THIRTY-EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Lehlohonolo Matsoai looks pensive as he recalls his “darkest days yet” while working in the jungles of Limpopo Province in South Africa in 2007.
Now an entrepreneur operating a modest carpentry and construction business in Maseru, Mr Matsoai says he is only alive today “through the Grace of God” following his traumatic experience in Limpopo where he—and 15 fellow Basotho—were constantly in danger of being attacked by wild animals and getting arrested and deported by the police for working in South Africa without the required documentation.
Yet it is a story of inspiration and resilience and a clear testimony that with determination and faith in God, anything is possible in life.
“I dropped out of school in 1991while I was in Form A due to financial problems. I am the last born in a family of eight children but unfortunately, after enrolling at Itekeng High School, my father had to retire. He was the only one providing for the family, so there was no more money for me to continue with my education,” Mr Matsoai, who lives in Lower Thamae, told the Lesotho Times this week.
Leaving school so early meant Mr Matsoai would not realise his professional dream.
“I had always wanted to be either a doctor or soldier so dropping out of school meant I would not be able to realise any of my dreams.
“However, I never lost hope that God would provide the miracle that was going to change my life for the better. And this miracle came one day in 1999 when I heard an announcement on radio that Ntlafatso Skills Training Centre (NSTC) in Mohale’s Hoek was inviting young Basotho with Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) certificates to apply and train as carpenters and other courses.
“I was doing some gardening at the time here at home in Lower Thamae when I heard the announcement, so I applied and got a place. The lucky bit was the college was offering the training free of charge.
“I started my three-month training in September 1999 and performed so well that our teacher would ask me to explain some of the things that were a bit difficult, to my colleagues. I enjoyed being at the training centre so much that I even forgot about my dream of being a doctor or soldier.
“After I graduated in December 1999 with a Certificate in Carpentry, I was lucky to find a temporary job with a certain construction company where I stayed for six months. Afterwards, I would get temporary jobs, which enabled me to survive.”
Mr Matsoai added during a SMART Partnership seminar held at ‘Manthabiseng Convention Centre in 2007, he heard about a South African construction company looking for Basotho carpenters and builders.
“The company needed the people to go and work at its Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) project in Limpopo. There were 16 of us who got offers to go to Limpopo, and we were promised a monthly salary of M3500 each, as well as free food and accommodation.
“Little did we know that we were making the biggest mistakes of our lives by taking up that job offer.
“I remember packing my bags and calculating what I would do with my M3 500, and I soon realised that all 16 of us had similar ambitions of bettering our lives with the money.
“After meeting with the boss in Pietersburg, he promised to fellow us to Limpopo where he said he would give us our work permits, but the man never showed up.
“Also while we were in Pietersburg, we saw the driver who was taking us to Limpopo, buying a 25 kilogramme bag of maize-meal, two cabbages, four cans of fish, one tray of eggs and a 750 ml bottle of cooking oil. We thought the driver was buying his own grocery but to our surprise, this was meant for our group as well as dozens more who were already at the construction site.
“We were over 40 workers at the construction site, and slept in a single room, and also shared the little grocery the driver had bought. What shocked us even more was I had to share the M 3 500 with my helpers or assistants, which demoralised me even more.”
The visibly emotional Mr Matsoai added: “Because of limited space, some of us had to sleep outside and I had to sleep at the door because I was scared as the place had so many dangerous wild animals.
“Again, there were mosquitoes everywhere which made it almost impossible to sleep, while snakes were a common sight at the site, making the situation even worse as they could easily crawl into your blankets and bite you.
“After a week, we could not take it anymore, so we called the employer and asked him to bring us more food as we were literally starving and also our work permits. This made him furious and he told us to go back to our country if we were not happy.
“We told him we needed the permits so that we would not be arrested for working illegally in South Africa, but he wouldn’t be bothered.
“Because we were desperate to leave South Africa, we decided to hand ourselves to the police with the hope that we would be taken to a deportation centre where we would at least get some food and free transport back home.
“But we came unstuck again as the police refused to arrest us and told us to go back to our employer and beg for our jobs back so we could get paid at the end of the month and then return home.
“Frustrated, we went back to the construction site, and one day we decided to tour the area and came across different animals—one of them a monkey that we decided to kill and eat. Others could not eat it because their clan was Motšoeneng, which meant they could not eat that monkey. After that, we would hunt every day until one of our colleagues felt pity for us and offered us his phone so we could call our relatives here in Lesotho.
“You can just imagine how it felt because when we left, our families were struggling and now we were calling for help, and asking if they could send us some money for transport back home.”
According to Mr Matsoai, they called a certain gentleman who was brother-in-law to one of their colleagues.
“He agreed to help, but the problem was how was he going to send the money to us? He promised to send us M3 800 that would take us to Johannesburg where he would come and pick us up.
“We went to Limpopo town, where we asked one of the bank tellers to help us by having the money deposited into his account. That was how the money eventually reached us, and we went to Johannesburg, where the Good Samaritan picked us up as he had promised.”
“You know that bank teller in Limpopo never asked for anything from us in return for using his account; he just helped us. Again, the Good Samaritan who sent us the money never asked for it back, and each time I see him, I thank him in my heart, and one day, I will repay him for his kindness.”
After returning home in 2007, Mr Matsoai continued doing odd jobs until he decided to register his own companies.
“In 2012, I registered two companies, Matsoai Carpentry and Mr L Matsoai Wood and Building Construction. I normally make kitchen units, wardrobes, photo-frames. coffins, caskets, built-in wardrobes and built-kitchen units. God has been great because there is no time that I go to bed on an empty stomach. When doing big projects I also hire temporary workers.”
Mr Matsoai also says he builds houses and bridges through his construction company.
A married father of two, Mr Matsoai has words of encouragement for those who might find themselves facing what appear insurmountable odds.
“Never give up your dream because God will always answer your prayer and will never let you down.”