Lesotho’s Food for Work programme in the 1960s.

…in conversation with my father, Ted Nettelton, former District Commissioner, Mokhotlong, Lesotho.

I’ve seen the photos of literally hundreds of women wielding picks on rocky mountains passes, so I asked my father to tell me more about Lesotho’s Food for Work programme of the 1960s.

Here’s what he said:

The work gangs were made up of about 70% women and 30%men and we always started these projects in close proximity of the villages. While that entailed a lot of extra expense in getting bags of mealie meal, oil, etc, to often remote areas, it was very worthwhile as it enabled these women to achieve work for the five hours in the morning then go home and prepare the evening meal. They would get their food payment after three weeks and the food was delivered either to their village or within easy reach.

The plan was developed after I requested a meeting with the Director of the World Food program who came to talk at an Oxfam conference, and he enthusiastically supported the concept.

We spread the word about the scheme and there was no shortage of takers from the local community. We said we could work on a road or work or a dam to water stock, and it was the villagers who decided what they wanted to do. Usually there was no problem getting consensus and I believe the villagers felt great enthusiasm at the fact they were involved in making those decisions.

The implements were basic: wheelbarrows, picks, shovels. There was no machinery and the government gave us no help to buy the picks and shovels. It all came from Oxfam.

The programme started in the Mokhotlong district while I was DC. It continued during the time I was in Maseru working as Independence Officer and later, when I was secretary to Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan. The PM and I were really good friends and when I said I thought my role in a senior position government should go to a Masotho, he gave me the role of Director of the Food Programme. For the next two years we worked closely together so that when I left the country in 1969, 14,000 people were working in Food Programme every day and 10,000 kids were getting lunch every day.

I was responsible for the programme getting the food that it needed. I travelled a lot throughout the country dealing with these schemes right throughout Lesotho and I didn’t depend on District Commissioners any more.

One of the problems was that due to difficult weather conditions, was that the roads got washed away very easily. There just wasn’t the infrastructure to maintain those roads. Some lasted. For example the road from Tlokeng to Letseng la Terai – that we began entirely with food aid - enabled us to get a road 22 miles long that connected those 200-400 miners to the roadhead.

During my first winter in Mokhotlong, I’d got a message that the people in Letseng la Terai were starving and I appealed to Oxfam who financed buying the food. I got all the government mules I could find and with a couple of people from my office, we struggled to get the food up to Letseng la Terai. The snow was so deep we had to go to the edge of the ridges to get up. But we got that food through and got home very late. We didn’t have to do that the next year because the road was there.

In time, the scheme was quite well provisioned so when one gang had completed its three weeks – whereupon it would be paid in food - the next gang would take over the picks and shovels. By the time the PM came on board, we had by then built up a reasonable stock of picks and shovels.

Another initiative was improving prenatal and antenatal care with more clinics. I remember there was one very remote section: Beverley Boulevard I called it – which went to hell and gone. Right out there! I had been able to rope in the guy who was director of the Red Cross and was head of the Native Recruitment Corporation in Lesotho and he was very helpful and able to get funds from outside. For many women who wanted pre-natal care it was a 4-hour walk to the nearest point where they could get medical assistance, so we built clinics. How on earth we managed to get a midwife to stay in some of these remote outposts, I don’t know. But we did and the nurses’ salaries were paid for by the Red Cross. We had quite a reservoir of trained Basotho nurses in Lesotho we could recruit and while I was in Mokhotlong we were never without a nurse in each of these outposts.

You can read more in The Memoirs of Spencer “Ted” Nettelton