MASERU — It’s a chilly Thursday night in Maseru and a group of boys cluster around a bonfire near the Engen filling station along Pioneer Road.
They take turns to gather papers and dry grass to keep the fire burning.
The young ones huddle together to keep warm.
Today’s meal of papa and matlaloana (chicken skins) is almost ready on the fire.
For the boys this place has become their “home” and the group has become their “family”.
They live, eat, sleep and beg together.
Sometimes they fight for food, clothes, blankets and occasional girls.
Such is the life at street kid “camps” that have mushroomed in the Maseru city centre over the past few years.
Every night these young people — mostly boys — light bonfires in the pavements and alleys in Maseru’s streets to keep warm.
Apart from the one near Engen there are at least three other “camps” along Kingsway Road.
One group has set base just across Queen Elizabeth II Hospital while another has turned the parking lot near Metcash building into their home.
The dump site opposite NRH building is now home to another group.
There could easily be nearly 100 kids that are now living on the streets of Maseru.
And more keep coming to the streets.
Their reasons for abandoning their family homes could be anything from hunger, abuse to just juvenile delinquency or just mischief.
“I wanted to make money,” says Tsepiso, 17, who left his Khubetsoana home where he was staying with his grandmother and siblings in January to live on the streets.
“After my parents died six years ago our relatives took everything and said we were old enough to take care of ourselves,” says Retselisitsoe, 25, who left his Thamae home six years ago.
“My parents are still alive but home was hell because there was nothing to eat,” says Tau, 18, who has been in the streets for the past three years.
And so goes their explanations for coming to the streets.
Yet there is no denying that most of the kids find themselves on the streets out of desperation.
Take the sad story of Retselisitsoe for example.
A bright young man who claims to have passed his Standard Seven with flying colours and speaks almost perfect English, Retselisitsoe says he knows no other home apart from the “camp” near the Engen filling station along Pioneer Road.
Now 25, Retselisitsoe left home when he was 19.
He says after his parents died in 2004 his uncles
“They shared everything and then went back to Semonkong, leaving us with nothing,” Retselisitsoe recalls with bitterness in his voice.
“I decided to come here. I can’t go to Semonkong because my uncles say they don’t want anything to do with me.”
So for six years Retselisitsoe has been living the hard street life in Maseru, begging for food and sometimes washing cars for a few maloti.
His cracked feet, unkempt hair and tattered clothes bear testimony to the fact that street life has indeed been cruel to him.
Sometimes it has been brutal.
For instance, a week ago a group member struck him with a bottle on the forehead after an argument over a blanket.
“It was cold and he wanted my blanket. I fought hard but when he hit me in the face I let him have it,” he says.
The wound is yet to heal and during the interview Retselisitsoe had to use his calloused fingers to wipe off the blood that was dripping down his ashen face.
But he says “these things happen every day on the streets. It’s part of life.”
There are many children in Lesotho who share Retselisitsoe’s plight.
There are nearly 180 000 orphans in Lesotho.
That’s about 10 percent of Lesotho’s population.
Most of the children stay with relatives and receive a quarterly grant from the government.
A significant number of families are headed by children.
But there are others like Retselisitsoe who have no one to turn to and they opt for the streets.
Retselisitsoe says on good days he makes M30 but there are times when the chips are really down and he goes to the “camp” empty-handed.
And the “camp” is no place to be when you have no money to contribute to buy food.
“You have to bring something from the streets otherwise you don’t eat,” he explains.
“Sundays are bad days for us because people don’t come to town. Holidays are terrible.”
It is this desperate situation that drives some of the children to dabble in drugs and “prostitution”.
Motlatsi, 17, has a reputation for being the “smartest” in his camp.
His clean pants, an ironed shirt, polished shoes and a fairly new overcoat are enough to explain why he has become the “king of bling” in the camp.
He loves fancy things, takes a bath every day and although he is a member of Retselisitsoe’s camp he eats alone.
