KHOPOTSO: This was Elvis Lerale in September 2001. Under the piercingly hot sun of Limpopo even towards dusk, with shiny beads of sweat on his brow, Elvis energetically ran around gathering his herd of 22 cows, 10 goats and 4 donkeys. This he did everyday after school. But not one of these animals belonged to the Lerale family. They belonged to neighbours. Little Elvis, then aged nine, had to become a man and start earning an income after his parents died of AIDS-related illnesses. He received payment of R400 per month for looking after his neighbours’ animals.
ELVIS: Ba nthekela diaparo, ba nthekela le dijo,e nngwe ba e isa sekolong. Le ge re eya maetong ba mpateletje ka tjhelete eo ke e disetsago.
TRANSLATION: It helps buy me clothes and food and it also pays for my school fees. Even the school trips, it’s the money that I herd cattle for that pays for them.
KHOPOTSO: Instead of playing soccer with his peers, Elvis learned responsibility at a very young age. His unemployed aunt, who has two children of her own, took him and his sister in after the death of their parents. To make ends meet, then and now, his aunt sells offal at the market in the town of Polokwane. Between the two of them they fed the family of five. But the responsibilities were detrimental to his school work.
ELVIS: Hobane ke duma bana ba bangwe, ga ke yo disa bona ba bala dibuka.
TRANSLATION: I don’t like working as a herd-man. It deprives me of the time the other children have to concentrate on their books.
KHOPOTSO: Elvis was nine years old then. Now, he’s eleven. I traced back my steps to Maupye village to meet up with the ‘little old man’, as one care-giver describes him. Forever busy, he was nowhere to be seen in the sea of school boys in khaki uniforms cleaning up the school yard. One of his teachers helped us find him.
TEACHER: Where is Elvis? Elvis o ho kae? Elvis! Elvis!
KHOPOTSO: Finally, he emerges. Back home we catch up on what has happened in his life since we met in September 2001. Not very easily, I succeed in getting him to disclose that he still owes the school R240 for his annual school fees and his aunt is still unemployed and ekes out a living selling offal. In a subdued manner he tells me that life is better these days – and all because of a simple reason.
ELVIS: Ee, bo betere ka gore matsatsi ana ga ke sa yo disa Ke qetelletse go disa ka January.
TRANSLATION: Yes, life is better because I don’t herd cattle anymore. The last time was in January.
KHOPOTSO: Elvis is shy to say exactly what made him stop herding cattle, saying only that they would wander off onto people’s mealie fields and that he was unable to control them. I asked him what progress he was making at school.
ELVIS: Di tsamaya ga botse. Ke bala Grade 6. Ke batla go ithutela go ba scientist.
TRANSLATION: Things are going well. I’m in Grade 6. I want to become a scientist.
KHOPOTSO: He says he’s interested in science because he wants to learn more about the way maps are drawn. But even though the days of Elvis the cow herd are over, life is still pretty much the same, except for the fact that he can afford to play his favourite game, soccer, with his friends and that he now has time to read his books. It’s a big change for him. But life is hard. The family often runs short of food and on those days dinner for them is bread and tea. On better days they have pap and offal. Luckily, there is the school feeding scheme to feed him during the day. But even in his state of suffering he maintains a sense of dignity and calmness for his age. In addition to needing a bag to carry his books, his other needs are very humble.
ELVIS: Dieta le pull-over.
TRANSLATION: I need school shoes and a pull-over.
KHOPOTSO: When I met Elvis in 2001 care-givers in the area were struggling to secure a social grant for him and his little sister. And even now, Elvis does not receive a child grant. Why, I asked care-giver, Sara Galane? In response, she threw her hands up in the air. She said several applications have been made at the provincial Social Welfare offices, but all have been turned down.
Contact Khopotso Bodibe