The militia that fight the cancer war
by Mesh Moeti Interview
Botswana’s war on cancer is being fought by a small conventional force, supported by an ill-equipped guerilla outfit that is driven by passion alone. The standing army, in this case, would be the two oncologists, two pathologists and less than five gynaecologists based in the only two referral centres in Francistown and Gaborone that offer cancer care facilities for the entire country. And mind you, radiation therapy is offered only at Gaborone Private Hospital.
With patients having to travel long distances to access both diagnostic and curative care for cancer, it naturally follows that many are bound to fall through the cracks. So who is there to hold the net so that when the inevitable fall happens, the pain is eased somewhat?
Enter the guerillas, those who give their time to augment government’s efforts, not out of any expectation for any material gain but to restore hope of those affected by the disease.
For the past three years, work for Lettie Mosimi, a social sciences graduate, has been leading a five-person operation, two of whom are volunteers. The wider network, outside the office, includes 30 other trained volunteers divided between Francistown and Gaborone.
Welcome to the Cancer Association of Botswana (CAB), a charitable NGO established as a trust in 1998. Throughout the years, CAB has become a major player in supplementing existing cancer services through provision of health promotion programmes, facilitating access to health services for cancer patients and offering support and counselling to those affected.
Mosimi, CAB’s executive director, explains that the organisation’s work revolves mainly around three programmes: Support (psychosocial support and hope to cancer patients, their families and the communities they live in), Care (an interim care home that provides temporary accommodation for cancer patients while they receive treatment in Gaborone), and Education (increasing cancer awareness among the public through health education and promotion).
“We also try to improve cancer care by supporting training of health care workers on cancer management,” she says.
When you ask her to enunciate the challenges, she lists financial constraints, lack of skilled fulltime personnel to offer both care and psychosocial support to the patients, limited accommodation for patients, as well as inability to expand the association nationwide (a direct consequence of inadequate funding).
“The major, major frustration is lack of funding,” she states. “This is a donor-driven organisation. If there is no money coming in, as the executive director it’s like you are not performing. But we constantly submit funding proposals to different companies which are always turned down. Infact, this year has been the worst.”
I ask her to paint the money situation in graphic terms.
“Currently,” she states, “we only have money that can take us through the remaining months of this year and maybe the first two months of next year. After that I don’t know what is going to happen.”
The situation, as just painted, makes the dream that Mosimi shared at last month’s fundraising dinner sound so hollow.
“We wish to expand our reach and have a national scope so that our services can be accessed countrywide,” she had told guests at the P600-per-plate event. “We want to reach cancer patients, their families and relatives as well as those that do not have cancer.”
Today, as we are crammed in her small office within the caravan that is the organisation’s HQ, I sense a bit of exasperation. It is understandable, given the circumstances. For instance, take the long-wished-for plan to open another Francistown office. The move has been on hold for five years even though office space has been offered.
So why hasn’t it been done?
“Why hasn’t it been done?” she repeats. “We need money to equip the office before it can be opened. We need computers, desks, chairs, staff, cupboards, photocopiers, fax machine – everything that makes an office.”
It’s a clarion call for cover from a warrior stuck in the battle trenches.
I can’t help asking Mosimi where the job satisfaction is given the brickwalls she gets to bang her head against each day.
“For me, this is not just another job,” she says. “It’s about passion that comes from lived experiences.”
Decoded, it means she has been affected by cancer before she even knew what it was. She lost a grandmother to cervical cancer, her best friend and roommate at UB to leukemia, and a cousin to breast cancer.
“When all these things happened in my life, I was curious. I kept asking myself, ‘what is cancer?’ ‘Why is it not curable?’ I remember hearing big words like leukemia, not cancer of the blood, and I remember saying, ‘what is leukemia?’
“I used to accompany my friend to Princess Marina Hospital, and with each visit there was a reduction in her red blood cells and white blood cells because the cancer was eating them. She eventually died in 2006 when we were in second year. As for my cousin we had a lot of hope for full recovery because her breast had been removed. But when she went for a scan, it was realised that the cancer had spread to her lungs and bones. That led me to do my own research and reading on cancer. At the time, I didn’t know about CAB. From my own research I learnt that there are different cancers, whereas previously I had thought that it was just one disease. There are many other people today who are in the same situation, and they need this organisation to provide the answers and hope,” she says.
Ten members of Tshwaragano Adventure Trust will embark on an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro from the last week of September to raise funds for CAB as well as awareness about cancer. For further information and to pledge sponsorship, contact the Trust’s Communication Specialist, Tigele Mokobi at email@example.com or Treasurer, Nelson Nareetsile at firstname.lastname@example.org