𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗟𝗼𝘃𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝗠𝘆 𝗠𝗼𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗿
Abongile was just a child when her mother’s descent into mental illness changed life as she knew it and forced her to shuffle back and forth between family members who took care of her each time her mother’s grip on reality slipped.
Abongile Tywala (18) was born in Cape Town and spent most of her formative years in Gugulethu. She was raised by her single mother. Her father also lived in Cape Town, but she describes that she did not have a relationship with him.
“My mom was the one who raised me. My parents were not married, he lived in Heideveld. He had a wife and two kids. The few times I visited they acted very strange when I went there, so I didn’t have a relationship with them. They were mean and they would say bad things. They would leave the house or give me nasty looks. I wouldn’t say I had a relationship with my father either. The only time I went to say ‘hi’ was when I needed things from him, like when my mom couldn’t afford it. I saw him a few times a year, when I visited him, but he didn’t make an effort to visit me at any other times.”
Abongile describes her early childhood years in a house in Gugulethu as idyllic.
“I was the youngest sibling. It was just us in the house with my mom. When I was born, my sister was thirteen and my brother was fifteen years older. They were from different fathers. I can’t truly remember my brother because he had a heart problem and died when I was about 5 or 6 months old if I’m not mistaken, because that’s how my family describes it to me. My mom told me his death was a very sad moment for her.
“My mom was a domestic worker and she worked in Sea Point. We had enough because my sister’s father would give money which would help my mother to buy groceries and most things that we needed. I never experienced going to bed hungry. My sister had a relationship with her father, she used to visit him during the holidays. He would also buy her things on her birthday. But because my mom was such a loving person, I never felt like my dad wasn’t present in my life, everything felt like it was complete and I never felt jealous of my sister. Everything was good.”
Unfortunately, the close-knit family was dealt another devastating blow.
“Everything changed when my sister died. She was pregnant, she was 19 years old. After giving birth she died in hospital. At home, there was a lot of change after her death. I was six years old; my mom didn’t handle it well and she began to act strangely.”
Alone with her mother, and her sister’s baby at home, Abongile recalls the incidents which made her worry about her mother’s state of mind.
“I would wake up when it was time for me to go to school and my mom was not there. One time I heard that she was at the train station with my sister’s baby girl. Other times, I would hear that she went to my sister’s school with the baby to look for my sister. When she came home, she would ask me about her, like ‘where is she?’”
Eventually, the community noticed Abongile’s mother’s behaviour and they made unkind comments.
“She was constantly going out and I didn’t understand what was happening. She was not acting the same way she used to act and I would hear from people in the community that she was sick and stuff. They made jokes about it, and they laughed. I was scared and sometimes I felt ashamed. I sort of tried to talk to her but it did not work. She was never aggressive but she acted strangely. After a while, I stopped going to school for a few reasons. One, I could not really explain what was going on. At school, they would question me about the way I dressed and where my mom was. Since I was still young, I couldn’t iron my skirt properly, so I would wear it like that and go to school. Other times, my mom would come to school to check up on me. She was overprotective. She would say that she would stay until the school day finished and that we would then go home together. She would stand outside for long periods of time until it was time for me to go home. The second reason I stopped going to school was that I was verbally bullied by my peers. They would make fun of my situation. That hurt me and broke me even more.”
Abongile learned, for the most part, to do things for herself.
“I learned to do some of the things myself. I used to cook porridge for myself, so I did not go hungry. Usually, my mom would use the grant money to buy groceries and she would cook, but then she would go back to her strange ways again. She had her moments when she was okay. It made me cry a lot. Every time she saw me cry, she was concerned and she would ask me why I am crying and I wouldn’t tell her, because I was scared of how she might feel. My mom was the one taking care of the baby. When the breakdown days came, she would go around with the baby and I wouldn’t know where they went to.”
The third month after Abongile’s sister died, she decided to alert an aunt about her mother’s mental state.
“I convinced my best friend to come with me to one of my aunts’, I told my aunt about the situation and she called an ambulance. My aunt had already heard from the people in the community. The ambulance came and took my mom away. I felt like it was too much and I couldn’t handle it. My mom walked freely to the ambulance. People in my community were watching. My friend told me that my mom was going to get help and that I shouldn’t worry, that everything will be okay. I was crying. I was thinking maybe I was never going to see my mom again. My mom was taken to Valkenberg mental institution.”
Abongile and her baby niece moved into her grandmother’s house in Heideveld.
“Life at my grandmother’s place was difficult because I needed to take care of my niece when she was crying. My grandmother would bring the baby and say “take your niece, she is crying, I don’t know what to do anymore.” My niece was three months old and I was six years old. My grandmother used to wake me up at 5am to cook porridge and prepare tea for her. During the day I had to clean the house and hand wash my niece’s laundry and I couldn’t go out and play with other kids. My granny was old, she was in her seventies. She would take care of the baby during the day; she took good care of her. She was not as nice to me. Sometimes I would make a mistake and she would shout and talk about my mom’s sickness. She would talk to me in the meanest way. When my other cousins would come to visit, she would treat me differently to them. They would sleep and I would do the chores alone. I felt like I shouldn’t have told my aunt about my mom’s sickness, because life was better before. If the baby cried at midnight or in the early hours of the morning, she would tell me to take the baby because she wants to sleep. I would hold her in my arms and try to place her on my back and sing lullabies. Sometimes it worked. I would pray so hard for my mom to get better so that I could go back home because I really missed her.”
