Backed into a corner by an unrelenting drought that has left their district broken and desolate, a World Food Programme-initiative is what could provide the much-needed rescue for residents of Mafeteng
By Tsitsi Matope
MAFETENG- A desperate situation, leaving the cornered victims with no other choice but to band together for The Last Stand.
A military jargon in which troops hold a defensive position in the face of overwhelming odds, the Last Stand is still a perfect fit for the way some Mafeteng communities have decided to work together against a common and ruthless enemy—hunger.
With the help of the Cash for Assets Programme of the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), 4000 households facing severe food shortage in the district are now working in 80 community-based projects focusing on tree-planting, land-reclamation and the construction of water-harvesting facilities.
Poor crop-production in Mafeteng has largely been attributed to prolonged drought, which has left the district barren, broken and with little vegetation, and the Cash for Assets Programme is aimed at reclaiming the land, while also providing immediate relief for the villagers.
Public Eye on Tuesday this week visited Mafeteng district—situated about 50 kilometres from Maseru and has a population of 192,621 according to the 2006 census—and after speaking to some of the locals, it became clear that for years, many of the villagers have ignored the fact that neglecting the environment was contributing to climate change and reduced yields from their fields.
The residents mainly grow maize and sorghum and also rear sheep, goats and cattle, but poor rainfall over the years has made life extremely difficult for some of the communities.
In an interview, the WFP’s Field Monitoring Assistant, Mrs Rethabile Fobo, on Tuesday, she told Public Eye the planting of trees for firewood and fruit production was an important mechanism to improve land-cover, mitigate climate change and reduce soil erosion, which would ultimately result in the improvement of the soil’s fertility, while also enhancing food-security.
According to the latest Demographic Health Survey released in 2011, 37.6percent of children under the age of five years in the district suffer from stunting while 14.5percent are underweight and 5.2percent wasted.
Fobo said: “The communities have realised they need to grow fast-maturing sources of firewood in order to protect indigenous trees which can help conserve soil fertility and work towards reversing climate change, which triggers long dry spells in this Southern part of the country. The people here are also excited about establishing small peach fruit businesses they can control.
This would help create employment, generate income and also improve household nutrition.”
With a 24.3percent unemployment rate in Mafeteng, the importance of the Cash for Asset Programme, which started in March and ends in December this year in the district could not be overemphasised.
“The objective is to motivate villagers to take responsibility and work towards recovering their environment. We also want the communities to understand that through water-harvesting initiatives, they can bulletproof themselves against poor rainfall patterns. As seen here in Matlapaneng Village where 78 residents are making terraces to stop erosion in the sloppy areas and transforming dongas into water-harvesting facilities. They are, therefore, assured of sustainable food production in the next farming season,” Fobo said.
The villagers start work at 8am and finish at 4pm, and are each paid M500 for every 12 days of labour.
Mrs Mabatho Moliko, who is the secretary of the workers in Matlapaneng, said the incentive was a big relief.
“We are struggling to feed our families; food is very expensive. We see that this development is empowering us to deal with food-shortage situations in the future while at the same time, providing immediate financial aid,” Moliko said.
On foot and using their bare hands, the villagers carry rocks from places as far away as four kilometres. The rocks are then used to construct structures (so far, the villagers have constructed 26 of these rock structures) that would help slow the flow of water in the two-metre-deep donga, which stretches for about fi ve kilometres. The water would then feed into three small dams that would be built along the donga. “We are being innovative. This is one of the dam-walls made out of 250 bags of sand. It is five metres wide and two metres in height,” Moliko said.
The villagers fill empty bags of cement with about 50 kilogrammes of sand extracted from one of the dam sites.
They then arrange the bags across the donga before covering the works with sand and small stones.
“We are going to plant grass on top of the dam wall and replicate the same structure in two more areas along this donga for the other two small dams,” Moliko explained.
Mr Samuel Tsietsi, who is supervising the workers, said the water would be used to sustain agro-businesses such as poultry, pig and vegetable production.
“We would like to diversify our production in particular, because relying on maize and sorghum on large fields is becoming more and more dangerous especially because we only depend on rain,” Tsietsi said.
He further noted with the support of the WFP, the soon-to-become ‘river of life’ would serve villagers in the downstream areas such as Ha Motlohi and Mokhoabong.
In Kopanong Village, the WFP is working with 63 people in the tree planting project.
There is a spring of water near the three hectare area where peach and eucalyptus trees were planted. The villagers said they will use the spring water, which is available throughout the year, to irrigate the trees.
So far, the villagers have planted 2 623 eucalyptus and 800 peach trees since June this year.
Mr Mohau Ntsukunyane, who is the councillor of the area, said the community signed a contract with the owner of the land on which the project is being conducted.
