Lesotho: A Country of Hope Amid Poverty

Bishop Bane on Famine, AIDS, the Decline of Polygamy

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ROME, AUG. 22, 2011 (Zenit.org).- In a country where 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, more than 20% of the population is afflicted with HIV/AIDS, and the average life expectancy is about 40 years, Bishop Augustinius Tumaole Bane remains hopeful for the future of his country.

Lesotho, also known as a "Kingdom in the Sky," is a small country about the size of Belgium surrounded, like an island, by South Africa.

Many of the villages consist of thatched huts, and are colorfully denoted by different flags indicating whether meat, alcohol or vegetables are for sale. These villages are very vastly distributed and some are only reachable by horseback or light aircraft.

Bishop Bane, who has led the Diocese of Leribe since 2009, spoke with the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, about the current situation of his country, and what he thinks is the country's biggest hope.

Q: Have you had the Catholic faith for a long time in your family or was it a recent conversion?

Bishop Bane: I would say that the Catholic faith in my family was recent because originally neither my father nor my mother was Christian. My father converted to Catholicism while in Italy during the Second World War, and was baptized in Italy. He was not married at that time.

He went back to Lesotho after the war and married my mother, who was also not a Christian. She converted on the day of the wedding.

Q: If I understand correctly, Lesotho has traditional Africa religions, so was it strange that your father came back from Italy as a Catholic?

Bishop Bane: No, it wasn't that strange because, in fact, Catholicism had already arrived in Lesotho in 1862. The Calvinists arrived in 1833, the Catholics arrived in 1862, and the Anglicans arrived in 1865.

Q: So, the Calvinists were the ones who first evangelized in Lesotho?

Bishop Bane: Yes. They did a good job through the teaching of the Bible and establishing schools, but then when the Catholics came in 1862, they came in big numbers and they spread easily all over and even in the remote parts of Lesotho. They established a lot of schools. The schools also served as churches on Sundays.

Q: When did you really know that God was alive and present for you?

Bishop Bane: There was a priest there on the special day of our confirmation who sung the "Ite missa est" at the end of the Mass. I said: "Oh! I would love to sing this," and the following day after my confirmation is when I realized that I wanted to become a priest; that was 1958.

Q: You entered the seminary at a very young age of 22, and from then on it was clear for you that it was the priesthood?

Bishop Bane: Yes, but it was on and off. I remember there was a time I decided to quit, but my parish priest told me that if I have focused on the priesthood, there will be some difficulties and that every time there is a difficulty I should not quit because life is like that and I should face it and not run away from it.

Q: What was the biggest encouragement to your priestly vocation?

Bishop Bane: There was a time when I was in the minor seminary my parish priest asked me to bring Holy Communion to a sick person about 50 kilometers (31 miles) away and I rode there on horseback because my parish priest was not well. When I arrived there the man looked very sick and after giving him Communion I saw such an expression of joy and peace on his face. This impressed me to a certain extent that I said I would like to serve people especially the sick and the dying. This confirmed my vocation.

Q: What about the obstacles -- your greatest difficulties in your discernment process?

Bishop Bane: There was a problem. My father and mother were first born and I am the first-born; the eldest son, and according to tradition and expectation of my tribe, I had to continue the line.

Q: What is your tribe?

Bishop Bane: It is Debele, the tribe that ran away from the Kingdom of Shaka Zulu because he was so cruel. Sometimes he would send his soldiers and at night and the soldiers would come back also with wives and children.

So, I was the eldest son and I was expected to continue the line, but then my father said: "No, if you want to become a priest it will not be a problem." In fact, my father was a catechist.

When my father died in 1971, just two months after I professed my vows with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, problems arose. My relatives questioned, as my father had passed away, who will provide for my five siblings? This was a big problem.

Q: This was a problem … but God provided?

Bishop Bane: Yes, my parish priest, who was Canadian, read the situation and said: "Well, Augustine, if you want to be a priest, go ahead, and in the meantime I will look after your brothers and sisters because your father was working with me."

Q: I now want to talk about the situation in Lesotho and the challenges. One of them is poverty. The UN has indicated that 40% of the population is "Ultra Poor." What does "Ultra Poor" mean and how can the Church help in this area of poverty?

Bishop Bane: I think "Ultra Poor" means moreover the uneven distribution of wealth. Those that have keep it for themselves and those who are poor have no means of improving their situation. That is why I say: the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer because of the unfairness and the uneven distribution of wealth.

