Interview: “The fact of communities being central, has always been my language”

Interview: “The fact of communities being central, has always been my language”

We have had the honour to interview His Royal Highness Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso of the Kingdom of Lesotho. As a strong advocate for community leadership and former head of state, he spoke about the way to go to end AIDS, about Lesotho’s high HIV prevalence, his personal dedication and about Sentebale the organisation he co-founded with Prince Harry of England.

Why is community leadership so crucial in tackling problems?

Well, for instance, who else but a chief knows how many pregnant women live in that particular village? What if we equip this chief with messaging around prevention of mother-to-child transmission, the importance of pre- and post-natal care, vaccinations and more? And it’s not only chiefs. It’s that integral network of key players, such as church leaders, traditional healers and teachers, critical to accelerate our interventions for an AIDS-free generation.

Another example is talking to your son about sex. A difficult space to be in for most men. How do we make them discuss these sensitive issues? If we indigenise by involving people in the community, they can develop language that makes it easier to talk to their children.

So the fact of communities being central, has always been my language of how I think we should be tackling issues and having interventions.

Can you tell a consequence of poor community involvement?

I will give an example of my local clinic. Someone in my village whispered to me: are you aware that behind the clinic, there is piles and piles of tuberculosis medication? I went there and found it. The nurse actually was happy to see the numbers, because there was an incentive by government to come and test for TB. But outside the medication had been thrown away. So people were still dying.

How can we together, through your professional messaging and through my traditional responsibility, make sure that the health of my people is well maintained? For many, a traditional healer is the first one to call when falling sick. If you ignore that particular sector, what will they do? The message from the top needs to resonate with each layer of leadership, for that message to have a sustained impact on the ground.

How do you see young people’s role in the HIV response?

If we can keep children free of HIV, that is half the battle. At the same time, interventions have to meet young people’s needs. These youngsters reprimanded me that they are not the future, they are the present. They have to be there when we draw up strategies! Because they are here today and they are here tomorrow when we are gone.

Where does your dedication come from?

Using my influence to create change has always been a part of me. From a very young age my parents -they are late now- introduced us that we are born privileged. Thus, we need to take deliberate steps to make interventions where and how we can. A chief’s house is a refuge, for those who are marginalised. So this is so interesting, to be part of the whole endeavour to improve the lives of children and adolescents and to engage all of us in the fight to eradicate HIV and AIDS.

What has caused Lesotho having the second highest HIV prevalence in the world?

From day one, nobody wanted to talk about it. You know we have many men working in the South African mines, this was part of this explosion of incidences. Ignorance was also a key barrier in those days. Sadly enough, even today taboo and stigma impede people to freely come out of the closet.

In the meantime AIDS wasn’t waiting. We had to reinvent messages and language for people to come out in the open and become part of the solution. As a traditional leader I’m working in the communities, but this is where the education and information haven´t reached. Clinical staff often comes to a village, operating well-intended but independent of structures that people are comfortable with. In partnership and with community involvement the impact would be bigger and more sustainable.

So there is a whole combination of causes why we are second on the list. We need to get our act together and show political leadership. Not only pontificating, but showing by getting our hands dirty in the communities.

What are you hoping to achieve with your own organisation Sentebale?

I want Sentebale to be out of existence in 20 years. If we do our work perfectly well, with everybody else, we won’t have new HIV infections. But I live in the realm of reality. Ugly as it is. We see successes behind us, but in front we see new challenges. So it’s an ongoing journey and the next generation needs to take over.

When Prince Harry of England and myself started Sentebale in 2006, we saw a lot of children and young people in Lesotho falling through the cracks. So we put exit strategies in place in orphanages, among others. Because at the age of 16, the young person is literally pushed out into the street. Beyond that, what skills does this person have? What resilience? Especially adolescent girls need skills to stand on their own two feet, so they don´t become preyed on with empty promises and HIV infection by the end of the day.

The word Sentebale means ‘forget me not’. It was our message to the world not to forget Lesotho but more importantly, to not forget a Lesotho child.

Portrait of Prince Seeiso Portrait of Prince Seeiso

What do you call upon current head of states when it comes to ending AIDS?

The world needs to keep its eye on the ball that community-based interventions are best. It´s not the silver bullet, though a crucial one. Having resilience and resources in communities is a very important and integral part of our HIV response in Africa.

 

His Royal Highness Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso of the Kingdom of Lesotho is Principal Chief of Matsieng. He served as the President of the Senate of Lesotho from 2015 to 2017. His charity Sentebale supports organisations working with Lesotho's disadvantaged young people and children, particularly those orphaned by AIDS. In 2019 Prince Seeiso joined Champions for an AIDS-free Generation in Africa, a committed group of former presidents and influential African leaders that supports regional leaders towards ending the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat.

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