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Homeless but not hopeless: What a mother will do

Malefu Lekenyane lives on the street to save on rent so she can send her hard-earned cash to her rural family

20 August 2017 - 00:03 By REA KHOABANE

It's 5am on a winter's day in Pretoria. All you hear is the noise of taxis arriving at the Bosman rank and cars whizzing by. Across from the taxi rank, Malefu Lekenyane wakes up on the side of the road. Her bed is a pile of blankets on hard, red soil; she is surrounded by old rubbish bins and empty paint tins in which she stores her belongings. Lekenyane is one of about 20 women who sleep together on the street.
She folds up her blankets and gathers wood and anything that will keep a fire going.
Photographer Moeletsi Mabe and I help her collect water from the nearby taxi rank in 20-litre paint tins."Whoever gets up first must light the fire so that when the others wake up there's hot water," she says.
"This is where I wake up every day and prepare to go to work if I have a job."
After the water is heated, she pours some into a basin and takes a bath in a makeshift plastic tent. "The best time to bath is before the sun rises, because we're right next to a taxi rank," she says.
Around her, other women are stirring.
"Sleeping on the streets in Pretoria is the sacrifice I make to send money home so that my children get a better education and for my mother and siblings to eat," says Lekenyane.
All these women are from Lesotho.Score a piece job
Lekenyane is upbeat today. It's the first time this week she has managed to score a piece job. "I'm going to be picked up and I'm going to help a couple move into their new home."
Unemployed men are gathering on the street corner with cardboard signs that advertise their skills. When Lekenyane doesn't have a job, she also sits at the corner and hopes someone will offer her work.
"Jobs are scarce; sometimes they come and some days it doesn't happen."
Sometimes women without jobs play cards to pass the time. Others sell fruit to pedestrians.
Lekenyane has been living in the open since 2012.
"When I arrived in Pretoria, I came to look for a job and I got one as a domestic worker, but it wasn't enough money for me to pay for accommodation.
"I then went to the taxi rank and asked one of the taxi drivers where I could find affordable accommodation.He told me there are many of us at the corner and that's how I ended up making Bosman corner my home."
Although they all come from Lesotho, none of the women had heard of or met any of the others before they came to Pretoria.The money Lekenyane makes from casual work is not enough to pay rent and transport and send money back home, so she would rather sleep on the pavement and save on rent."Our father died when I was doing Grade 5 and after his death my mother couldn't afford to send all of us to school, so I dropped out and let the ones born after me continue with school.
"I told myself I would school one of my siblings to break the circle of poverty."
Constantly looking at her watch, she tells us that today's job starts at 8.30am and it's time for us to go. "I'm going to make R250."
The following morning, we prepare to accompany her on the journey to her home in Lesotho. It is a five-hour drive to her small village in Butha-Buthe, two hours from Maseru.
"I didn't tell my family that I'm coming home and they are going to be so shocked, but I'm excited to be home."
She says going home always gives her mixed feelings: "I'm happy to see my family, but then again I get reminded why I left home in the first place."
Her village is on a hill, with no proper roads or street names.I'm so grateful
When we arrive at the family homestead we are welcomed by Lekenyane's mother, Maphoka, and two sisters, Molelekeng and Mantwa.
"I'm so grateful every time I see her," says her mother. "Honestly, I don't know what we would be if it wasn't for her sending money home."
Lekenyane's children are happy to see her, but three-year-old Reitumetse is soon distracted. She is unsure who the woman hugging her is.
Ten-year-old Itumeleng is happy to see his mother and even more so when he sees she has bought them clothes.
When I ask the family if they know the sacrifices their daughter is making for them, Mantwa replies: "All we know is that we wouldn't have food on the table if it wasn't for her."
However, none of them know she sleeps on the street.I speak to her brother on the phone. Phoka is based in northeast Lesotho and works as a nursing assistant at a health centre. If it wasn't for his sister, he wouldn't have the qualification he has today.
"I will do the same thing for her children," says Phoka.
Lekenyane has started buying materials to build her own home in the village. It's no good fixing up her mother's home for herself because, according to custom, her brother will inherit it.
As we prepare to leave, she kisses her daughter goodbye. Itumeleng has left home early for the long trek to school.
"It was good to be home, but now it's time to go back to Gauteng and work," Lekenyane says on the drive back.
Her life would be worse if she lived in Lesotho, she says.
"The most you can make in Lesotho if you're uneducated is R800 a month, so I'll rather go back to Bosman because I make more money."
But life on the streets of Pretoria is full of hardships. "Because we sleep in the streets or they find us at a street corner, people treat us like streetkids," says Lekenyane. "They treat us like they're doing us a favour...

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