Bajabulile Zoko (17) was badly body-shamed by bullies at school which knocked her self confidence. It took the kindness of a stranger to turn her life around.
“I was born in Cape Town and grew up in Nyanga. I left Cape Town when I was four years old to live in a rural area called Dutywa in the Eastern Cape. I spent the next six years of my life there. To have water we needed to fetch it from the river. We had cattle around us and the houses were rondavels (traditional huts).”
“Even though I was very young, I can still remember life before I moved to the Eastern Cape. It was just me and my mom and we lived in a block of flats. We stayed in a small flat, but next door to us lived my aunt and her kids. My uncle also had his own flat in the same block, so I had a feeling of being surrounded by family. I was very close to my mom.”
Bajabulile did not have a close relationship with her father while growing up.
“My mom and dad were never married. I did know who my dad was but we don’t really have a close relationship. He is married now and he has a family of his own. Growing up, I only have one memory of him visiting me. I was probably four years old at the time. That’s the only time I can recall him visiting. He never phoned me. His absence in my life was a question I had about my dad when I was younger. For example, I used to wonder; ‘Why is my dad not coming to fetch me?’ My cousin used to be fetched by her dad every weekend and she came back with sweets and I wanted the same thing. I used to cry about it and my mom would say I shouldn’t worry because my dad would come and fetch me too, but he never came!”
When Bajabulile’s mom was about to have her second child, Bajabulile was sent to live in the Eastern Cape.
“In order for my mom to deal with her second child, I was sent to live with my grandmother in the Eastern Cape. It was challenging because it was just the two of us. In the beginning, she was a stranger to me and to be left alone with her was traumatic. While I was living there, I began looking for her approval but it was never enough because we never connected emotionally. From very early on, I could feel she did not treat me like the other grandchildren when they visited. She was harder on me. Every time I made a small mistake she would beat me. She used to say that she did that because she loved me, but to be honest I doubted that was true.”
“Accidents like breaking a glass would be dealt with very differently. I would get a big hiding and my cousin, for example, would be smiled at and be asked to clean it up. This ongoing treatment made me start questioning my self-worth.”
“My mom used to visit me in the Eastern Cape and during school holidays I would visit my mom and baby sister in Cape Town. I loved those times because it was the only time I felt loved.”
Bajabulile recalls that she was body-shamed from a young age.
“School was okay besides trying to fit in because in primary school already, the bullying had started. They used to say to me; ‘You are too thin,’ ‘You are the size of a needle!’ I had only one friend at school, who was my neighbour. It was like walking on eggshells at school. I was lonely at that time even though I was the top learner.”
“Since I didn’t have friends I would make friends with teachers. I was the teacher’s pet basically. I never reported the bullying because I didn’t understand it as bullying at the time. It only dawned on me later what bullying actually is. At the time, I just saw it as other kids making fun of me. I believed everything they said about me. Every time I looked in the mirror I saw exactly what they told me.”
Even when Bajabulile tried to make friends, they caved in to peer pressure and deserted her.
“I remember I was close with this boy and we became good friends but he ended our friendship after he gave in to peer pressure by the bullies. The friends I made didn’t want to be labelled as I was, so they kept a distance from me.”
“It was hurtful so I distanced myself from the world. I decided not to have any friends. When I got home from school I would watch TV and read. During break time at school, I would sit and read a book. I really thought that I wasn’t good enough because that’s what the bullies had told me and I believed them. There was a time that I would look in the mirror at my face and body and cry. The negative voice in my head was always overpowering any sense of self-worth I had.”
When she was 10 years old Bajabulile moved from the Eastern Cape back to Cape Town for good.
”My mom came to fetch me during the December holidays but I didn’t know I was leaving for good. My mom was unhappy with my living situation since she had heard from a cousin of mine that I had received a bad beating from my grandmother. That prompted her to come and get me. When I returned home, my mom was shocked that I didn’t have enough clothes despite her sending my grandmother money every month to take care of me.”
“It was amazing being back in Cape Town. I was so happy to be with my mom and being back in the city was exciting. My baby sister left to live with her dad shortly after I arrived back home. We don’t have a close relationship even now because our whole lives we have lived apart from one another.”
Cape Town offered a new start for Bajabulile.
“I started a new school. I thought that it’s a new life and I was going to be rid of the bullying I had experienced. I told myself that I’m going to make new friends and I’m going to impress the teachers. But what happened was that impressing the teachers went well, but getting new friends went south.”
