Laina Moyo's dream was to become a doctor. It was not a wild ambition. She was the star pupil in maths and science at her school until, that is, she was forced to leave because her mother could no longer afford the tuition fee increases in Zimbabwe's hyperinflationary environment. But it was when her mother began to be unable to afford not just fees, but also food, that 13-year-old Laina took the boldest decision of her life.
Without consulting anyone she left home and decided to join the "great trek" of Zimbabwean children streaming across the border into South Africa in search of a better life. It was a 350-mile walk.
Laina is just one of the thousands of children no one seems sure of the exact figure who have undertaken the lonely and hazardous journey to join the quarter of Zimbabwe's 16 million people who are estimated to have fled to South Africa to escape the economic and political turmoil in their own country. Like tens of thousands of children of her age, Laina's life aspirations have been ruined.
Even as a hero's welcome was being prepared in Zimbabwe yesterday for President Robert Mugabe, as he returned from what the local press portrayed as a propaganda triumph at the EU-Africa summit in Portugal over the weekend, the exodus of ordinary Zimbabweans continued apace. Officials at the local police station confirm an upsurge in the numbers of children arrested while illegally crossing the border.
The horrors of the unaccompanied journey undertaken by children, some of them as young as eight, is itself a testament to how awful life has become inside Zimbabwe, from which many foreign news reporters are banned. The average life expectancy for women in Zimbabwe is now just 34 years.
The cause of this is an agriculture-based economy that has been in free fall since the violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms from 2000 onwards. The nation which was once southern Africa's bread basket is now experiencing acute shortages of food, most basic goods, hard currency, petrol and medicines. Economic mismanagement has brought it the world's highest inflation rate.
It was to escape this turmoil that Laina left home. "We went for several days without meals," she said. "We could not even scavenge for food in dustbins because none in the neighbourhood had any leftovers to dump."
She knew things could only get worse. Though Zimbabwe's state-run Central Statistical Office (CSO) has declared that inflation was officially "pegged" at 14,800 per cent in October, many economists now say it is running at 100,000 per cent. In practice that means it has become incalculable due to the rapidity of daily price increases. The situation could only get worse for impoverished families such as Laina's.
She decided enough was enough and set out for South Africa with the intention of finding a job and sending back money to her mother and three younger siblings. When the cash began to arrive, she hoped, they would forgive her for abandoning home so abruptly.
It was a perilous journey. She had to contend with the hippo and crocodile-infested Limpompo river to reach the border. She was also prey to organised criminals, who pretend to assist illegal cross-border jumping, but more often rob or rape those they purport to help. They sometimes even murder their clients.
Laina was lucky. But when she arrived at the main Beitbridge/ Musina border crossing into South Africa she encountered others with even more desperate stories. When I met her she had teamed up with Talent Makuyane, who had travelled more than 1,300 miles from eastern Zimbabwe.
The two were thrown together once they became stuck, without any official papers, in Musina town on the South African side of the border. Their stories echoed one another uncannily. Talent, also 13, had been forced to drop out of secondary school because her parents could no longer afford her fees. At her home there was no food either. She could not remember when she last ate a slice of bread.
She reached the border by boarding buses and trains even though she had no money for the fare. By the time she was discovered and thrown off, she would at least have covered some distance. When she was unable to board some form of public transport, she would simply walk. "All I wanted was to cross the border, get any job and earn money to at least have a taste of bread and milk," she said.
But the life they were seeking proved elusive. Many of those who have fled, Laina and Talent included, have fallen victim to sexual predators and abusive employers. "The abuses we are now living with here [in South Africa] are far worse than the hunger we faced at home," said Laina.
Their story is borne out by local people. "Instead of pitying and helping these children, the people here see them as objects for all manner of abuse," said Khotso Motswaane, a 45 year old Musina resident. One of his neighbours, he confided, gave refuge to three Zimbabwean girls, all below 15, because they had nowhere to stay. They are now sex slaves. He said the things that happened to children in the town were "despicable".
Save the Children one of the three charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal is one of the few organisations working to help the children. Lilian Rambuda, one of the charity's outreach officers in Musina, confirmed that the story told by Mr Motswaane was by no means exaggerated.
"It is not uncommon for a man here to have three Zimbabwean girl children under his custody, abusing them sexually," she said.
The complications are far-reaching. Some the girls have contracted Aids and died. One girl Ms Rambuda is attempting to help is pregnant by a man old enough to be her great-grandfather. When he found out he abandoned her. The girl is now too traumatised to talk to strangers and she now spends her time locked up in his shack.
"Old men here are literally preying on these girls," said Miss Rambuda. While the randomness of illegal cross border migration makes it difficult to compile statistics, she says there is no doubt that very large numbers of girls and boys are streaming across the border into South Africa at regular intervals. "You see them sleeping under bridges, picking food from dump sites, then you easily know they are from Zimbabwe," she said.
At the border post, one police officer confirmed that sexual intercourse with a girl under 16 is statutory rape under South African law. But the children won't report cases of abuse because they fear being arrested when they contact the police. "It is not easy to deal with this problem. My opinion is that the government of Zimbabwe must end the suffering of its people by addressing the problems making them flee their homeland in the first place," said the officer.
But the most common form of abuse is not sexual. Zimbabwean children are being used as slave labour. They are offered menial jobs but their employers do not then pay them. When the children complain the employers threaten to report them to the police as illegal immigrants.
Laina and Talent have both encountered this. Each has worked as a housemaid doing everything from washing, ironing, cooking and gardening to looking after the children of their "employers". But when they asked for the R400 a month (28) they were promised the money did not materialise.
"When I asked for my pay after two months without receiving a single penny, I was chased away," said Talent. There is a clear pattern of this, with employers sending away the children unpaid and recruiting new arrivals from Zimbabwe ito replace them.
If it were not for Save the Children, which has assisted her with food and clothes, Laina says she would have died a long time ago. Many other Zimbabwean children she has met since arriving in Musina are in the same situation. And like her they have got in this small dusty town because they cannot afford the fares to travel further to cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town. Many of the girls resort to prostitution for survival.
Save the Children is in the process of setting up care centres where the Zimbabwean children can be given clothes, fed and taught the necessary life skills of their choice to be able to get better jobs.
These safe houses will be for all vulnerable children, but cause resentment among the locals, who see them as only helping foreigners. From there the children will be referred to relevant government and other services including health care and psycho-social support. Outreach workers, using the centres as bases, will tour the dusty town in search of vulnerable children.
The sadness is that, as the great exodus from Zimbabwe continues, they will not have to look very hard before they stumble upon young children who desperately need their help.