Q: The food concerns in Lesotho I have are based on a U.N. report and I quote: "n 1980, cereal production met about 80% of the national requirements, in the 1990's it was contributing 50%, by 2004, however, cereal production in Lesotho was estimated to contribute only 30% of the national cereal requirements and this number is still falling." First of all: Why is the local agriculture declining? Why is this happening? Secondly, what will this mean for poverty?

Bishop Bane: The first factor that causes this diminishing in production is climate change. The rains are not coming. We have experience unexpected drought. In the past, we knew that September was the sowing and plowing season because of the rain. Now the weather is unreliable and unpredictable. So the people do not know when to plant, especially in the mountains. They know that September is the plow season and they say: "Well the seeds will wait until the rain comes," whereas in the lowlands they wait for rain. They plow only when rain comes. Sometimes it comes very late. For instance, now they plow in July and they expect some rain in August.

A little wheat has come out of the soil, but nothing noticeable. No snow in the mountains and no rain in the lowlands have caused the death of many of animals because of the lack of food. I would say that we are facing a famine. Most people are now unsure when they are able to harvest.

Q: Lesotho is a kingdom. You have King Letsie III. How important is his role within the political landscape in Lesotho?

Bishop Bane: The King plays the unifying role amidst all the diverse political parties and religions. They all respect and love him.

Q: He is a Catholic and he recently declared that he would no longer continue the tradition of polygamy, choosing only one wife now. How important was this as a sign -- because polygamy is still present in Lesotho?

Bishop Bane: In fact, in the beginning it was the chiefs and some wealthy people who practiced polygamy. Due to the lack of animals, however, because in order to have a wife it costs 25 head of cattle – it is a sign of wealth – it is less.

Q: Twenty-five head for each wife?

Bishop Bane: For each wife yes, so now people have begun to stay away from that, and in fact I can say there are very, very few who practice polygamy.

Q: About 23% of the young people between the ages of 15 and 40 have contracted HIV AIDS, making it one of the higher rates within Africa and the world. Why is it so prevalent in Lesotho?

Bishop Bane: It is so prevalent in Lesotho mainly because of the decline in morality. The Church has kept on teaching and preaching abstinence before marriage and faithfulness among married partners. I would say that in Africa as a whole, there has been lapse in morality, along with poverty and a lack of medicine. There now has been the introduction of Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs in the clinics, but before that it was very difficult.

Q: Is this not, however, a poor reflection on Catholic education? Catholic education is very strong as we said earlier. The majority of the population is Christian. Where has this education broken down that morality has been declining?

Bishop Bane: I would say that Catholicism has always played a big role in the lives of the people but most of the people are Catholics only on Sundays when they go to church services. During the week they are inclined to their own traditional way of living. So there is a separation between the faith and the day to day.

Q: How do you overcome this?

Bishop Bane: When I was growing up, in each village there was a prayer house where all could go and pray together and even teach the children of the village catechism, but as of late this is not the normal practice. That is why it is one of the present challenges to someone like myself. In my diocese, I want to re-introduce the teaching of catechism outside of the schools -- in the villages -- and to re-strengthen the catechetical training centers where we can invite people to be trained as catechists in order to teach catechism in the villages and out stations.

Q: There are approximately 180,000 HIV AIDS orphans and the grandparents now, because the parents have died, are obliged to look after the children. What kind of strain is this on the society?

Bishop Bane: This is a big strain on the society. Many young men and women die leaving orphans behind. I have experienced that in my family.

Q: …in your own family?

Bishop Bane: Oh yes, in my own family. We are two boys and my brother was a military man. The wife died in 2003 of AIDS and he died in 2006 leaving four children orphans. During the funeral of my brother I called the children in front so that the people could see that the children are going to be by themselves here. Now my sister looks after them.

Q: It is an enormous consequence for the country -- also economically -- because the death of the parents means the breadwinners are no longer there?

Bishop Bane: Yes, it is true. Now from the side of the Church, the Sisters of Charity from Ottawa have built a big orphanage. There are some NGO's that have orphanages in the country. The Church is helping those of religious organizations and the government is also trying to help. There are many who need help.

Q: Your Excellency, what would you say is your greatest hope?

Bishop Bane: There is hope in the future of the Church. For instance, our seminaries are full. In the diocese I have three seminarians, and 18 others in my major seminary. Clearly, for this spiritual growth, there is hope that Church will survive in the future.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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