- “we are not street kids, we all have names and origins,”
- “abuse at home drove us onto the streets”.
MASERU’S streets are teeming with children of various ages. Commonly known as ‘street kids’, these young souls have found a home on the streets of Maseru due to various factors including physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their parents or relatives.
Left with no choice, they flee their homes and take up new lives on the streets where they have to beg, fight and sometimes steal to earn a living.
To many people, these children are just petty thieves whose tongues are only capable of vile profanities especially if one fails to favourably respond to their pleas for M5 or any other amount to enable them to buy some food.
But as the Sunday Express crew recently discovered, the vulgar language, the ashen faces, matted hair and generally fearsome appearances are merely a uniform which most of these children wear to survive on the streets.
Beneath that tough and forbidding exterior, lies a child craving love, warmth and attention.
To the layperson, these children just live on the streets. But these children have territories. A particular spot is claimed by a particular group of children in the same manner that one obtains a site, builds on it a structure they call a home for themselves and their families.
On a rainy Friday afternoon, this publication caught up with *Lehlohonolo Tau, a street kid who lives with his two friends at a spot in Ha-Mafafa along Kingsway road in Maseru.
“We are not street kinds,” said Lehlohonolo who added that he was 17 years old.
“Each and every one of us has a name and origin. The three of us have names. You can me Lehlohonolo, and these are my friends *Thabo Sello and *Tšeliso Matete.
“I left home four years ago after my father’s death. This after a quarrel with my older sister who sold our house.
“That was our home and it was really sad to see it being sold in a simple transaction just like buying food over the counter. I first left for South Africa but things did not work out and I ended up on the streets as I had nowhere else to go.”
Lehlohonolo said although life was very difficult and often violent on the streets, he and his friends were not involved in criminal activities.
“We work with street vendors, helping them move their wares to the store rooms and back to their vending sites. They pay us anything from M5 to M10 for a job and we use that money to buy food.
“There are bad guys among us. Unfortunately, the police don’t make any distinctions. They often chase and beat any of us for crimes that we didn’t commit. It’s really sad,” he said.
He said when temperatures dropped to freezing levels, they light up fires to keep warm.
“It is not a comfortable life but it is better than going to homes with people who don’t want you. But if any option for a proper family life presented itself, we would take it. We are not animals; we are human beings just like you,” he said.
His friends concurred with him. They said some of the street kids were recruited by criminals to engage in unlawful activities. They said such criminals preyed on the vulnerability of street kids.
In a separate interview with this publication, the Maseru District Manager in the Ministry of Social Development, Takatso Shale, said at least 150 children live on the streets of Maseru.
He said they lived under harsh situations, adding that his ministry works with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide the children with shelter and food among other things.
One such NGO is Sepheo whose avowed mission is to “identify, reintegrate and educate children living and begging on the streets in Maseru”.
He said most of the children left their homes due to abuse by their relatives. But out on the streets, it was tough, particularly for girls who were forced into sexual encounters with other street kids, taxi drivers and abusive people from different parts of the city.
He said the vulnerable children were prey to criminals who often trafficked them to South Africa where they were forced into menial work and even prostitution.
He said through the support of some NGOs, they were sensitizing the children on human trafficking scourge.
“There have been cases of girls falling pregnant and giving birth on the streets. But they are very reluctant to be placed in charitable homes because they are used to the street life despite its dangers,” Mr Shale said.
‘Mabatho Makatla, a social worker at Sepheo, said the major challenge on the streets was violence.
Ms Makatla said children are physically and sexually abused in the streets, often by strangers.
“They are insulted and excluded. One of the most painful things is that they are not regarded as human beings. They are dehumanised and treated like rats.
“When children experience this violence repeatedly, they begin to subject each other to the same abuse. Many have lost their lives on the streets. They are stabbed, they are poisoned, they are hit by cars, they are raped, and they die from untreated illnesses.
“Children on the streets are involved in gang fights, having feuds with gangs that live in certain villages. Sometimes they also fight amongst themselves over small matters that can be resolved. But because they are high on by drugs and are not able to regulate their emotions, they end up hurting each other severely. If we do not help children to leave the streets, it is highly likely they will die there or end up in prison,” Ms Makatla said.
She said while it was difficult for anyone to earn their trust, it was however, not impossible for street kids to transition back to normal life in homes provided that they were accepted and treated with love.
“With love, acceptance and the right support, most children can transition from the streets back into communities. However, it takes time, commitment and a lot of skill. All our staff are qualified and are experts at walking this long journey with children who decide to leave the streets.
“In the past eight years, Sepheo has helped hundreds of children off the streets and into families and communities, and 95 percent of them remain in homes today. More than 20 went on to high school; some are now married with children, and others have jobs. Most importantly, they are in community with others, no longer excluded,” she said.
*Lehlohonolo Tau, Thabo Sello and Tšeliso Matete are not the street children’s real names. Their true identities have not been used because they are minors as well as to protect them from any harm.