From one kingdom to another

A Kerry bookshop and one man’s dream brought hope to a Lesotho community, says Peter Geoghegan

WHEN asked about the Munster jersey he is wearing, Ntate Linne Mankoe laughs and says, “I was born in the wrong country, I should have been born in Ireland.”

Above us, the ferocious Lesotho sun traces a slow path across a clear afternoon sky.

Mankoe is an unlikely Munster fan. Soft-spoken with short black hair, he lives in Maputsoe, near the border with South Africa. Until a few years ago Mankoe was eking out a meagre existence as a farmer — now he is the general manager of Action Lesotho, an Irish NGO.

“Since I started working with the Irish I have realised that they are hard workers. I like that,” he says. “Whatever they say, they do.”

Action Lesotho is not your average NGO. There are no flashy international headquarters or globe-trotting management. Action Lesotho has only one member of staff from Ireland and a handful of volunteers working behind the scenes in Cork and Kerry, and across Ireland. Much of the budget comes from a second-hand bookshop in the Mall in Tralee.

“When people ask about what we do in Action Lesotho, I always say two things: building capacity and improving access to resources,” says Paul Hanrahan, chairman of Action Lesotho’s board of directors.

Most people in Lesotho have little or no access to vital resources. “In Ireland you’re very close to hitting the ground when you fall but at least we have social welfare. In Lesotho, there isn’t any of that,” says Hanrahan.

Originally from Limerick, he ‘blew into’ Tralee 35 years ago. Action Lesotho was founded in 2006 after a chance meeting between Hanrahan, who was chairman of Kerry Action for Development Education, and the then ambassador to Ireland, Manette Ramaili, in Tralee.

“She told me that Lesotho was a kingdom. I said to her, ‘we are a kingdom here, too’.”

The links developed from there: Hanrahan travelled to Lesotho to get a sense of the issues on the ground. Father Tim Wrenn, a priest from Munster working in Maputsoe, convinced Hanrahan and Action Lesotho to focus their attention on a border town dominated by huge factories and often neglected by aid agencies.

“Father Tim said, ‘please don’t go any further. No one works in Maputsoe. Can’t you work here?’,” recalls Pippa Kearon, who left a job in adult education in Waterville to take up an Irish Aid-funded management consultant position at Action Lesotho two years ago.

I meet the energetic Kearon in a sturdy, squat concrete building about a mile down a dirt track from the main road into Maputsoe. This is the Action Lesotho centre. Books line the walls. There is a computer room and a large reception area for the feeding programme that provides meals to hundreds of orphans every weekend.

Financed by donations from Ireland, the centre was built in 2009 by a group of ten volunteers from Bantry, Co Cork and Kerry.

Lesotho, as Paul Hanrahan quickly discovered, is a challenging place to work. The HIV epidemic has exacted a terrible toll: average life expectancy is just 41. More than two-thirds of the local Basotho people live on less than $2 a day. “The humanitarian needs were overwhelming,” says Hanrahan of his first visit to Lesotho. But he realised that meeting immediate needs was not enough. “We needed a longer-term strategy.”

Action Lesotho is halfway through a three-year plan to build capacity in the communities in which it works. The group now employs ten people; only Kearon is not a Basotho. Food security is a burning issue in Lesotho, as the country struggles to deal with the impact of shorter growing seasons and late-arriving rains. Action Lesotho now runs a farm on previously neglected land near Maputsoe: a quarter of the yield of each field goes to the owner, with the rest being used to serve the community. The aim is, eventually, to turn a profit. Based in part on designs supplied by Kerry designers, the Lesotho Mountain crafts project works with local weavers. “We are doing everything from business skills to new product design to how to market at home and abroad,” says Kearon. The results are encouraging — tops, baby clothes, traditional conical Basotho hats, all locally produced.

Action Lesotho is building on well-established links between Ireland and the southern African kingdom. At more than 37 years, Lesotho is Ireland’s longest-running aid programme. Action Lesotho is part of a long-standing connection between the two countries, Irish ambassador Gerry Gervin told the Irish Examiner when we met at the embassy in Maseru.

Some might wonder why, at a time when so many in Ireland are struggling, people are ploughing time and money into a country thousands of miles away. Paul Hanrahan has no such doubts.

“We still have to keep a global awareness. (The Irish) have something to bring as a country to other emerging nations. We have an empathy and an understanding. That’s why the Basotho and the Irish get on so well. We are just two generations away from the same thing.”

Peter Geoghegan’s journey to Lesotho was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.


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