THE THIRD POOREST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD
Lesotho is a poor country. People say it’s the third poorest country in the world.
Nearly one and a half million people live in Lesotho. Many of them live in small villages in the countryside. Most of the villages are in the Lowlands – at the feet of the great mountains of Lesotho.
Lesotho is still a very young country. The people got their independence from Britain in 1966. So the people have their independence – but they are not really free. South Africa surrounds Lesotho. The gold mines and factories in South Africa take most of the young men from the small country.
So when you visit the villages of Lesotho, you mostly find women and children. And you find old and worn out people – the ones who cannot work. If you find young men, then they are the injured ones – injured in accidents on the mines.
Lesotho was not always so poor. Over one hundred years ago, the people had plenty to eat. They even sold food to white people in the Cape and the Orange Free State.
But then came the mines and the white farmers. The mines needed lots and lots of workers. And the white farmers wanted to sell their own crops in the Cape and the Orange Free State.
So the British rulers of Lesotho made the Basotho people pay taxes. And the South African government made it hard for the Basotho farmers to sell crops in South Africa. The people could not get money to pay their taxes.
So young men began to leave their country for work on the mines. Only the weak and the young stayed behind. The land lost all of it’s best workers. And when these men came home they were old, tired or injured. They could not work on the land.
And so the country became poorer and poorer. Once Lesotho was a rich land. Now it is the third poorest country in the world.
THREE VOICES FROM LESOTHO
A BIG LAUGH AND A BIG HEART
It’s cold now in Lesotho. And nobody goes anywhere without a blanket.
“It gets so cold,” says Mamookho Lesenyeho, “that even when the warm months of summer come, you will find people still wearing blankets. They don’t take any chances.”
Mamookho laughs. She is a big woman with a big laugh. And a big heart. But behind her jokes and brave face, she tells a sad story. She tells how the proud people of Moshoeshoe are suffering now.
Mamookho Lesenyeho works for Migrant Labour Project in Lesotho. This organization helps migrant workers and their families with their problems. And there are many problems.
“You don’t find many happy families here in Lesotho,” says Mamookho. “Most of our young, strong men are away working in South Africa – mostly on the mines. Or they leave their homes in the countryside and come to the city of Maseru. They come to Maseru and wait for work. They wait until the mines call for them.
“The workers who go to South Africa have many problems. I know because my husband Pelesa is a migrant worker. He is working on the mines in the Orange Free State. He works for the President Brandt Mine in Welkom.
“My husband says that many migrant workers don’t trust their wives anymore. They find girl friends in the locations in South Africa.
“Or the migrant workers fall in love with each other. But they are secret about this because the mines don’t like it. If the mines find out, they tell the workers to go home.
“The workers who wait here in Maseru also have many problems. Some have waited for jobs for over a year. The mines in South Africa don’t take so many Basotho miners anymore. Before 1978 our men got jobs on the mines very easily. They could get a job in the morning and leave in the afternoon.
“But now things are different. More black people inside South Africa are going to the mines because the mines are paying more now. And I believe the government in South Africa tells the mines to take more workers from the “homelands”. They want the world to think the “homelands” are working.
“The men who wait for jobs in Maseru are lonely and hungry. But they can’t go home. They don’t want to go home with nothing. They believe a man must feed his family – otherwise he is useless and a failure.
“We are trying to help these men who wait for jobs. We have started a shelter for them. We have a big old tent for them to sleep in. And we give them a meal a day.
We look after about 50 workers a day. It is a struggle. We have little money and the government doesn’t help us. The government says the workers must go back home. But how can they? They have no work at home. They have nothing to do.
“These men are getting sick. Their bodies are getting weak and their heads are going a bit soft. This happens to people when they don’t work. Nobody is doing anything for these men. The schools won’t take them because they haven’t got a standard seven or a JC. Many of these men cannot even read or write.
“We are trying to help these men learn some useful things- like carpentry, plumbing and shoe repairs. We have asked some people to train a few workers. Then when they are ready, they can go back home and do something. We will try to give them a small loan to help them. But we can’t help many of these workers. There are just too many of them.
“The men are not the only ones with problems. The women who are left behind also suffer very much. They spend the long, cold nights all alone – just like me. They wait and they worry. Most only see their husbands once a year. And some never see their husbands again.
