The search for Lesotho’s most vulnerable families

In rural areas, many of the families who are struggling the most aren’t receiving the help they need, simply because they are unknown to the Government

By Jasmine Pittenger
A toddler looks toward the camera
UNICEF Lesotho/2017/Pittenger
28 November 2017

In rural Lesotho, many of the families who are struggling the most aren’t receiving the help they need, simply because they are unknown to the Government. A new initiative aims to find and register every vulnerable family by mid-2018, so no child will go without food and social protection.

HA TŠEPO, Lesotho, 28 November 2017 – A cloud of yellow dust blows into the group sitting on the ground at the village centre. Toddlers run, legs wobbly, to bury their faces in the open arms of their mothers, as the women pull down kerchiefs to protect their eyes. But community mobilizer Tlaleng Maimane keeps talking.

“You are saying you're all poor here. But some can make ends meet,” she says. “You are all struggling, but the level of struggle is different.”

“Yes. Today it may be me struggling,” says a man in a threadbare polo shirt, shielding his eyes as he stands to speak. “Tomorrow it may be someone else.”

“This is why we are here to do the categorization,” says Maimane. “You who are gathered here will tell us how you live in your village, based on five categories: money, food, cultivated fields, herd animals and education.”

Across southern Africa's remote Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, in tiny villages like this one, UNICEF and the Government have taken on a massive task, with EU funding. They aim to reach every single poor and vulnerable household in the country by mid-2018, with the goal of adding each person to a database called NISSA (National Information System for Social Assistance).

The undertaking is unprecedented. But the benefits that NISSA brings to the children and families of Lesotho – especially to the most vulnerable – are even more unprecedented.

UNICEF Lesotho/2017/Pittenger

"In this country, we know almost all cannot make ends meet," says NISSA mobiliser Tlaleng Maimane to the crowd of villagers. "But we're going to see how you live, and who needs help the most."

Life-saving assistance for families in need

“NISSA is so vital because it allows us to work to cushion the living standards of the poorest of the poor, in the remotest corners of Lesotho. Unlike in many other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, even the poorest citizen of Lesotho has one or two meals a day to eat. This is in large part due to social protection institutions that work,” says UNICEF's NISSA Specialist, Godfrey Kyama.

The goal now is to find the remaining children, families and elderly people who are still in danger of falling through the cracks. “We are already finding tiny villages, in remote areas, that had never before been documented,” says Kyama. “About 2 to 3 per cent of the poorest of the poor that we are finding had never been found before.”

NISSA allows these families to access to several sources of critical support, including the Child Grants Programme, special assistance provided to orphans and vulnerable children, general public assistance and old age pensions. The NISSA database will also allow beneficiaries to receive mobile payments. This cuts down on the monthly two-day journeys that some of the sickest, poorest and most vulnerable are now forced to endure, in order to receive government assistance. Mobile messaging will also be provided to beneficiaries in the remotest of Lesotho's mountain villages, on topics like HIV and AIDS prevention and care. This is particularly crucial in a country with the second-highest HIV infection rate on earth, where one in every four people lives with HIV.

And NISSA has already proven vital in emergencies. When Lesotho declared a state of emergency in 2015 due to a massive ongoing drought, NISSA was instrumental to UNICEF determining the level of need and recipients of cash grants. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) used NISSA to provide agricultural kits for poor and vulnerable families, allowing them to create small food gardens. And World Food Programme (WFP) used it to identify families in need of food parcels.

Two women sit on the ground, Lesotho
UNICEF Lesotho/2017/Pittenger
'Malekaota Maanela, 51, is one of the villagers whose family was classified as ultra-poor. "You should see me dance," says Maanela. "On the day help comes, I will dance so low that you will think I'm a grain of rice."

The ‘rural rich’ and the ultra-poor

Back in Ha Tšepo, the dust storm is dying down. The villagers listen intently as Maimane, the community mobilizer, leads them through the steps of classifying the poorest of the poor. In a village this small, the crowd has a clear sense of how vulnerable their neighbors may be.

Maimane calls out the surname of one family living in the village.

“Do they have fields?” she asks.

“Yes, M'me,” the crowd answers.





“How many? Less than ten?”

The crowd knows the animals right down to the last goat and chicken. The family’s small number of livestock indicates they are likely some of the ‘rural rich’.

When the next surname is called, the crowd lets out a deflated “Aooo, M'me.”

“That family has nothing. They are ultra-poor,” explains one woman. “A shame, that family. Poor things. No crops, no animals, no children in school. The woman who heads the household earns the little she can by hiring herself out as a day labourer in the fields.”

Waiting for help to arrive

Later, sitting in the shade of a pine tree, 'Malekaota Maanela, the 51-year-old woman whose family has been categorized as ultra-poor, speaks. Her voice is strained.

“I am not happy that my family is ultra-poor, but I am okay with what the community said. It's because, as we speak, my husband is ill and bedridden. I have to stay home and care for him. I also have one child and two grandchildren who live with me. I hope to get any support possible.”

“I was also called 'ultra-poor,'" says another woman. "I'm happy with it. The villagers know I'm struggling. I have two daughters and one grandchild who are all mentally disabled. My hope, as a result of today, is to have any form of help. I will receive it with both hands, knowing it comes from love.”

Maanela chimes in, her voice loosening in her throat:

“You should see me dance,” she says. “On the day help comes, I will dance so low that you will think I'm a grain of rice.”