Lineo and Sonia
On the first day back to school, after a public holiday, Sister B. decides to send the vulnerable children home to collect money for a field trip to Katse Dam next month.
Many students have a one and a half hour trek over the mountains to school, and now she orders them to go back home and collect the money.
They’ve been reminded about the 200 rand ($14) bus fare at least ten times, and Sister is well aware that more than 60% of the children at our school are orphans and vulnerable children, so most will return empty-handed. Only ten out of one hundred and seventy students have been able to pay for the field trip.
Sister knows the children are hungry when they get to school, yet she does not allow them to eat the heavily-sugared “soft” porridge—sorghum based cereal—served without milk, which is cooling off in their plastic bowls. None of these vulnerable children dare question authority; they obey the rules and charge home in worn shoes, often held together with broken shoe laces.
Two girls remain in the classroom with ‘M’e Mamoshaka, the seventh grade teacher, and me. Lineo is twelve, and the other nine. “How come they don’t have to go home? Have they already paid?” I ask the teacher.
“This one,” ‘M’e Mamoshaka says pointing to the older girl, “She looks after five children.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“She takes care of five children alone.”
I prod ‘Mamoshaka for more information.
“Is she an orphan?” I ask.
I stared at Lineo’s shoes.
‘M’e Mamoshaka explains Lineo’s story.
Lineo takes care of her eight-year-old sister, and her six-year-old brother, as well as her three cousins aged, eleven and nine, and another nine-year-old. In all there are four girls and two boys.
They all sleep on one mattress, and Lineo burns twigs to cook their evening papa (maize meal.) Sometimes, when they are lucky, the villagers offer merojo, (shredded spinach and mustard greens, usually heavily salted and cooked in oil) to add to their papa.(photos)
Lineo is not an orphan; her father abandoned his three children, and her mother works in South Africa, and sends money for Lineo to buy maize meal. Their mom only sees her kids once a year, when she travels back for Christmas.
“How come Lineo also has to take care of her cousins?” I ask.
‘M’e Mamoshaka explains that their mothers also got pregnant at 15 or 16, were abandoned by their boyfriends/fathers of the children) and then they head off to South Africa to get jobs, often as maids.
As I sat in the classroom with ‘M’e Mamoshaka and the two girls, I asked them if they wanted to look at some books. Their eyes lit up, and they immersed themselves in the pictures and I asked Lineo to read to me.
Three hours later, most of the students returned to school where Sister sat waiting on a stool, pencil and notebook ready to collect money. Only seven children brought the $14.00 for the field trip, out of about one hundred who ran home. Another twenty or so, brought hand-written notes explaining why they couldn’t afford the trip. “Ha ke na le chalete,” or “I do not have money.”
It was such a waste of a day where there was absolutely no teaching, and I went home after lunch. Why couldn’t these vulnerable children ask their parents/guardians for money after school, and bring the “no chalete” notes on the following day?
I am still trying to understand the Basotho culture at my school.