By Tlotlisang Phoku
Friday the 19th of May, the mountain kingdom woke up to clouded freezing temperatures. At around 8am, Maseru city has very few roamers. Almost everyone had their hands in their pockets, but that excludes Mokhali and his colleagues. In their case, work has already begun. They are street cleaners, by this time they have brooms and rakes in their hands, working.
Every morning Mr Lehlohonolo Mokhali wakes up early. His work in Maseru city demands him to hit the road at dawn. As risky as his job is, he is happy to keep the streets of Maseru clean.
We find Mokhali working alongside the corner of Central bank and Central Park. He was shy to talk at first but starts to tell his story as he finds comfort. He is the only one cleaning this street from the Central Park traffic lights up to where it joins Kingsway road opposite the Queen Elizabeth II hospital.
“I am very happy to be here although there are lots of challenges,” he says adding that he has been doing this job for a year now.
This task of keeping Maseru clean is managed by Maseru City Council (MCC) however subcontracted to MLS Cleaning Services, and the sweepers are happy with how well they carry out their duties. As he picks-up plastics, a 30 -year-old man dreams of a brighter future.
“I would love to have a construction company someday but more than anything I want to go back to school to learn more about building houses,” Mokhali says.
He has also been in theatre for the longest time and has acting skills. In fact, he has certificates for that.
A cold weather is an insufficient excuse for him to stay away from his work, only rain does. This morning he reported for work at 8am with his rake and plastic bags, just as he does six days a week.
When he first became a street cleaner, Mokhali says people would laugh and make fun of him for doing such a low-class job. Such comments from his friends affected his dignity in a very negative way, but he had to choose from street cleaning or going to bed on an empty stomach.
“I was worried and shy at first but now I am strong” he says as he picks up a used condom lying on the edge of a pavement.
He is working very close to fast moving cars that can be harmful, and there are passers-by whom one of them is already throwing a banana peal where he had just cleaned. He goes back to pick it then puts it into the plastic bag.
“These are condoms that prostitutes use. They are some of the challenges we face daily,” he says adding that sometimes the very same people pee on the roads in the end it is their mess to clean.
He continues, “street kids are no exception, they are in this mess together. They also use roads as toilets during the night.”
The work is physically draining, bending over for hours as he sweeps and collects waste obviously causes pains and aches, but Mokhali says otherwise, “I don’t have any pains or aches from doing this job.”
For the first time since morning, Mr. Mokhali gets greeted by people, their little conversation makes me believe they know each other, just when I was about to believe he works best while on mute, or maybe it’s because we are at the busier parts of the road, heading towards Kingsway road. Nevertheless, I am his best friend for today’s shift. He continues to give his all while working.
“I cannot say it’s easy nor hard, it is a normal job. Maybe it’s because I know that at the end of the day, I have bills to pay therefore I make peace with everything here.” He collects three mounts of dry leaves into his trash bag.
He says he constantly suffers from allergy as the only side effect of this job. He buys Allergex from the pharmacy to treat it. At times his employer buys it for him. His face mask and provided uniform provide only minimal protection. “We are also being issued floppy hats for hot weather conditions”.
It is now time to move to the other section of the road, he goes back to the previous sections he has already cleaned to collect bags he has been using to collect waste into. He puts those bags into roadside garbage bins then moves to other sections.
He does not have break time at all. He continues to work until the end of the shift. He only stands up still, to rest from bending for a few seconds then goes back to work. For this he earns just M1800.00 a month, which is fortunately paid on time.
Despite the risk attached to his health due to the nature of work and the danger of working so close to fast-moving vehicles, receives no health nor life insurance.
At home, Mokhali has four children. “My wife and I had triplets with the first pregnancy then two years later we had one child” he says.
“I would say I raised my triplets on my own. Social development would help us with a few things once in four months. It was not easy at all, but we made it”.
“My triplets now attend a free primary school. I only spend money on their uniform, which I buy once in a while. I spend much on my 4-year-old, whom I pay pre-school fees for.” Apart from his children, he pays for all the household bills including food.
His mother works in the factories and his father is not working. The father used to work in the transport industry as a taxi driver, but he retired when the taxis started to be out of market. His mother is the only one helping him to pay for food and clothes.
Their home is a 2 roomed house which is shared amongst seven members of the family and is not in best condition. Mokhali’s plan is to extend the house but most importantly to put it in better condition. He only eats when he leaves the house in the morning, and he will eat again when he gets home after work.
Mokhali’s 5 hours and 30 minutes long shift is now over, he takes off his gloves, reaches for a hand sanitizer from his pocket. “I use this sanitizer to clean my hands after work or when I am about to eat. Sometimes I buy food from street vendors and mostly on credit.”
He sanitizes them then puts it back into the pocket and he is ready to walk home. From the city to his home is a distance of probably 6.7km. “If I use taxis, I will spend a lot of money which I now use for other important things.”
“Money is the same, whether it was earned by working in the bank or on the streets, it pays for the same bills” he says.
“To all individuals seeking jobs out there, no job is better than the other, they all got challenges. You can make a living out of the little you earn.”