WITH a blaze gutting five vendors’ shacks at Sefika bus stop in Maseru on Sunday, the need for the improvement of fire prevention and fighting procedures to protect lives and businesses has once again come to the fore.
Maseru City Council (MCC) spokesperson Lintle Bless this week told the Lesotho Times that their preliminary findings were that the fire was started by a man guarding the shacks on behalf of the vendors to keep warm.
“It is reported that the guard fell asleep and it is during that time that the fire intensified and spread to the other shacks,” she said.
“The fire was eventually put out by the other guards before it could spread any further. Seven shacks were burnt to ashes.”
Asked if the council had plans to build safer shacks for the vendors, Ms Bless said they were “at an advanced stage”, adding that they were working closely with the Ministry of Small Business Development, Marketing and Cooperatives in the project.
“On the fire prevention and fighting measures, we really don’t have a specific sensitisation programme,” she said.
“But there are clear guidelines on the vendors’ permits on the do’s and don’ts and we trust and hope that they are adhered to.”
The Lesotho Times crew visited the vendors as they were still coming to terms with the destruction of their stock.
A tearful ‘Maletsatsi Mphaki (36) said she had lost thousands of maloti worth of vegetables in the blaze, adding that her shack was the first to catch fire after her guard had fallen asleep.
“At around 4am, I received a call from my guard telling me that a fire had destroyed my shack and that he didn’t know what happened because he felt asleep after starting the fire to warm himself,” she said, adding that the guard was only woken up by fellow guards who were battling to put out the fire.
Ms Mphaki said more than 100 bags consisting of potatoes, cabbages, boxes of tomatoes, beetroots and carrots were all lost to the fire.
She ventured into selling vegetables in 2003 with the assistance of her husband who raised the M3 000 capital.
“I worked as a domestic worker for many years but I wasn’t making enough money to help feed my family,” Ms Mphaki said.
“I started the business after my husband managed to raise M3 000 capital for me. Seeing all my hard labour reduced to ashes like this pains me. I am devastated. I don’t know where to start.”
Her husband, George Johannes, said the fire had hit them hard as they were using the proceeds of the business for the upkeep of their 12-member family, with the youngest just two-years old.
“We have four children and I have also taken in her siblings since their parents have died,” he said.
“So we take care of 10 children and the profits from this business were used to ensure that we all led a normal lifestyle. She paid rent, school fees, clothes, food and other household necessities from this business and I don’t know how we are going to survive. But as her husband, I will help her rebuild the business.”
The neighbouring shack, which was also destroyed, had contained expensive shoes – whose cost had ranged from M400 to M1 000 per pair.
“My sister’s shack was here and when we locked up yesterday, there were over 10 pairs of shoes and this is going to be devastating for her. She is already sick and this will probably worsen the situation,” one of the vendors said.
Another vendor, Motsamai Serame (35), estimated that he had lost stock of airtime and cigarettes worth M5 000.
“I bought this container and turned it into a small shop in 2005, supplying airtime and cigarettes to my fellow street vendors and my family depends entirely on this business,” Mr Serame said, adding that this was not the first time a fire had razed shacks at Sefika bus stop.
“Sometime in 2009 or 2010, I also lost my stock to fire and thought that was the first and last time to experience that. I was beginning to reap the rewards of my labour and I now have to start afresh, just like in 2010. The sad part about this is that we have to dig deep in our pockets and raise the capital to start afresh.”
For her part, ‘Mapalesa Masiloane (28) said while she had sympathised before with her fellow vendors who had gone through the ordeal, she never really understood their plight until on Monday morning.
“I wish life had spared me this experience. I don’t know what I did to deserve this,” she said.
“One of my shacks was completely burnt down and I lost 100 bags of potatoes and each bag cost M65 while those priced at M35 were 130. There were also over 100 bags of cabbages, boxes of tomato, packets of beetroots, onions and carrots.
Ms Masiloane added: “Business was already bad as it is. In winter, business is really bad and now this is a big blow on us. I don’t think I will recover from this.”
In April this year, a fire gutted two factories in the Maseru Industrial Area putting the jobs of scores of factory workers on the line.
The fire razed Golf Plastics, a plastic bag manufacturer, and Daisy Africa which is a bakery and a storage facility, before it was put out by firefighters from the Lesotho Mounted Police Service and Lesotho Defence Force.
Then Trade and Industry minister Joshua Setipa had said Lesotho’s fire prevention and fighting services providers were ill-equipped for the task which increased businesses’ vulnerability to outbreaks.
He explained that while there were fire stations at the Thetsane and Nyenye industrial areas, they were currently not functional.