Behind those smiles it was clear they desperately needed care, attention and above all, love.The Duke of Sussex
Eleven years ago I made my first visit to Lesotho, with the help of Prince Seeiso. As we travelled the country I was amazed by its raw beauty; but I was also struck by the many children I met whose lives had been shattered by the loss of a parent and in some cases both. I couldn’t believe that so many children had been robbed of their childhoods by extreme poverty and the ravages of HIV and AIDS. Behind those smiles it was clear they desperately needed care, attention and above all, love.
Although our situations couldn't have been more different, I felt an overwhelming connection to many of the children I met. They were far younger than me, and of course, their situation was a great deal more challenging than my own. Nonetheless, we shared a similar feeling of loss, having a loved one, in my case a parent, snatched away so suddenly. I, like them, knew there would always be a gaping hole that could never be filled. For so many of the children in Lesotho, that situation was compounded by the harsh environment and extreme poverty they faced. At the age of just eight or nine taking on the responsibility of caring for brothers and sisters there was simply no time for being a child anymore.
Experiencing this first hand in 2004 put all my experiences and worries into perspective. From that moment, it wasn't a question of when but how quickly could we put something in place which could help these children, robbed of the carefree childhood many across the world enjoy.
It was already obvious to me that a great deal of valuable work was being done by local people across these communities. But it was also clear that the volunteers and organisations weren’t able to attract the financial support they needed, as attention was rarely drawn to Lesotho. Prince Seeiso and I felt that we could make a meaningful and long-term difference to these children by starting a charity which could draw attention and funds to these grassroots organisations. From the start, our approach was all about working with partners, after all, they were the ones with knowledge and expertise of working in such a unique and challenging environment.
We have learned a great deal over the last ten years; our focus has broadened beyond providing for a child's basic needs to include specialist care, life skills and vocational training. Research showed us that children living with HIV received little support to help them deal with the social and psychological challenges of their condition. As a result they felt isolated and afraid to face up to their illness.
The theory of our Mamohato camp is simple - if children have the chance to share with each other how HIV affects them and how they cope with it in a safe and accepting environment, they will lead healthier, more well-adjusted lives. Through these camps, children learn about their condition and can then share this knowledge with their peers once they return home. In addition, sessions in hygiene, nutrition and anti-retroviral therapy, as well as HIV-focused games, sports, arts, crafts and drama all help to inform while boosting self-confidence.
These activities improve the physical and emotional wellbeing of the children and young people, helping to breakdown stigma, increase self-esteem, self-worth, adherence to anti-retroviral therapy and ultimately, life-expectancy. By giving children the tools to cope, we are empowering the youth of Lesotho to play their part in the future of this beautiful country.
This centre is now the heart of Sentebale, situated on the hallowed ground of Thaba Bosiu in the country that is our home, Lesotho; it represents how far we have come as a charity but more importantly how much more we want to achieve.
Much has already been accomplished. Sentebale and its partners have provided residential care for 5000 orphans, delivered ¼ million hours of psychosocial support and, this year alone, tested 13,000 adults and children for HIV – 62% of whom were women and girls.
But there is no room for complacency; the scale of the challenge remains significant. Lesotho still has the second highest rate of HIV in the world and UNAIDS estimates that only 30% of adolescents believed to be living with HIV in this country are accessing medication. The Momahato Children's Centre will enable us to reach many more of these children than has previously been possible. We will increase the number of those attending camps from 400 to 1500 per year – which represents 29% of our target adolescent group.
Many countries face the challenge of HIV and AIDS, particularly across Southern Africa. In fact, according to UNAIDS, HIV remains the number 1 cause of death amongst adolescents in Africa. We hope the Momahato Children's Centre will become a centre of excellence for the region; allowing us to share this valuable local knowledge and experience with partners in other countries.
I would like to end by thanking His Majesty The King for gifting Sentebale the land on which the centre is built and for his and The Queen's continued support for our work. Thanks to all our donors and supporters for sharing in this vision – your help will transform the level of support and training we can provide across the region.
And finally to our partners and team on the ground, thank you, please keep doing what you do, where ever you are, as your work really does change lives.