YOU ARE NOT TO BLAME
For most people, the word ‘grandmother’ conjures up good thoughts, but for 16-year-old Aqeefah Collins it is the polar opposite. She tells us about her experience with an abusive step-grandmother, and how she has learnt to overcome years of oppression.
Born and raised in Bonteheuwel, Aqeefah is the eldest of her two siblings, one sister (11) and a younger brother (4). She has lived most of her life with her mom and stepfather.
“When I was a year old, my dad was shot and killed. A year later my mom married my step-father; he was a spray painter and my mom stayed at home with me.”
Shortly after Aqeefah’s mom married, the family moved to live with her step father’s mother who everyone called Tietie (female elder).
“We shared a room in my step-grandmother’s house. Things were good until my sister was born when I was five years old.”
“My sister would get sick often and need to go to hospital, so my parents would leave me with my step-grandmother. We lived in the same house but we didn’t talk that much, and when I started staying on my own with her we were forced to interact.”
“She was mean towards me. My earliest memory was when I was six, she would talk to my cousins and say that they were beautiful and then point to me and say, ‘except this ugly one.’”
“She would always pick on me when I was feeling good. There was one day when I got home from school with a gold star on my head for doing really well in a spelling test. I was so excited to tell my mommy, but she was at the hospital. Tietie was home and saw the sticker, she took it off me and yelled that I didn’t deserve it. I remember crying but not telling my mother because she was already stressed about my sister.”
“She was short, big built and very loud. I wasn’t very talkative and she scared me most of the time.”
Aqeefah says that as her sister got more ill and her parents were away more often for longer periods of time, Tietie’s abuse became more physical.
“It was always random: I would be walking to watch television and she would push or trip me. I would often fall and she would just laugh. I would go outside and cry about it; I wanted to tell my mom but I was scared.”
“Another day I asked her for something and she pushed me to the ground and said that I must not be stupid. I remember thinking that I must have done something wrong for her to hate me this much. I felt extremely guilty. She was the adult so I thought I must be the wrong one.”
“When I was about nine years old, I had to stay alone with her for a week. On the first night she started when I went to the toilet. From the outside she screamed that I was using it for too long and that I am a “vark” (pig) and a f*#@n stupid child. When I asked her why she was shouting, she pushed me and swore at me even more.”
Aqeefah became a quiet child that mostly kept to herself and read books. Her self-confidence was ripped apart with each mean encounter.
“Even though my mom was not as present as before, our relationship was still strong. One day she told me that she could see that something was wrong. I told her what was happening and she believed me. She looked shocked, hugged me and said she was really sorry.”
“She spoke to my step-father about it, and Tietie stopped for a week but then started again.”
“She continued doing the most strange things to me. One day, she made me clean the bathroom then keep my head inside the toilet bowl and flush it. I tried fighting back and managed to lift my head to breathe. I pushed my elbow into her body and pushed her away. It was the first time that I stood up to her.”
As Aqeefah grew older, her sister became healthier and life returned to normal. Her mom was around more and she endured less torment.
“From the age of eleven it got less, my brother was born and she stopped picking on me. A few years later, when my brother was three she started picking on him. At the time, one of my cousins had moved into my step-grandmother’s house. He was the same age as my brother and she treated him very differently. One of the things she would always do, was go to the shop and bring my cousin luxuries but never bring anything for my brother. My cousin would eat it in front of my brother, who would want some too and get upset when he did not get any.”
“I was angry because I felt there was nothing I could do and also afraid that she might do to my brother what she did to me. However, I had lost the confidence and belief that I had the power to do anything to stop it. The only thing I kept doing was to ask my mom when we were getting our own house. She would say we were struggling financially, so one day when we were rich.”
“I kept a watchful eye on Tietie and the way she treated my brother. When he was four, he complained about her. I got to know she was being mean to him when no one was around and I had missed it. I got very upset and finally got the courage to do something about it. I might have not been able to stand up for myself but I managed to stand up for my brother.”
Aqeefah sat down with her mom and told her in detail about the experiences she had with her step-grandmother and her suspicions that she was now harming her brother. “She asked me why I never opened up to her after I spoke to her the first time, she was convinced that things had improved. I told her that I didn’t want to add to her worries, I was scared and felt it was my fault. Knowing that she was doing the same to my brother made me realise that I was not the problem, she was. She told me that it was not my fault and that she was happy that I spoke to her.”
“I don’t know what my mom did after that, except that Tietie became scarce at home and mostly came to sleep.”
Aqeefah’s home life improved drastically and she is using her experience to motivate herself to do well at school.
“I am passionate about science, especially chemistry, I really find it interesting. My dream is to study dentistry so that I can take care of people, but also to make money so that I can help my family buy their own house.”
Aqeefah concludes by saying: “When I thought I was part of the problem, I felt paralysed and could not do anything. As soon as I realised that the behaviour of people who are mean to others has more to do with their internal status, than any of the actions made by the people they are oppressing, I felt empowered. Be aware that you might not have the power to change the behaviour of the oppressor but you do have the power to find a solution to your situation.”
Aqeefah is a Leaders’ Quest participant