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“Phopholetsa” - A photo essay about young street vendors in Lesotho

Phopholetsa (verb): to scrabble, “to scratch or grope around with one's fingers to find, collect, or hold on to something”.

Lesotho’s youth are facing an unusual and peculiar range of problems that threaten their livelihoods and identity. With a youth unemployment rate of 34.41% as of 2019 (likely to have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic), the youth are becoming more disillusioned with the establishment and the elders. This has undermined the age-old tradition of our parents and guardians determining our life path. With each passing day, the young are breaking social barriers to find their voice and to earn a livelihood.

This photo essay is a story of four young people that have taken it upon themselves to earn a living and to support their dreams and families.

Neo Mokebe (20), and his friend Thabonyane “Thiza” Maapesa (29) sell cigarettes and bananas at Ha Mabote as a way of occupying themselves and to stave off hunger and idleness. “This business has helped me to stay out of trouble because it keeps me busy and I want it to grow. I don’t want to give up on it,” says Maapesa as he explained what this project means to him. He expressed genuine concern over the high youth unemployment in Lesotho and worries that young people are becoming stagnant, tempting them into paths that are unsafe and risky such as crime and drug addiction. The two have known each other for years as they are neighbours. Their shared dream is to sell a wider variety of products to the public and to fund Mokebe’s education.

“I’m finished with matric and I want to further my education. But until then, I want to do something constructive. When I’m with my friends, and we have nothing to do we negatively influence each other. We get high all day and there is nothing positive about that. These people I call my friends don’t make me a better person,” says Mokebe as he reflects on his past. Maapesa and Mokebe said that their business has driven a wedge between them and their friends as their priorities have shifted – the usual accusation they face being that they are no longer “approachable”. Maapesa seems to play a brotherly role in steering Mokebe away from a path that will deter him from his dream of furthering his education.

Mokebe courts a young woman that he has the intention of being involved with romantically. The two met as she became a regular customer at his business buying bananas from him. According to him, her consistency won his attention and favour as he felt she would provide the appropriate support structure to help him grow as a person.

Irene Musa (also known as “Auntie Irene”) (32), has opened a convenience shop at Ha Mabote with her friend, Thato “Dropper” Rakabaele (27). The two joined hands in November 2020 after Rakabaele came back home from Gauteng as he lost his job as a game reserve keeper due to COVID-19. Musa says having him on board has helped their business to grow as they can sell a wider range of products. In the past, she could only afford to sell popcorn and cigarettes. Rakabaele says that the business will help him grow into his dream of owning a trucking company, while Musa says her dream is to fund her daughter’s (5) education all the way to tertiary level.

“I joined Irene because we both share the same values. As you spend money, you need more coming in, so this business made sense to the both of us. I came back home because I was not earning anything in South Africa – I was going nowhere slowly, and Irene offered me a lifeline,” said Rakabaele. Musa said that she is losing faith and patience in finding a job, and she plans on working hard to grow the business to take care of her daughter. After losing her job as a teacher due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Musa used her last paycheck to buy a popcorn machine. The partners explained that seeing their shop grow gives them a sense of fulfillment considering where they started.

Musa and Rakabaele specifically wanted to use this platform to share this bit of advice with other young people that may see their story: “Start small. Do something. You will never know what luck lies ahead of you until you start. It doesn’t matter what you make in a day, as long as you’ve done something, that’s all that matters. The biggest differences lie in the small things.” Musa urged young women to become entrepreneurs and avoid dependency on other people that may exploit them and put them in compromising situations that will harm their freedom and health.

An abandoned shack sits across the road from Musa and Rakabaele’s spaza shop. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the owner out of business as they no longer have the capital to start up again. “Having the capacity to reopen your business after lockdown measures is a blessing. Before lockdown, I sold fruits, and when we all had to stay indoors, my fruits were rotting. I ate them with my daughter and other families around me. I lost everything. I had to start all over again to reopen, and that’s money,” said Musa.


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