Date: 24 June 2019 By: Bernard Chiguvare
“How old are you?” I asked the young man sitting near the dumpster at the Shoprite centre in Louis Trichardt. Earlier he had told me that his name was Brightmore Mukaranga*.
“I’m 14,” he answered.
Brightmore formed part of a group of seven Zimbabwean teenagers living under a big tree, begging for money during the day and scavenging for food from a nearby municipal skip. It was midway through May and I interviewed them for an article, focusing on the plight of the region’s “street children”.
The boys told me that they shared a torn mattress and two blankets. They would wake up at 06:00 and pack their blankets and clothes into a big white bag and hang it in the tree for safety. When it rained, they moved to the veranda of the nearby shops.
During the day they would go out looking for work and food, begging from passers-by or picking up leftover food thrown into the municipal skip. They had no plates or pots and did not cook.
A week after the interview I searched for Brightmore again. I needed to find out where he came from and what had brought him to this town. “You’ll find them there at Phadziri,” someone at the taxi rank next to Shoprite told me. A couple of blocks further, next to some bushes, I spotted Brightmore.
“We were chased away from our soup kitchen,” he remarked. The boys jokingly referred to the municipal bin as their soup kitchen. For now, they sleep in the bushes, but with winter arriving this is not comfortable.
“Where are you from?” I started exploring. Brightmore told me he was born in Gutu, a rural district in Zimbabwe, some 500 kilometres to the north. Gutu is by no means a wealthy district, but it is not the worst. One can probably describe the district as “slightly above average” as far as standards of living are concerned, but poverty is rife.
Brightmore seemed to be yet another product of a broken home. His parents divorced in 2015, when he was 10 years old. His father, at that stage, had left for South Africa to find work. His mother moved to Harare and Brightmore was left with his grandparents.
Promises that money would be sent to pay for food and school fees did not materialise. The grandparents battled to provide in the needs of a growing boy.
Brightmore, at that stage in Grade 5, dropped out of school. He went to Masvingo, a city some 80 kilometres to the southwest. There he spent the next three years scavenging bins and begging for food or money. “It was difficult,” he recalled.
In 2018, he decided to chase the elusive “Mzansi dream”, crossing the country’s border to the south to seek his fortune in Egoli. “From Masvingo to Beit Bridge I hiked, paying R100,” he said. Like many others he crossed the border illegally, evading the dangerous guma guma gangs. “I walked to Musina where I stayed for several months, but things did not work well for me, so I decided to proceed to Louis Trichardt,” said Brightmore.
For many hopefuls such as Brightmore, Louis Trichardt is just another stopover. The town is much bigger than Musina and 100km closer to the city, a place to do some “piece jobs” and gather enough money to travel further south. But like so many before him, Brightmore got stuck.
“Living in the streets is hard. At times I go for a day without eating any warm meal. To make matters worse, I have no warm clothes or blankets, even though it is winter season. We warm ourselves at a fire made from empty cardboard boxes. Most passers-by are reluctant to give us money or food,” he said.
“Don’t you want to go back?” I asked. The question seemed to touch a nerve and he became silent. “I think my grandparents in Gutu will welcome me back,” he said.
A week ago, I tried to find Brightmore again. He was not at the Shoprite centre and I could not find him near the Phadziri bus depot. “We think he has gone to Musina,” one of the other boys said. They reckoned he may even have gone back to Gutu.
But no-one was really sure.
* Not his real surname
Bernard Chiguvare is a Zimbabwean-born journalist. He writes mainly for the online publication, Groundup.