LEBAKENG — It’s only mid-morning but Mantsolo Thempane already appears worn-down and hungry.
Her face looks ashen.
It’s not hard to understand why.
She woke up in the wee hours of the morning and walked for two hours to get to Thaba-Khubelu.
Thaba-Khubelu is the place the government has decided is “central” enough to be the venue to dole out food and cash grants to hunger-stricken Lebakeng villagers.
But for Thempane, 62, the journey from Ha-Senarile to Thaba-Khubelu has been a long and painful one mainly because she has not eaten in days and partly because of the terrain she had to conquer to get there.
Yet she still waits patiently to receive her food hamper under the Lesotho Child Grants Programme — an initiative launched by the government in collaboration with the European Union and the United Nations Children’s Fund.
This donation will provide Thempane with her first meal in two days.
Many people gathered here have gone for days without eating.
Others have been living on one meal a day for weeks.
“I am sure you know that a beggar has no choice and therefore I have to accept everything I am given,” says a distraught Thempane.
Hunger is stalking the Lebakeng villagers.
Most of the families here are either taking care of orphans or they are child-headed.
Many are looking after Aids patients.
Yet that is not the only reason why most of the people here are battling to feed themselves.
Most families have long lost their cattle — a major source of draught power — to rustlers.
That has left them struggling to till their land.
Tractors are sometimes available but most of the villagers are too poor to afford the fees needed to hire them.
However, the plight of those that managed to till their land last season is not any better.
The rains have become unpredictable while inputs like fertiliser and treated seed have become more expensive.
Last season’s yields were not that good.
There is also the ongoing economic recession to blame.
Those with children working in towns have watched in desperation their sons and daughters gradually reducing their contributions to their upkeep because they are either in a financial squeeze or they have lost their jobs.
“I have children who are working, but they do not support me. They have abandoned me,” Thempane says.
Thempane says she has been reduced to a beggar.
She says she is now embarrassed to ask for food from fellow villagers because she has done it “over and over again”.
So she had changed her “catchment area”.
When times are really hard, Thempane walks for two days to Qacha’s Nek town to beg.
She says in summer it takes her two days and in winter she has to walk for four days.
“I walk until I feel like vomiting,” she says.
She says even if she finds someone willing to give her money for transport she still has to walk for about six hours to the nearest place she can get transport.
Her wish is to be self-reliant by growing her own food but she is not able to do that because her cattle were stolen.
“It is difficult for me to plough because I can’t pay people to assist me with the ploughing. I don’t have the money,” she says.
Thempane is not the only one struggling.
’Mapalesa Sebatanyane, 73, is an impoverished grandmother from Ha-Molomo in Lebakeng.
Tears roll down her cheeks as she counts the money she has received from the grants programme.
She says she cannot remember the last time she had a meal that included meat.
“I am going to buy some meat. I think I can afford chicken heads and feet,” she says.
“I think this is the best I can afford.”
The M300 that she has been given might not be enough for all her needs but it goes a long way to help her family of seven.
Sebatanyane stays with her four grandchildren, her son and daughter-in-law.
Her son is not employed.
Sebatanyane says he is “just too lazy to look for a job”.
Maqhoboi Thato, 41, an HIV-positive woman, is among those that have received food hampers.
The hampers consist of mealie-meal, cooking oil and beans.
Thato, who is taking anti-retroviral drugs, says it has been weeks since she last had a proper meal.
A proper meal by Lebakeng standards is made up of papa and moroho.
“I cannot just wait to see myself putting something in my stomach,” Thato says.
She knows what it is like to sleep on an empty stomach.
“On many days my child could not stop crying for food,” she says.
“I did not know what to do because I had nothing to cook.”
She says at one time they had to wake up at midnight to beg for food from neighbours.
“My child ate and it was only then that we had the chance to sleep,” she says.
The other day they only had boiled maize for supper.
“We could not sleep that day because our stomachs were constipated. We felt sick,” she says.
Thato lives with her husband and five children.
Their life is a struggle.
Thato says sometimes her husband has to do piece jobs just to get something to eat.
And when jobs are hard to get the family has to sleep on empty bellies.
They used to grow crops until their cattle were stolen.
The family cannot afford to send their children to school.
“I am feeling guilty that they do not look like other children in the village,” Thato says.
’Malerato Lethoba, 54, says some villagers have given her names because she goes to Qacha’s Nek to do part-time laundry jobs to earn a few maloti.
Studies by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) show that poverty in Lesotho is deeply entrenched in rural areas, where about 70 percent of the people live.
More than half of rural people are poor, and more than one quarter of them are extremely poor.
It is closely linked to lack of income and unemployment, as well as the severe degradation of the natural resource base on which the livelihoods of many rural poor depend to varying extents.
The agricultural sector, which accounts for about 17 percent of Lesotho’s gross domestic product, is the primary source of income, or an important supplementary source, for more than half of the population in rural areas.
People who live in the rugged mountain areas are significantly poorer than others in the country.
Most small-scale farmers do not have the labour or capital or the good access to improved technologies and support services that they need to use their land productively.
Yields are low because of severe land degradation, reliance on rain-fed farming and poor crop husbandry methods.
The unfavourable climate — untimely and irregular rainfalls, abnormal temperature patterns, droughts etc — which is worsening as a result of global climate changes hinders exploitation of the agriculture sector’s potential.
The lack of investment in agriculture, the decline in agricultural production, the lack of income-generating activities and degradation of natural resources are among the principal causes of rural poverty.