Lifelekoaneng, Lesotho — Lifelekoaneng, Lesotho-- --She sat staring at me, her gaze more vacant than hard. Numb, maybe. Her feet were a dirty whitish, as if caked in chalk. A breeze rushed through the broken windows of her little house, billowing the tattered curtains.
Her last meal, a bowl of porridge eaten the previous afternoon, was but a memory. It was almost noon. "Are you hungry?" I asked Itumeleng Ntsane, an AIDS orphan who had just turned 13. The answer was obvious before she nodded and quietly said yes.
How could this happen, I wondered.
An article I had written nine months earlier about the plight of Itumeleng and her two brothers had provoked an outpouring of sympathy from readers - and $3,000. I had linked up with a local nonprofit group whose leader had wonderful ideas. I had transferred a bunch of money to Leso- tho months earlier.
This is the story of what happened after the checks were written by well-meaning readers, and of how difficult it can be to translate dollars into deeds that will bring lasting benefits to those suffering a world away.
Much criticism has been aimed at the aid industry: Western largess might help many people, but too often the cash winds up in corrupt hands. Or it fosters dependency, distorts local markets or has a fleeting impact.
I did not find any of that. But I did find plenty of cause for frustration.
Initially, I met an institutional unwillingness to help these specific kids. Then, once I found the local group, I encountered something else: a lack of follow-through that I charitably assumed was due to the crushing need. The sad fact, I heard time and again, is that the plight of AIDS orphans is normal in this southern African country, where one in four adults has HIV.
The story that ran Oct. 8 cataloged the grim life of Itumeleng Ntsane and her brothers. Rapelang, then 15, was the eldest. He and Itumeleng cared for big-eyed, 8-year-old Tokelo, who was born with HIV and recently underwent treatment for tuberculosis. First their father, then their mother had died of AIDS, leaving them in the care of a grandmother. Then she too got sick.
After she died on Christmas Eve 2005, they were on their own, with minimal guidance or help from others in the village. By the time I met them in September last year, what once might have been a fairly happy life had taken on the look of mere existence. They ate and wore little, seldom bathed. Rapelang had no shoes. No one smiled.
An information box accompanying my article invited readers to contribute to SOS Children's Villages, which runs a family-style orphanage in Lesotho. Gratifyingly, many readers gave.
Everyone knows that the best place for children is with their family, or at least their community. But the Ntsanes had no family to rely on, and the village chief had made clear her disdain, going so far as to blame them for becoming "wild." Under those circumstances, staying in their community seemed unhealthy.
My hope was that SOS would take the money came in and help the trio. But since the Ntsanes weren't "their kids," SOS did not want the money, which soon wound up in my bank account.
Meanwhile, officials from UNICEF and Family Health International wrote a letter to the editor calling orphanage-like facilities "highly flawed." Instead, they encouraged readers to contact two other groups, the Toronto-based Stephen Lewis Foundation and the Firelight Foundation of Santa Cruz, Calif.
By now, reader contributions had hit $1,600 en route to $3,000, and I had to figure out what to do. I contacted the foundations mentioned in the letter to the editor. I had interviewed Stephen Lewis for the original story, but his foundation was unable to help, nor was another he suggested.
I tried Firelight and spoke to Jennifer Anderson-Bahr, a senior program manager. Through her I learned of a grassroots organization called the Community Development and Peace Promotion Movement, CDPPM for short, that seemed perfect. It is led by people from Lesotho, not Westerners and, CDPPM's office sat mere miles from where the children were living. The group agreed to help the orphans but weeks after my initial contact I was still waiting for its leader, Thabo Rajoele, to email me the plan he had promised weeks earlier.
So I decided to return to Lesotho just before Christmas. The Ntsanes were not at home. Their other grandmother had taken them to stay with her in Maseru, the capital. Why she did not do more for them the rest of the year is an enduring mystery.
The trip was hardly a waste. In Mafeteng, just down the road from their home village, I met Rajoele and youth volunteers at CDPPM's small office. Also present was a Peace Corps volunteer named Lizzie Schoon who was working with the group. With smiles all around, I handed over an initial $115 to buy food for the three kids.