“The women worry about feeding their. children and paying school fees. People say the mines pay better these days. But we don’t really see the higher wages here in Lesotho. Where does the money go? I don’t really know. Maybe the money goes to the women in South Africa. Or for liquor or for radios or for hi-fi sets.
“I can say the mines don’t really help our country. The mines send just over half of the workers’ money back here. They send the money to a bank. But only the worker can take the money out of the bank – not his wife. Many miners come home to fetch their money. Then they take it back to South Africa with them
“But worst of all, many wives say they can’t talk freely to their husbands. Their husbands are like strangers. When the husbands come home, they spend only a few days with their wives. Then they go and sit with their friends and drink. They don’t talk to their wives. And they don’t spend much time with the children. Many children in Lesotho don’t know their fathers.
“Most miners don’t save much money. So when they are old they have nothing. Some miners get long service pensions and disability money. But these are the lucky ones. Most old and injured miners don’t get anything from the mines. I believe the mine should do something for these people. We only have one place for sick miners – and that place only helps the men with drinking problems. The mines didn’t even build this place. The churches did.”
“And then we have the old and sick people, the ones with bent backs and tired bones. They are too old or sick to work. Many of our men come back from the mines hurt and crippled.
And so we leave Mamookho Lesenyeho. She has much work to do – and very little money and help to do it.
WAITING AND WAITING
Michael Tatolo Mabeleha has sad eyes. Sad, tired, lonely eyes. But he is not the only one. Their eyes are all the same.
These are the eyes of the hungry men in Lesotho. They come from their homes in the hills and the mountains. And they wait in Maseru for contracts on the mines in South Africa. They wait and wait.
At night Michael sleeps in a big tent in an empty field. But again, he is not the only one. Many other men share the tent with Michael. Maybe forty, sometimes fifty.
They sleep on thin pieces of rubber on the cold, dark earth. And the tent has big holes in it. The cold winter wind blows down from the mountains ~ and straight into the tent. It bites the men as they sleep.
“The churches gave us this tent to sleep in”, says Michael. “And they give us a meal a day. In some ways we are the lucky ones. Many men don’t get any help while they wait. They wait in the hills around Maseru. They are really hungry. But don’t go and look for them. You won’t come back.
“Every morning we leave the tent at six 0′ clock”, says Michael. “We all rush to the recruiting office. That’s where you get a contract for the mines in South Africa. And when we get to the office, we are not the only ones. Another thousand men are also there.
The hungry ones watch the man at the office. “We wait quietly. I always say a silent prayer. And then the man at the office will maybe say, ‘We want a man with a bonus certificate who knows how to drive a train’. And they take maybe three or four men. We know it’s a waste of time. But we go everyday – just in case.
After we leave the mine office every morning, we try to get piece jobs. We try to find work in the gardens. Sometimes we only get R3 a day. Sometimes we only get R 1 a day. And with this money we buy some candles and some soap. We will do anything for a job. If you give me a job for R5 a week right now, I will take it. I wiII be very pleased.
“l’ve waited here for four months already. Some of the other men have waited for over a year. I lost my job last December – after 23 years with one company.
“I worked for them at the Ingagane Colliery near Newcastle. I worked for them at the Indumeni Colliery near Dundee. And I worked for them at the Springfield Colliery near Balfour. I only needed two more years for long service.
“I came home in December because my brother Sello died. He died from a sickness at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. After my brother died, I had much business to do at home. I stayed home for too long and my bonus certificate ran out. It expired. And if your bonus certificate runs out you lose your job.
“And so that’s why I am here in Maseru. I can’t go home with nothing. I have four children of my own. And I must feed the children of my two late brothers. My other brother Lekhoa died in an accident at the mines in 1965. Altogether I have 10 children to feed.
My wife Grace is with the children She has some work. She works in a shop – washing and cleaning. She gets R 15 a month.
And with her wages, she must feed everybody. How can I go home with nothing?
“I don’t feel very well now. I’m losing my health. I don’t feel like a man who is working. My mind thinks very fast. I feel confused. I don’t sleep in the tent. I lie awake at night and just worry. I think I will lose my life.
“I don’t know what I will do. Maybe I will become an ‘enemy man’. When a man walks past, I will steal his trousers. And they will send me to jail. Is that good?
A NEW DRESS AND PLASTIC SHOES
Masechaba Shotlele is a woman and a mother. She lives in a small mud hut with six children. Inside, a curtain divides the one small room. Behind the curtain are two beds.
