LETTER FROM LESOTHO
Walking the Last Mile: Social Pensions for the Elderly.
Text and Photographs: Jeremy Wade Shockley
WORLDVIEW MAGAZINE Fall 2008 Vol. 21, NO. 3
The high mountains and rugged terrain that define the landscape of the Kingdom Lesotho stand in sharp contrast to the rolling farmlands of the surrounding South African provinces. Despite the proximity, the Basotho also have a culture and a way of life apart from their larger neighbor. The most perceptible division is economic: Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world. Many Basotho living a subsistence lifestyle, with the older generation often living well below established poverty levels. However a recently introduced pension scheme is helping to alleviate the burdens of old age, while empowering elders within their own communities.
Ntate Malefetsane lives on a small dusty road outside of Liphiring, a rural village in the southeastern corner of Lesotho. The small garden plots surrounding the yard are parched, after what had been an unseasonably dry month of February. His house is fashioned out of native limestone, bound with mud joints and covered in the traditional way using the available dry, coarse grass as thatching. A much older rondavel sits adjacent, the roof caved in, mortar walls soon to follow. This is where Malefetsane was born.
Like most Basotho, the day begins at dawn for Malefetsane. He gathers wild spinach and pumpkin leaves for cooking. This dish of vegetables, known as moroho, will most certainly be eaten alongside papa, the staple food in Lesotho. Papa is a white cornmeal mush, usually accompanied by vegetables and, less often, meat. Malefetsane lives alone, his simple lifestyle providing the very basics. Malefetsane is 67 years old. In three more years he will be eligible for a monthly pension of two hundred Maloti, an amount that will certainly alleviate the conditions of his life and provide added security during hard times.
The Social pension was introduced in November 2004. By 2006, 72,000 Basotho elders were receiving their pensions: 96% of those who are eligible and 3.6% of the total population. The pension is available to those people over the age of 70 and was recently increased to the sum of M200 per month, equivalent to $29 US Dollars. This amount may seem small by our North American standards, but it can easily equate to survival, education and respect in the increasingly challenging environment of Lesotho where the national motto of ‘Peace, Rain and Prosperity’ is becoming more symbolic of their hopes than the reality at hand.
The pension program in Lesotho is unique in a number of ways. The pension is a cash transfer scheme, where the recipients are responsible for spending the money as they see fit, thereby providing more flexibility than a food program alone. A recent study by Help Age International suggests that the money is spent on anything from food and clothing to health care and school fees for younger family members. The bulk of this allowance still goes toward food costs, but the flexibility provides for many other facets of day-to-day survival. In some circumstances this money is used to buy seeds or materials, whereby the pensioner can generate income from agriculture or small business, while still feeding themselves and their families.
David Croome of the National University of Lesotho (NUL) has been leading an interdisciplinary research project on the impact of old age pension in Lesotho. He explains that, “The study has provoked considerable international interest, mainly because Lesotho is by far, the least economically developed country in the world that is providing non-contributory old age pensions universally to almost all elderly citizens. Our ‘way forward’ may be to get support for bringing the elderly into a more prominent role in their communities. There is little advocacy for old people in Lesotho, but they could be involved much more.”
A primary objective of the research is to assess the impact of the pension on the family, household and community. The study concluded that elders coming from the poorest situations use the pension to better their family’s immediate needs, as well as their own. This money—most often spent wisely, according to research—helps to generate livelihoods, while investing in the community and ultimately the overall economy of Lesotho.
A good-natured woman, Rosina Jasong is the grandmother of four, and the recipient of a pension. Her house is clean and spacious, it is a tin-roof cement-block house built adjacent to the original round, mud and brick structure that now serves only as a cooking hut and storeroom. Rosina is surprisingly spry for 73 and highly involved in her community. Despite her age, Rosina tends a large vegetable garden and keeps chickens on the side. The younger children in the household share the workload, Rosina’s pension alleviates the financial burden of secondary school fees that might otherwise be unaffordable.
Many Basotho elders have become the primary caregivers for children and grandchildren, directly and indirectly affected by HIV/AIDS. This responsibility has had a substantial impact on their lives.
Hopefully the continued success of Lesotho’s pension scheme will lead to further increases in the pension budget as the cost of living continues to rise along with the demands put on older individuals in society. If empowering the old, educating the young and increasing the standard of living can begin with a mere $29USD, then perhaps the pension scheme of Lesotho and many other developing countries is worth a bit more consideration as we piece together a set of solutions to reduce poverty on a larger scale.
As I look back on the faces of Liphiring, my thoughts turn to Malefetsane and Rosina Jasong, and the challenges they and so many other Basotho face, as well as the fortitude of the older generation, and the growing importance of their role within the community. Hardships aside, Basotho are easy to smile and generous in nature. I am sure that high hopes (and a pension check) will continue to play an important role in the future of this small country.
Jeremy Wade Shockley is a freelance photographer based out of Colorado. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Berea District of Lesotho from 2003 to 2005. This article and the accompanying photographs were produced during a return trip to Lesotho in 2007. Jeremy’s images can be viewed online at FedoraPhoto.com.