The Graff Leadership Centre, an hour or so north of Lesotho’s capital, Maseru – is a hive of activity. Stand by the front gate any day of the week and you would see dozens of children, youths and adults coming and going, grandmothers carrying goods on their heads and herd boys calling their sheep as they pass by. Everyone is welcome here. Some drop in for a game of dominos after school, while others will spend the day learning in the training rooms. Because, despite the popularity of its bustling playground, the Centre is much more than a place for fun.
Lives are transformed here every day in a series of programmes designed to help not just individuals but the wider community. The centre’s aim is to produce a generation of leaders who have the focus and vision to bring about much-needed change in Lesotho, and each person who walks through the gate is empowered to take action for the benefit of others. For while it can’t reach every one of the country’s two million people, it is equipping thousands of youngsters with the tools to help lift their nation out of poverty, illness and isolation.
Help Lesotho, the charity charged with running the centre on behalf of Laurence Graff’s foundation, FACET (For Africa’s Children Every Time), has a unique approach to the challenges of development work in southern Africa. Every programme teaches not only new skills but new strategies for building resilience and self-management.
Each participant is trained in how to deal with the inevitable trauma that comes with living in a land with the world’s third-highest rate of HIV/AIDS. And while, quite rightly, there is a strong focus on empowering girls and young women to forge their own futures, challenging gender inequality successfully means working with boys and young men too.
One such youngster is T’sepo. His story exemplifies the work of the centre, and how changing one life has the potential to change many. Of the centre’s 22 programmes, the Leaders in Training programme in which he participated is the most elite. It is an annual intensive two-month course for 65 youths who are poised to make a difference in their communities, hungry to secure jobs and support their families, and keen to contribute to the improvement of their country.
“There aren’t a lot of jobs in Lesotho, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done…”
Since its inception, course graduates have gone on to become pharmacists, government employees, teachers, nurses and police officers. Usually, they must have completed some tertiary education, but T’sepo had not even finished high school – his family had not been able to afford the fees. Nonetheless, the centre’s administrators made an exception to the rule when they saw he was so determined to make something of his life – in short, to be someone.
Looking back on the programme, he says, “The biggest lesson I learnt was that every decision I make has consequences, positive or negative, so I need to make the right decisions.” As the participants swapped news of their weekend activities on Monday mornings at the centre, T’sepo began noticing his own news was changing. One day, rather than boasting about drinking, he found himself shyly telling the group he had applied to volunteer at a youth conference in South Africa in order to meet others who were also passionate about leadership – and had been accepted. Now, a year later, he says, “Volunteering was a gateway for me. I’ve now been to several conferences and am part of groups that recognise that the youth has to do something to stop HIV/AIDS if we want a different future. I tell everyone I meet that they need to start volunteering. There aren’t a lot of jobs in Lesotho, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
One strand of the programme that really left its mark on T’sepo was learning about gender equality. He was astounded to learn that, in his country, 86 per cent of women and girls have experienced gender-based violence, such as rape or abuse, and that those who do are three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS. Yet most people in Lesotho do not see gender-based violence as a serious problem. Before his training at the Graff Leadership Centre, T’sepo had never thought it his responsibility to protect his female peers. Now he understands that the spread of HIV cannot be curbed if girls continue to be violated in such staggering numbers – and he has a role to play in changing that.
T’sepo shared a story from his own experience about a child forced into marriage – a common practice in Lesotho – that still haunts him to this day. When he was in high school, he became fond of a girl named Mpho. When her sister fell pregnant, her parents not only insisted she marry the father of the baby, but forced Mpho to marry as well, lest this shame be brought upon their family again. She was wedded to an abusive older man who was able to pay a good ‘bride price’. There was nothing T’sepo could do, he explains, still mourning the loss of his love. “This happened before I started studying at the centre, before I learnt about the rights of girls. Girls need to know their rights when it comes to marriage – it shouldn’t be a decision made by someone else.”
He wishes he could have protected Mpho from forced marriage, but he now knows what to do next time he sees a girl in trouble, and that he need not stand by simply feeling helpless. The programme gave him both the knowledge and the confidence to do the right thing – not only to secure a better tomorrow for himself but for others too.
Words by Kate Lambert.
Kate Lambert is a project manager at Help Lesotho, Graff ’s partner charity in Lesotho. Located in the small Lesotho town of Leribe, The Graff Leadership Centre has become a central meeting place for thousands of children, youth, grandmothers and villagers from neighbouring communities and schools. It offers a wide range or services from community and medical support to education and coaching.
For more information please visit: facet-foundation.org