While living with her grandmother, Abongile still had contact with her mother.
“One of my aunts used to take me to my mom. It was scary being in such an environment. Every time I saw my mom, I would first be scared of her, but as she talked to me, I would get comfortable and I could see that my mom was getting better. Maybe it was the place she was in but she seemed different. She acted as if she would never see me again. It was difficult to say my goodbyes to her, I so wished she could come out with me. Whenever my aunt was not working, we would go and visit her.”
The following year Abongile moved back to Gugulethu with her niece to live with her aunt in a shack.
“She had a family of her own. She had four children and then she took me and my niece. She didn’t have a husband. She had a small business, she sold chips, sweets and airtime. Some of her eldest children were working. I was hopeful that things would get better and they did somehow. My aunt was taking care of my niece and she was taking good care of her. My grades at school began improving because I had time to do my homework and finish all my schoolwork. As time went by, I started cooking and doing laundry for everyone. I was washing dishes and taking care of almost everything in the household. It was just adults in the house so I did the work.
“I was fed – everything was okay in terms of food. But I did not appreciate how I was treated sometimes – if I broke a cup or did something wrong, or came five or ten minutes late from outside I would be shouted at and sometimes I would get a hiding. I guess no home was like the one my mom provided and I missed that.”
Abongiles mother was getting better.
“Since she was getting better and better, she was released on weekends to visit her family and on Sundays, she would be taken back. She lived with my other aunt on the weekends but she would come and see me. Seeing her was an assurance that she was going to come back home and get better again. I had stayed with my aunt for two years by that time.”
Abongile’s mom was released from the institution and Abongile left her aunt’s place to live at the same house she shared with her mom when she was younger.
“My mom was released and I went back home, my niece stayed with my aunt. It was a different experience. In the beginning, I felt a bit alone. I got used to having a house full of people and now it was just me and my mom. But I was happy, my mom was giving me the love I longed for. She told me stories of everything that happened at the institution and she used to apologize for being absent in my life for such a long period and we would talk in general about life and how I was treated by family members. She would get furious but I would beg her not to tell anyone about the things that had happened. She was the mom I used to know. Every moment I spent with my mom I felt happy. It was also nice being back in the house instead of a shack. There was no space in the shack and we would sleep on the floor. With my mom, I would sleep on the bed. When it was raining in a shack, it would flood. In a house, those things didn’t happen. She had a great sense of humour and she would make me laugh.”
Abongile and her mom spent three years living together until her mother suffered another setback.
“Everything was good until her mom died. My mom had another breakdown, she would take washing powder and spread it around the house and said that it was to get rid of bad spirits. She would go missing, the longest was for two days. I was broken inside – I never thought that my mom would get sick again. She promised that she would never get sick again and I took that promise to heart. After a few weeks and a lot of crying, I went to my aunt again and I told her. Once again, I watched my mom get in the ambulance, this time she was crying and begging me to tell the people that she is okay. She said, ‘I love you, my child, you know that I do.’ I couldn’t stop crying.”
Abongile moved back to her aunt’s place for a while, until her mom got better.
“When my mom was released, we moved back to stay together. Things were back to normal, but I constantly worried that she would have another breakdown. Even though my mom seemed well mentally, she constantly complained about headaches and stomach aches but she kept saying I shouldn’t worry.
“One morning I woke up, got ready and went to school. We had a cousin who was sleeping over that day. When I came home, I was told that my mom hadn’t woken up and that she had died. I can’t fully describe what I felt. My head was racing with different thoughts: ‘there is no purpose for me to live; all of my happy moments were made by her; I was not with her in her last moments; she only had a mental problem I did not know she was sick; why is she no longer in the house; I did not say goodbye.’ I cried and cried; the only person who truly loved me was gone.”
Abongile’s mom was 52 and Abongile had just turned 14. She returned to live with her aunt and after some time Abongile began making peace with what had happened.
“After she died, I moved from the house to the shack where I’m still living. Our house is still there. I was able to turn the memory of my mom from pain to my personal motivation. I felt like I owed her my success. She always believed in me and used to tell me about the importance of an education. I worked hard on my grades and I finally made it to university. It still hurts every moment that I get to celebrate my own achievements without her in my life and seeing other children with their mother’s love. I’m not sure the hurt will ever fully go away but it is weaker as time goes by.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging experience for Abongile, especially learning online.
“I am studying towards a BCom in Financial Accounting at UWC. I am a first-year and on a full NSFAS bursary. I was living on campus but with the lockdown, I was forced to move back to my aunt. Learning online was a new thing for me and it was difficult, I won’t lie. But I think with patience I am managing it.
“COVID-19 has taught me how to work on my own and not depend on anyone. I know who I am and where I want to be and that assists me to overcome challenges that come my way. Things are not easy at home. There are too many mouths to feed in a world with too little work. Sometimes we struggle for food and getting other necessities but my financial aid has assisted. We also can’t fully protect ourselves because we can’t practise social distancing when we share so many things with everyone in the community – e.g. sinks and toilets.”
Though her situation is challenging, Abongile decided to use her free time to tutor high school learners and help them keep up to speed with their school work.
“I’ve been tutoring grade 10, 11 and 12 with the commercial subjects. I am doing that on WhatsApp. In the past, I have learnt about servant leadership and I told myself to assist where I can. Apart from tutoring, I also check up on the students’ mental health and how they are coping overall. Besides making my mom proud, helping others gives purpose to my life.”
Abongile is a Leaders’ Quest Alumnus