There is a story behind Motlatsi’s “comfort” — that is as comfortable as streets can be — and it’s a sad one.
Motlatsi says he has a girlfriend who provides for him.
He doesn’t want to say her name but says “she has been good to me”.
When the streets don’t provide Motlatsi’s “girlfriend”, a widow who has a vending business in Maseru, comes to the rescue.
And when he makes more money than he needs for food he takes it to his “girlfriend” for safekeeping.
But ask Motlatsi whether he uses a condom with his girlfriend whom he claims to be “about 35 years old” and you get the real dark side of this affair.
Motlatsi only shakes his head to indicate that he doesn’t.”Many of us have such girlfriends,” he admits which a sarcastic smile on his face.
Motlatsi is also in a relationship with a 16-year-old he calls his “real girlfriend”.
“Last week when I got some money I bought her chocolates,” he says.
“I know what I am doing (with the older woman) is dangerous but there is nothing I can do, I have to eat. Life is hard here.”
Many other streets kids tell similar stories of “rich” women picking them up at night for “what they call a good time”.
But in this gloomy situation there are still good people that are still striving to take these children from the streets and give them a normal life.
Rentseng Putsoa, a 16-year-old boy from Ha Seoli who claims to have come into the streets in 2002 after the death of his mother, recently met such people in the form of the Lesotho Girl Guides Association (LGGA).
“After the death of my mother in 2002 I decided to come to the streets because no one cared about me. I left my father, two brothers and a sister,” Rentseng says.
Together with other boys Rentseng went to live on the streets of Bloemfontein in South Africa for six years.
“They told me that life was better in Bloemfontein so I joined them,” he says.
“Life in Bloemfontein was a bit hectic but I enjoyed it. People there are more understanding because per trolley we were getting over R15 whereas here they give us M2 or M5 if you are lucky.
“But those guys are really rebellious. There was a fight almost every day.
“They even stabbed me at the back with a knife but the injury healed with time because I did not even go to the clinic.”
After six years Rentseng came back to Lesotho when his friends decided to go to Johannesburg.
“I did not want go far away from home even though I do not want stay at home,” he says.
Once in Lesotho his life changed for the better when he met LGGA workers.
“They promised to give us a place to stay and because it was winter I decided to come and stay at LGGA,” Rentseng says.
“I was given a chance to continue with my studies, also doing some practical work and other sport activities like soccer.”
Rentseng is now doing Standard 5 at Boitelo Primary School and has since stopped taking drugs.
Mpho Seetane, a caregiver at the LGGA, says it’s not easy getting children like Rentseng to leave the streets.
“We only get a new intake during winter time because it’s cold on the streets,” Seetane says.
LGGA started taking children from the streets in 1997 with plans of reuniting them with their families.
It now has 54 children under its care, with 12 in primary school and 42 in high school.
“They also go out to Durham Link for life skills programmes and they also do other sports activities at Kick-4-Life centre,” Seetane says.
Although the LGGA is a girls-only association it has extended its helping hand to boys as well.
It is not a purely aid organisation but officials say the plight of the street kids is too serious to ignore.
A volunteer social worker at the LGGA, Limpho Sebotsa, says most of the children who are on streets complain about being abused by their parents and relatives.
“During the counselling sessions with the kids most of them complain about abuse and lack of food at their homes,” Sebotsa says.
“We try to reunite them with their parents and we normally find out that they have been lying when they complained that they were abused.”
The chief child welfare officer with the health ministry, ‘Mants’enki Mphalane, says they work together with the LGGA to get access to help the street kids.
“When they are on the streets it’s not easier to approach them but when they are at LGGA it’s easy to talk to them,” Mphalane says.
“We offer food parcels at LGGA and provide social workers for their home assessments to find out about their families.”
from Semonkong descended on their home and took everything that had been left for Retselisitsoe and his two brothers.