“The owner will get 10 percent of the proceeds realised from the project. We hope to review the agreement after such a time the community would be in a position to buy this land,” Ntsukunyane said.
The WFP, he added, would financially support and motivate the Kopanong community to maintain the trees until the end of the year.
“We have the support of the community and hope to sustain the project because the people understand the immense benefits they are going to reap from this initiative.
After three years, they would be able to harvest the trees for firewood and also start selling fresh fruit. Part of the fruit would be canned and dried for both local and foreign markets,” Ntsukunyane said. Mrs Makopano Maphephe, who could be seen watering the trees with her two colleagues on Tuesday, said the project was empowering the community to understand solutions to their food insecurity lie in working together and becoming more innovative.
“Most households here depend on cow-dung for cooking purposes because many areas no longer have fully grown trees. This project will help us establish new sources of firewood. On the other hand, venturing into fruit-production at this scale is a new concept we are happy to try after years of failed maize and sorghum harvests,” Maphephe said.
In Ha Ramohapi village, 80-year-old Paile Semoko (pictured), understands how difficult it is to cook using cow-dung, and the situation is even worse for her because she has no cattle of her own.
However, with two granddaughters to look after, aged two and five, she has no choice but to, not only look for the waste but also work in the WFP tree-planting project in order to earn an income for her family.
Her daughter, she claimed, abandoned her two children to hustle in South Africa following the death of her husband. The daughter, Semoko added, has not been sending her any money for the upkeep of the children.
As early as 8am, she joins fellow villagers working on the tree project. The digging is tough because the ground is hard and as a result, the villagers agreed to let her do light duties, which for a woman of her age, she only does out of desperation.
“Life is a struggle because I am old and burdened with two children. I have to work and thanks to the WFP, with the 36 days of work, I can get M1 500, which can buy us a lot of maize-meal and vegetables,” she said.
Hers is a more desperate situation. Although Semoko craves for chocolates and sweets, she cannot afford any luxuries, even for her granddaughters. They eat the staple maize meal, pap, which is served with either green vegetables or cabbage for their three meals every day.
“We have to stretch the money. Sometimes I put oil in the vegetables, especially with some help from the WFP and the M450-per-month old-age pension from the government,” she said.
Due to her frailty and lack of animals commonly used for tillage in the area, Semoko has to contribute seed and also work in her neighbours’ fi elds, and after the harvest, they give her something for her labour.
“This year, I had no seed and fertiliser to contribute to my neighbours’ production, so I did not get anything. Last year, I had seed but there was another drought. My neighbours only gave me 30kg of maize for my contribution,” she said.
According to the WFP Communications Officer, Ms Catherine Robar, her organisation is working in line with the government’s goal to improve the livelihoods of people like Semoko, through the national food security programme.
She explained Lesotho has suffered two successive crop failures, compounding other socioeconomic challenges such as unemployment, HIV, whose prevalence rate is at 23percent and the third-highest in the world, and high number of orphans, which is at 360 000.
Lesotho’s population is 1,8million.
“In view of the food crisis, we have implemented the Emergency Assistance Operations Programme, which is aimed at providing food to 289,195 benefi ciaries who were hard-hit by drought. The programme will end in December this year,” Robar said.
She further explained the WFP’s aim is to improve the food consumption of 113,295 most vulnerable people through targeted group-feeding, while 5 900 beneficiaries are being supported through the Prevention of Acute Malnutrition Programme.
“Under the same programme, we are also making efforts to protect the livelihoods of 170 000 people and reduce the hazard risk at community level through the Cash for Assets and Food for Work projects.”
The Food for Work component targets communities living in hard to reach areas, Robar said these are provided with food because it is not easy for them to access shopping facilities.
Robar further explained that the School Meals Programme, which will run until December 2014, is currently assisting 125 000 beneficiaries from the areas severely affected by drought. The number of beneficiaries is expected to increase to 150 000 by next year.
“Through this programme, we aim to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies among primary school pupils, increase enrolment, stabilise attendance and reduce dropout rates. The programme is helping to strengthen government’s capacity to manage the School Meals Programme,” she said.
The food basket consists of fortified maize meal, pulses, fish, fortified vegetable oil, sugar and salt. The WFP has also designed a five-year programme which would assist 447,600 vulnerable households countrywide.
“Starting this year, 124 500 beneficiaries are targeted,” Robar said, adding the programme is made up of three components meant to improve the food security of 10 000 beneficiaries through disaster risk-reduction projects.
“The other component will support human development and improve socioeconomic capacities by investing in people’s physical wellbeing,” she said.
Robar also said the third component would seek to increase the enrolment of 50 000 preschool children and also work towards improving the nutritional status of 64, 500 people.
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