MUSINA, Jan 11 – 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 told AFP in South Africa’s border town Musina, after travelling solo through Zimbabwe.
Citing chilling accounts of poverty, drought and violence by 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.
"Some arrived in May and they are still here. It’s very hard for us to say ‘Go.’ As a result, they increase and increase."
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 500-odd kilometres (300 miles) away.
In a small bag, he carried two oranges and a pair of long shorts, saying he had not eaten a proper meal for a week.
But with no address or phone number, the boy was soon introduced to the other boys milling about and given a care pack of toiletries. An hour later, he was crying by himself in a corner of the yard.
Jelom, who lost both parents to AIDS and told AFP that he wants to be tested, also tears up when he speaks about his grandmother, knowing that she is unemployed.
"I want to see my grandmother…because she loves me," he told AFP, still wearing the threadbare clothes that children in his village used to mock him about.
More than one million Zimbabweans are believed to be living in South Africa, and thousands more apply for asylum every month to escape the grim realities at home.
Outside economists estimate inflation in the trillions, while nearly half the population needs emergency food aid and a cholera epidemic has left more than 1,800 dead since August.
With no sign of bettering conditions in Zimbabwe, experts say the exodus is likely to continue. The church is already building a new donor-supported home for the boys.
"The numbers have gone up quite dramatically over the past year," said Lynette Mudekunye of Save the Children which supports four soup kitchens in Musina.
"Last year in June, those centres were feeding 100 children. By November it was 1,000," Mudekunye told AFP.
"We’re really concerned about the potential for trafficking that is perhaps happening under the radar that we are not aware of at all. Nobody has a proper record of who they are and where they came in – anything can happen to them."