was a fantastic opportunity to observe the diligent medical professionals and excellent facilities serving Maseru, Lesotho’s capital district. On my first day I was shown around the paediatric ward, where Doctors were fighting to save an infant ravaged by malnutrition, tuberculosis and pneumonia with an unknown HIV status. It was a painful reminder of the reality of life in the developing world but reassuring to see how the newly built hospital is proving to be a valuable weapon in the struggle to harness child mortality rates, which are currently 113 per 1000.
My time in Lesotho was an education in every sense of the word. I can now say I’ve seen firsthand the desperation and struggle which are captured in those Oxfam adverts we all know so well, but there really is more to Africa than adversity. There is opportunity, there is hope and there is so much to strive for. I can only hope that I’ll succeed in my MSc and continue forward with a medical education, and then return to Southern Africa and help it flourish from within.