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From community activist to diplomat

By Anca Gurzu      

When the foreign ministry of Lesotho offered Mathabo Tsepa the opportunity to become her country's next high commissioner to Canada, she had to think twice about it.

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When the foreign ministry of Lesotho offered Mathabo Tsepa the opportunity to become her country's next high commissioner to Canada, she had to think twice about it.

Having spent years as a grass-roots community activist and coming from the academic world, Ms. Tsepa was initially worried about how the appointment would impact her existing work. On second thought, however, she realized these experiences are exactly what put her at an advantage—not to mention her already-existing connections with Canada.

The high commissioner graduated in 2008 with a PhD from the University of British Columbia in environmental education. She went to Vancouver as a recipient of a Canada Commonwealth scholarship.

"Those people who supported my appointment argued that I had lived in Canada and I had already established relationships," she says. "Coming back to Canada was like coming back to a land of people whom I am already familiar with."

Growing up in a small village in Lesotho, and having been raised by her grandmother after losing her mother at birth, Ms. Tsepa said she wanted to be enrolled in a program that addressed issues of food security, which are critical in her country.

"We are dependent on land for food," she says. "I come from a farming family. I am a farmer myself."

While pursuing her doctoral studies in British Columbia, Ms. Tsepa also founded a small grass-roots community centre in her village called Mohoma Temeng. The purpose of the centre is to give orphans a better life. This is done by providing village women with things like chickens or fruit trees that can help feed the orphans and also generate income.

"I never imagined myself having the opportunity to come to Canada, let alone do a PhD," she says. "So I looked back and said 'How did I even make it here?' So this was something I did to give back to the orphans."

Ms. Tsepa initially used some of her scholarship money to kick-start the project. The centre has grown since then, and so have the sources of funding.

"Maybe one or two of [the orphans] will have the opportunity to get an education," she continues. "It may not be higher education, but it may be just enough education for them to live and improve their lives."

The high commissioner was working as a lecturer at the National University of Lesotho when she was offered the diplomatic appointment to Ottawa.

She says she was "a little bit concerned" at first about how this step might impact her community work.

"I had never worked for the government, and working for the government means a different way of behaving, a different way of doing things," she says.

Throughout her work with the centre, Ms. Tsepa says foundations and organizations "would state clearly that they would like their funding to go directly to the community, not the government." She was initially afraid that her appointment would affect that relationship.

"Then I decided to accept the appointment because I was thinking that maybe a community activist like myself—if I am in the government arena—I can maybe suggest some strategies and ways of how the money could go straight to the people who need it."

Ms. Tsepa has overcome her worries about not being a career diplomat, and is ready to embark on one of her first priorities while in Ottawa: education.

"I don't have all that, but I bring the strength of coming from academia and I am well-positioned to establish academic linkages with the universities and institutions in Lesotho," she says.

During her posting, she will also aim to increase collaboration with Canada in tackling food security, especially child nutrition, which she says she is "personally passionate about."

Strengthening links between Canada and Lesotho in the areas of tourism and trade, such as opening international market doors for local artists in Lesotho, are also on Ms. Tsepa's agenda. Lastly, getting Canadian help in dealing with HIV/Aids is also on the high commissioner's list.

Although Ms. Tsepa describes her first winter experience in Canada as a "climate shock," she says she "would love to learn how to ski." She will have plenty of time for that.


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