Next to the house, is another building – half a house. The walls stop at the waist. And it waits for windows and a door.
Masechaba’s husband started to build the house six years ago. But after he left for the mines, he forqot about the house. And he forgot about his family.
Masechaba lives in a village called Harmone in the Mafeteng district. She is not different to many other women in many other villages in Lesotho – and South Africa.
Like Masechaba’s husband, many men don’t help their wives. They treat them badly. The women’s lives are hard enough already – and these men just make things worse.
Masechaba Shotlele was born in Bethlehem in the Orange Free State in 1946. She was one of 13 children. When she was still young, the family moved to Bloemfontein.
“And then my father ran away”, says Masechaba. “We were many in the family. So my mother sent three of us to my aunt on a farm in De Wetsdorp.
“1 was not happy on the farm. My mother sent us money. But my aunt kept the money for herself. We had no shoes, no clothes.
“My mother came to see us after a year. When she saw how we suffered, she took us back with her to Bloemfontein. I finished school there in Bloemfontein. I only got to standard two. All I learned was a,b,c, and one plus one. I did not learn much at school.
” I then went back to De Wetsdorp and found work. I worked for white people in the kitchens and as a baby sitter. And then I met my husband. His name is Adam.
“1 met him at a church one Sunday. He was working on the mines nearby and he had relatives in De Wetsdorp. He came from Lesotho.
“1 remember that Sunday well. I was only earning R2 a month but I had a new dress and new plastic shoes. I bought some nice material for that dress. I got three metres for three shillings. And somebody made the dress for one shilling. I looked nice that day.
“1 must tell you that I had another boyfriend at that time. I was in love with him. But Adam and his family loved me.
“A few days later, one of his aunts came to see me. She asked me to help her carry some luggage. when we got there, I· found no luggage. People were whispering.
“I told them I had to go back to work after lunch. But nobody listened to me. And then the rains came. They took me to a room and locked me in. They left me there.
“I stayed in the room for the whole night. I cried and cried. But nobody came. When the morning came, I knew I could not leave Adam. When I grew up they always told me, ‘If you stay at a man’s house for one night, you must stay with that man forever.’
“And so I stayed with Adam. When we made love for the first time, it was a struggle. I didn’t love him. But I learnt to love him.
“We worked on a farm together. We only got 14 pounds at the end of the month. We were poor. But I was quite happy. But my happiness did not last long.
“After we had our third child, my husband changed. He started drinking heavily. And he started going out with other women. Then after my fourth child, he took us to his home village in Lesotho. He wanted us to live there.
“So he brought us here to Harmone. And he left us. He went to work on the mines in South Africa. I was very lonely. I didn’t know anybody in the village. They didn’t trust me. And I didn’t trust them.
“My husband was gone for three years and three months. He sent no· money and no letters. After a while I made a little money-for myself. I made homebrew for the old men in the village.
“But worst of all; I did not stop breast feeding the baby. In Lesotho a woman can’t stop breast feeding until her husband comes home. If you do stop breast feeding, your husband will think you have another man.
“1 did not have any men for all that time. Because I was breast feeding, I believed I could not have a lover. I believed all these stories then.
“But now I don’t believe all these old stories. If my daughter stays in a man’s house for a night, I will not tell her to stay with that man. My marriage was not happy and I had no love.
“And I also don’t believe in the breast feeding story any longer. I took a lover after a while. But that didn’t help me. It’s useless. They come every second night and don’t even leave 50 cents.
Maybe if I go to Maseru I will find a better man. I’m sure there are some good men in this world.
“My life is easier now. I clean the house of some people who come from overseas. They come from Denmark and they are helping the people in the village to grow good crops.. I have also planted some peach trees outside my house. And I also have some chickens.
“My husband came home last June. We had one happy week together. Then we started fighting. I asked him when he was going to finish the new house. We had many arguments about money. He walked out of the house and spent all his money on women and drink. I was glad when he left.
“He has sent me two letters since he left. I only read half the letter. He asked if the new house is finished already. I got so angry I never finished reading the letter. I threw them away.
“But I am fine now. The other women in the village are my friends. We talk about our problems. We do things together. And we don’t believe all these old stories anymore. Don’t worry about me. I’m strong now. I’ll be okay’.