Maseits’iro Seits’iro sits down at a table in her small office and lights four tall candles so she can receive prophecies from the ancestors. A seashell beside the candles helps her see evil spirits, the “heathens.” As a child, she fought the call from ancestors who were telling her that she was born to be a traditional healer, herbalist, witch doctor—there are many names—but at the age of eighteen, her fate could no longer be denied and she went into training.
Now Seits’iro is one of the most well-known traditional healers in Lesotho and maintains two offices, one in the countryside and one just outside the capital, Maseru. People travel to her because they are hexed, because their spouses no longer love them, because they have a common cold, and also because Seits’iro says that she can cure HIV. She advertises her services on her weekly radio program, and people call in attesting to her miracle cures. “I have healed so many people, but I don’t have the exact figures,” she tells me.
Seits’iro is not alone. Around seven other traditional healers have similar radio programs and make similar claims, while countless others buy short advertisement spots between programs to spread word of their cures. The market in Lesotho is ripe. Somewhere around 23 percent of the population of this tiny country has HIV. Meanwhile, because Basotho often try to hide their HIV status, they avoid going to government clinics to receive free antiretrovirals, for fear of being singled-out as HIV positive. In front of Seits’iro’s house—the nicest in her neighborhood by far—patients line up for her services under a hot sun. No one shares their condition—maybe they’re here because they have the flu—but the unspoken seems obvious.
More than cures, Seits’iro sells hope. “I do consider myself as a good samaritan, helping unchain people from HIV slavery,” she says. “The reason why I have so many patients is because people share how I helped them, and they come flocking to my home.”
When Letsatsi found out that she was HIV positive, a doctor told her that she should begin an antiretroviral regimen right away. Her mother had heard a woman on the radio, a traditional healer called Maseits’iro Seits’iro, who advertised that she could cure HIV. Traditional healers, or herbalists, are an ancient part of the culture in Lesotho, a small mountain kingdom in southern Africa, so Letsatsi and her husband, who’s also HIV positive, paid Seits’iro a visit. At twenty-four, Letsatsi is eager to begin a family, she says, and hopes that, with Seits’iro’s help, they can “beat HIV so we can have children.” She and her husband have been going back to Seits’iro once a month for an herbal powder that supposedly cures HIV. The price starts at 450 maloti—around $32—each month, a hefty amount for an unemployed Basotho couple. When they told Seits’iro they could no longer afford her herbs, she insisted they continue. So they began taking the herbs on loan.
Now in debt to Seits’iro, Letsatsi is still HIV positive; her husband, meanwhile, says he doesn’t have the nerve to retest. Still, they are hopeful that the herbs will eventually work their magic. After all, the doctors at the medical clinic can’t offer what Seits’iro offers—the hope of complete healing.
According to UNICEF, Lesotho has the second-highest HIV rate in the world, with women aged fifteen to twenty-four being the most afflicted, with an infection rate of 10.5 percent. Given the magnitude of this crisis, it’s no wonder miraculous cures like Seits’iro’s are popular. When the prognosis is this poor, one looks for just an ounce of hope to hold onto.
Malefetsane Liau is the head of the Traditional Healers Association and this is his definitive answer.
But then, after a moment’s pause, a caveat. A translator translates his Sesotho into English: “Despite that, we are servants of the spirits.”
“And the angels,” Malefetsane pipes in, in English.
“Servants of the spirits and the angels,” the translator continues. “We cannot dispute that the ancestors and the angels have powers. There is nothing they cannot heal.”
Have you ever witnessed someone cured of HIV?
“We don’t want to dwell on miracles,” Malefetsane says, speaking in English now. “What we want is to sit here and support the body of the person with vitamins, but some miracles, we have seen them!”
Could I interview someone who was cured?
“We don’t want to dwell on miracles,” Malefetsane repeats. He sits in the kitchen of his home in Maseru. Large dried herbs are scattered on his table like pieces of crusted squid. Medicine bottles filled with vitamins and supplements are piled on top of one another—a true homeopath’s home.
The problem in Lesotho, Malefetsane continues, is that its people are forgetting their culture. He sees the traditional healers as a vital link between the Basotho and their ancient traditions, which modernity is erasing—foreign doctors telling young boys to be circumcised at too young an age, for example. After all, there are illnesses a medical doctor cannot address.
“We have got some light tea like herbs that are rich in minerals and vitamins. We can drink it twice in a day, no problem,” he says. “This one (antiretrovirals), I ask myself some questions. Is it healthy or at the end of the day, will it kill a person?”
Her voice is delicate and her English superb, despite her poverty. She lives in a shack down the way from her friend, a nurse, the neighbor who encouraged her to seek help at the clinic after she found out five years ago, at fifty, that she was HIV positive.
She needed the encouragement. At first she revealed her status to no one but her daughter, her only child. Her husband wanders in and out of the picture.
“I just cried and cried, and the people where I had tested, they called me after three weeks to see if I had gone to a clinic. I just turned them down,” she says.
Taking antiretrovirals hasn’t been easy. At first she was nauseated, and so dizzy she was falling down. Her body acclimated to the drugs but she still finds it difficult to eat well enough to keep her immune system strong. Buying bottled water and healthy food requires money, and she spends what little she has to go to a private clinic, where she must pay for her antiretroviral therapy. When asked why, she replies, “I hate queues.”
But then she catches herself. She says that she must tell the truth. It’s really because she doesn’t want to be discovered at a government HIV clinic.
“In the clinics in Lesotho, we know that if you are in the queue then you are HIV positive. People don’t want to be identified, but they still want to be healed.”
She knows that witch doctors are claiming they have the cure. Even some pastors do so in front of their congregations. She is religious herself, volunteers at her church, and is not one to deny God’s healing. But the way she sees it, regarding those who say they can cure HIV, “God has given you that power. Why should you charge?”
“The whole world has already committed to ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030, and there is so much happening all around us in neighboring states,” Alti Zwandor, the country director of UNAIDS in Lesotho, tells me. “As a country, Lesotho has been left behind.”
At Senkatana, the main public HIV clinic in Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, a social worker makes notes on a patient’s file. Antiretrovirals are stacked on top of one another on her desk, and just outside the room more patients are lined up, waiting their turns, files in hand. The clinic is in Maseru’s outskirts, not easily reached by public transportation. All the people walking on the street that leads to Senkatana are presumed to be HIV positive.
Lesotho is a long way off from UNAIDS’s goal of ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030. Infection rates are averaging around 3 percent, according to the health minister, ‘Molotsi Monyamane. He said international NGOs were partially to blame for the crisis. The director of UNAIDS blamed the government’s capacity to absorb donor funds. Lesotho’s topography—most of the nation is covered by dramatic mountain ranges, snow-covered in the winter—makes it difficult to reach its rural population. Moreover, Lesotho is extremely poor, and poverty tends to make health crises perpetuate.
“It’s a lot of rubbish. It doesn’t happen only in Lesotho. It happens all around the world,” Monyamane says. “There are people who say that if they pray for you, then the AIDS will disappear. But how can you stop it? It’s someone’s choice. They know treatment is free.”
This essay is part of our #VQRTrueStory project, a social-media experiment in nonfiction that delivers stories across platforms. Each week, a contributor takes over our Instagram feed, @vqreview, to post original dispatches that tell the stories behind the pictures. The dispatches are then published on our website, and two are selected for inclusion in each issue of the magazine. You can visit the #VQRTrueStory archive to read all the contributions so far. And be sure to follow @vqreview to keep up with the project as it unfolds.
Reporting for this project was made possible by an International Reporting Project fellowship.