MASERU — The shops are teeming with shoppers eager to grab bargains.
Colourful decorations bedeck the Pioneer Shopping Centre, Lesotho’s upmarket mall.
Shopping is in full swing.
Even the smaller shops dotted around Maseru are also eager to capitalise on the Christmas mood and push up sales.
The Christmas season is certainly upon us.
But for Mpoli Tjeke, a factory worker in the Thetsane industrial area, this year’s Christmas in nine days’ time promises to be a miserable one.
There won’t be any of the lavish Christmas meals her mother used to prepare for the family back in the 1980s.
Tjeke says the big Christmas meal is now a distant memory.
With a gross salary of around M900 a month, Tjeke says she can hardly afford to throw such a lavish ceremony.
“Times of preparing big meals are gone,” Tjeke says.
“I no longer host visitors for meals like what we used to do when we were growing up.”
“Food is now just for family members. We are trying to save as much as we can so that we are still left with food after Christmas,” she says.
At least 53 percent of Lesotho’s 1.8 million people are said to be living in poverty, according to United Nations figures.
Tjeke and her family are probably among these.
Lesotho has colourfully been described as a small country with huge challenges. Poverty is rampant.
It is also battling the Aids pandemic which has seen at least one in every three people being infected with the virus that causes the disease.
Add to these problems the rising cost of food.
Food prices have continued their relentless march upwards putting a strain on the population in urban areas.
A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report released earlier this year says at least 40 percent of the population is malnourished.
The UN agency says the rural population is caught in a poverty trap, with limited crop yields and no financial resources to buy imported food.
The poverty situation in Lesotho has been worsened following the massive retrenchments in South African mines over the years.
For decades, Basotho had relied on migrant mine workers to send remittances home.
That tap was however closed down a few years ago with the retrenchments in the mines.
The dwindling cash remittances pushed thousands of women to seek jobs in the Chinese-run factories in urban areas.
But the wages in the factories are poor.
The lowest paid factory worker earns about M778 a month, far below the R1 200 that consumer rights groups say a family of five needs every month to survive.
Factory workers say the money is hardly enough to take them to the next pay-day.
Last month, Macaefa Bill, the secretary general of the powerful Factory Workers Union, said they wanted the wages increased to M1 500 a month.
“We are proposing at least M1 500 per month which should be able to meet the very basic needs of workers,” Billy said.
He said the current wages given to factory workers were “breeding poverty” in Lesotho.
‘Makatiso Tšehlana from Ha-Teko village, on the outskirts of Maseru, says she can hardly buy new clothes for her 10 children.
The children will have to make do with their old clothes this Christmas, a thing unheard of in the past.
“My children are so disappointed. It breaks my heart. But there is nothing I can do. My husband and I are not employed,” Tšehlana says as she mixes cow dung and soil to coat the floors and walls of her two huts.
“We depend on our daughter who earns a small salary from the textile factory. But she too is struggling.”
Tšehlana says things have never been the same since her husband was retrenched from the South African mines in the late 1980s.
This year’s Christmas will probably be the worst for her, she says.
Her husband is sick and bed-ridden in hospital.
When the Lesotho Times visited her home on Tuesday, she had just heard the news that one of her husband’s legs had just been amputated.
“This is going to be the worst Christmas for my family. This time around I am not even going to buy them even a braai pack for their Christmas lunch,” Tšehlana says.
“I need to raise cash to pay for my husband’s medical bills. If only I could buy some soap to wash their clothes so that they can at least have something clean and neat to wear on Christmas day.”
The same is equally true for ‘Mamokone Mokone, a 54-year-old mother of five from Matukeng, a village in Maseru.
Mokone says Christmas has lost its lustre.
Christmas is no longer as good as it was in the past, Mokone argues.
“The happy spirit that came with Christmas is gone. Times are tougher.
“We do not have enough money to spoil our kids like in the past. Clothes and food have become expensive. The joy has gone,” Mokone says.
Lieketseng Pesela is a tailor in one of the sprawling textile factories in Ha-Thetsane.
Pesela says Christmas is putting a huge strain on her finances and has become an awful time for her.
She says she can hardly afford to save money to spoil her family of three children during the holiday.
“Christmas has become awful for me. I only earn M900 monthly,” Pesela says.
“I am not able to save much from my monthly salaries and so I struggle to buy my children satisfactory clothes and food during the Christmas holiday.
“I would like to do more so that they can look as fabulous just like all the other children. But it is just tough,” Pesela says.