“The same mindset that kids had in my previous school was what I encountered in the new school. I couldn’t be close to anyone. I couldn’t say anything because they would say to me; ‘You may have the brains, but you are ugly.’ The bullying was pretty bad. I still continued with the same habit of reading during break time. I remember when we were in class and we would learn about TB or malaria or anorexia nervosa and in the textbooks, we would see the pictures and the kids would point to these pictures and say; ‘Oh that’s Bajabulile!’ I would have tears in my eyes but I would force myself not to cry because that would give them power over me. I would try to respond to the bullies but they would always gang up on me. This went on until the last year of primary school, I can’t describe how this affected the image I had about myself. I felt disgusted by my appearance.”
One act of kindness from a stranger made Bajabulile change entirely.
“One day I was walking to the shop with 3 or 4 girls. I was at the back as I always felt inferior among others. An old gentleman was walking towards us, when we were close he pointed at me and said; ‘When you grow up you will be a beautiful person. You are going to be special. Remember these words!’ And he left. No one said anything and we continued walking, but his words kept playing over and over in my mind.”
“When I arrived home and look at myself in the mirror, an old story that my mom and auntie used to tell me when I was small came to mind. They used to call me ‘princess’ and they used to tell me that our clan* name belonged to royalty. I could hear a voice in my mind, telling me that I should not focus on what the bullies were telling me, but rather focus on the royalty that I am. The voice was also saying that if you believe that you are ugly then others will too. Sometimes I think that voice was God or an Angel.”
“I was looking in the mirror, thinking and reflecting. I thought that if I want to be royal, I should begin behaving like a queen. I kept repeating that to myself that I’m a queen until I believed it.”
The next day at school was a game-changer for Bajabulile.
“When I went to school after that day, the bullies would say bad things to me but my response was different. Instead of wanting to cry I really didn’t pay much attention to them, so when they said those nasty things to me, I asked them; ‘Why are you so intimidated by me?’ And I would laugh at them. I believe that laughing discouraged them.”
“From that day onwards, I didn’t respond the way they expected me to. I saw that it worked. I saw that if I disregarded them then it literally got to them and they stopped. They saw how much confidence I had. I didn’t have my shoulders down. I remember this voice saying; ‘No, don’t walk with your shoulders down.’ I started walking differently.”
“My confidence was rising, I started telling myself I am cute. I would have conversations with myself in the mirror and make myself laugh. I literally fell in love with myself. I was 13 by this time. I got used to giving myself compliments.”
“Even though I refer to it as the ‘voice’, I do believe that what gave my confidence a boost was positive self-talk in the mirror. After adopting this new attitude, I began hearing compliments from people and one day while I was walking, someone called me Naomi Campbell!”
Being bullied is a thing of the past for Bajabulile.
“I wasn’t bullied at high school. Nobody messed with me, I’m in grade 11 now. With this new attitude of treating myself like a queen, it meant that other people began treating me like a queen too. I created my own story.”
This newfound attitude also gave her the courage to approach her dad.
“My mom used to work at a restaurant. However, at some point, she lost her job. She tried to make ends meet by selling meat until it no longer worked out.”
“My mom is unemployed, she finds work here and there to support us but it’s not consistent. We survive on a child social grant. It’s difficult. I have to get money for transport, school fees and something to eat, and we have a meal every night. I don’t know how my mom does it. I remember attending school and surviving two winters with the bare necessities for my winter uniform. Sometimes my mom gets help from her brother.”
“I started reconnecting with my father last year because I saw how my mother was struggling, so I thought that if he was not going to love me then he could at least support me financially. I didn’t have his contact details but I bumped into him one day after he was visiting his family who lives close to where I stay. That’s when I asked him for his contact details. It’s not like he is supportive because he wants to be, it’s because I’m persistent about it. He made a queen, the minimum he can do is to support her.”
Her experiences have taught her important life lessons.
“I’ve learned not to let others opinions about you destroy you and that the most important opinion about yourself is your own. Listen to the positive voice in your head and don’t doubt yourself. God created us in different shapes, so think twice before you say something cruel to another person especially body shaming. Words have the power to destroy but also to create! Choose wisely the words you tell yourself and the words you tell others.”
Bajabulile Zoka is a Leaders’ Quest participant.
*Clan – a clan is a unit of social organisation. It is the oldest societal structure in Africa, other than family and direct lineage.