Vendors chase dreams on the streets

Vendors chase dreams on the streets

MASERU – SITTING at a stall along 777 Road, street vendor ’Masofia Letoloane, sorts out soil for sale.
The 69-year-old is one of the many vendors along the street with no shelter. All she has is an umbrella and a hat that she is wearing.
Letoloane has been working as a street vendor for the past 37 years, often arriving at work by 5.30am every day.

“I managed to buy a van some years ago, I use it to sell fruits, seeds and soil to fellow street vendors,” Letoloane says, with a smile.
“There is no rest in these streets, the only time I have for myself is when I go to church on Sunday morning but after church it is business as usual.”
Letoloane started off decades ago carrying a box or a dish packed with fruits on her head.

Hailing from Thaba-Tseka and lacking a good education, she made a decision a long time ago that she would have to work on the streets and make money.
“I used to visit a relative when I was still a young woman and I would see how my relative was making money in the streets. I learned a lot from her and followed suit.”
Her income from the streets helped her educate her children, clothe them and put food on the table.

“My husband left me a long time ago. I was not about to starve with my children, I had to make things happen,” she says.
“All I have is the result of this work.” She bought a second van even though she did not know how to drive.

However, when her son who used to help her with the van died, she had to sell it.
“A funeral has a lot of costs attached to it, so I sold that car and I am left with one.”
It is after her son’s death that she realised fruits alone were no longer generating enough cash.

“The market is highly saturated, so I introduced potato seeds and soil. I know there are lots of health issues associated with soil but people love it, so I took a leap of faith and I don’t regret it. Soil sells like hot cakes, thanks to hordes of women craving for taste of soil,” she says.
Soon her stall is bustling with customers buying soil. She has also ventured into the piggery business.

“I have a lot of needs and if I do not work they will not be met. I also like nice food so in order to ensure that it does not run out I have to work,” she says.
Not far from Letoloane is the informal market centre where we find ’Malebohang Makhetla kneeling on a chair while sorting through her herbal medicines.
Makhetla is a traditional herbalist.

She sells all kinds of herbs which she says are suitable for the whole family.
She has been in the business for over ten years.
“My grandfather was an herbalist. I took interest in his work and he left me this inheritance,” Makhetla says.
She is planning to retire.

“My children are not interested in this business. I would like to pass it down to one of them and keep it in the family but they are not keen,” she says.
She mentions that business is not what it used to be.

“The economy is bad, people do not have money, sometimes you go the whole day without selling anything,” she says.
“I had to add on traditional ornaments because I see that the money I get from these herbs is no longer sufficient.”

She explains that although these ornaments make better money, as they are used for catering for weddings, school exercises and others, there are a lot of sellers too.
Makhetla’s stall is made up of bricks and cement and she complains of the cold during winters.
“This place is so cold that we need to have a heater or a paraffin stove on for the whole day. Our knees are no longer strong. We are basically crippled.”
Next to Makhetla is 88-year-old ’Mantsoaki Hlehlethe.

She started working in the market in 1970. She has put a blanket on and is sitting on wooden stool.
She is close to retiring for the day but no customer has visited her stall the entire day.
“I started off here selling food. Migrant workers from South African mines used to eat here,” she nostalgically recalls.
“I was a good cook and I used to make money then,” she says.

She explains that she left that business a few years ago when she realised that the number of miners had gone down drastically.
In the past, job seekers would stream in from an employment agency. Those days are gone but Hlehlethe is not thinking of retiring.
“Who will pay for my electricity, water and medical check-ups? I cannot depend on my children,” she says.
She still takes care of her children despite them being adults.

“Imagine if I stay at home, who will give me money for the children’s fees? We can’t ignore the fact that the economy is terrible and our children are struggling,” she says.
She explains that even the government’s old age pension is too little and she does not want to depend on it solely.
Studies show that the informal sector is the primary source of employment for women in most developing countries.

A University of Swaziland researcher, Mark Chingono, in the World Journal of Social Science Research, says poor women in Lesotho endure a triple jeopardy of exploitation by patriarchy, capitalism and the state. “To escape from this jeopardy increasing numbers of poor women are entering the informal economy, which is increasingly becoming the major dynamic and expanding sector of the economy,” Chingono says in the June 2016 research article.
He says becoming informal entrepreneurs has not only financially empowered women, but has also subverted traditional patriarchal gender power relations.

Lemohang Rakotsoane

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