Prince Jelom has sold eggs, carried bags and pushed trolleys to survive life as a 13-year-old on the run from Zimbabwe’s spectacular collapse.
He knows the best spots to sleep in a bus shelter, how to work an 11-hour day, and the tricks of bluffing his way back across a border after being deported.
But beyond his streetwise know-how, Jelom is just a penniless small boy who misses and worries about the grandmother he left behind in rural northwestern Zimbabwe.
“I ran away on Wednesday, October 15, because I wanted to buy some books, clothes and a bicycle,” he said in South Africa’s border town Musina, after travelling solo through Zimbabwe.
Citing chilling accounts of poverty, drought and violence by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s supporters in his home village, the well spoken boy has not been to school since 2007 but still dreams of being a pilot.
“Many people told me that if you are not learned, you are nothing,” he said. “I want to be a pilot because a pilot is what my father wanted to do.”
Jelom is one of 100 Zimbabwean children sleeping in a crowded tin-roofed garage at a Musina church, set up as a shelter for scores of young Zimbabwean boys found wandering the streets.
Living rough, often eating from rubbish bins, the street children are casualties of the worsening crisis at home where deadly cholera has come on the back of chronic food shortages, mind-boggling inflation and the collapse of hospitals and schools.
“These children come from different parts of Zimbabwe, rural and urban, with different stories which are very shocking,” said Lesiba Matsaung of the United Reform Church which started the shelter last year.
Most of the boys came to Musina with goals but few plans.
They want to track down family members, amid dreams of becoming dentists and flying airplanes, and escaping the poverty and upheaval at home.
Such was a skinny boy from central Matabeleland, who was found on a border farm, and brought to the church in a torn jacket, dusty khaki shorts and shirt, and flip-flops that had giant holes worn through the heels.
Hours after fleeing Zimbabwe, the 13-year-old told church officials his aim: finding his brother in the hustle-bustle of Johannesburg, South Africa’s flashiest, fastest and meanest city some 500km away.