MOTHER OF ALL
For Cabangile Mdluli, 18, life has been unusual. She was raised by her older brother and at an early age she became the caregiver of her three younger siblings. She tells us her life journey.
Cabangile was born in KZN and she was the second child of the family. When she was three years old, the family decided to relocate to Phillipi in Cape Town.
“I know I was very young but I still remember our first night in Cape Town. We arrived on a winter’s day with terrible wind and rain. We moved to live in a small shack, during the first night the wind got worse and the zinc roof blew away, soon after we were all wet. My parents gathered as many things as they could and we walked in the middle of the night to get shelter in my uncle home.”
Cabangile’s father worked as a fisherman, so he would be away for periods of six months at a time. “My dad would visit us from time to time, but instead of that being happy times it was awful to have him around. Each day, he would get drunk and violent. Some days the arguments would start around the topic that we were not his children and other days he would just point to things in the house, scream that everything belongs to him and he would break things around. Independent of what had started the fight, things would always end in the same manner. He would beat my mom while my brother and I would try to stop him. However, he would turn to us and beat us as well. Every night would end with us crying and full of bruises.”
Cabangile says that they were lucky that her father would only stay for one week or so at a time. As soon as he had spent all his money drinking, he would leave the house and only return after few months.
Cabangile’s mom struggled to sustain the family; she had not finished school because her parents did not value education. This made it difficult for her to find employment and so she would stay away for long periods of time apparently looking for jobs.
“I don’t remember my mom being at home often during the day but she would always comeback in the evenings. As far as I can remember my brother (three years older than me) used to care for me during the day. My mom had a third child and as soon as he was one-years-old, I became his main caregiver for certain periods of time.”
Cabangile was now six years old and besides caring for her younger brother she also cared for the family spaza shop*, “my mom decided to open a small shop at home, so she would bring the stock and I would sell it.”
“I recall that when the shop opened I started going to school. I loved school, it was the only place I could be free and be like a child. So, I kept going to school each day without any guidance from an adult.”
At the age of seven, Cabangile finally realized how her mom made a living, “my brother told me that my mom had been arrested for shoplifting, my mom’s group of peers had told him. He knew all along that this is how we survived because he had occasionally accompanied her, so he was not surprised. I remember not judging her but I was too afraid that she would never comeback.”
Two weeks passed and her mom was released, in the mean time Cabangile and her brothers survived by eating the food that remained in the shop.
“When my mom came back she told me that shoplifting was the family business. That she would always make a plan for us to eat and that I should not worry. From that time on, it became regular for her to disappear for long periods of time, sometimes for a full month but we knew she would always comeback.”
As her father’s physical abuse escalated during his rare visits and her mother is absence from home also persisted, Cabangile’s mom decided to send all her children to live with her parents in KZN. To date Cabagile has not seen her father again.
“I was 9 and at that time we were five siblings (11, 9, 6, 1 and 6 months), we all went to KZN to live with my grandparents in a rural area. My mom accompanied us and she stayed for one week for us to adapt.”
Even though Cabangile describes the living situation as an improvement, they joined a household that was already caring for many children.
“My grandparents lived in a hut with two rooms built next to it. We were 19 people living in the household: my grandparents, four of their children and 13 grandchildren. I had never lived in a home with so many people. My mom kept sending money to assist with our expenses but life was not easy.”
With the exception of Cabangile’s younger sister (1), a cousin (10) and the grandmother, everyone else in the household was male. To follow tradition, Cabangile and her cousin became the main carers in the household.
“We would wake up at 05.00 am to collect buckets of water from an outside tap (30 minutes walking), we would warm up water and prepare breakfast that we would not normally eat and then clean after everyone, before going to school. My cousin and I always arrived late at school. After school we would go to the communal garden were my grandparents had two plots of land and we would work for two hours. When done in the fields we would go home, cook dinner and clean the house. We would be the last people to go to bed. Weekends were not any better and we would wash everyone’s clothes, clean and cook.”
“A good thing from those years was that I grew very close to my cousin. We did everything together and we supported each other. My brothers lives were not easier than mine; they would take care of the cattle. If a cow was missing they would be sent to go after it and told not to return if they didn’t find it.”
Cabangile lived in this situation for the next four years, in the mean time she lost her sister and grandfather.
“It was the last day of school in June, my sister was four-years-old and she started coughing non stop. We took her to the hospital and after two weeks she passed away. I couldn’t believe she was dead; she was like a child to me. I felt very guilty about what happened, I thought I could have done something about it. I still dream about her today, my mom trusted her to me and I let her die.”
“After a year my grandfather died with similar symptoms. He coughed for weeks, lost a lot of weight and screamed in the evenings with night sweats. Even though no one ever told us the cause of my sister and grandfather’s death, I suspect it might have been TB.”
When her grandfather passed away, her uncles told her and her siblings that they did not belong in that household and they should go away. Cabangile was 13 and all her family moved back to Cape Town.
“We stayed with my mom for six months only, she finally found a job but she needed to move around a lot. The job was in the construction field and she worked around the country. She sent money when we needed it and life was good. We easily adapted to being by ourselves again and it was much easier for me to take care of only two young siblings. She would visit once every two months. We used to call her once a week if we had airtime.”
Cabangile’s mother lost her job when Cabangile was 15, “my mom stopped sending money home. But we were lucky, she was receiving three children grants from government and the money was deposited in an account that she gave me access to. I felt it was plenty of money, I managed to buy food, electricity and some school materials for the month with the R840 from the grant.”
When Cabangile turned 18 this year, the financial situation at home got worse, “I did not realize we were going to lose one of the grants. In the month of my 18th birthday when I went to the bank we had received less money. It was difficult to adapt to this new situation, less money but we had more expenses. My older brother had started university and we now received only R620 per month. So, I send him R200 per month to assist him, which leaves me with R420 for my two brothers and I. We have survived and we will continue surviving, it is hard in the end of the month not having food to give to my brothers but we have gotten used to the situation and we keep going.”
Cabangile has lost contact with her mother since last year, “the last time I saw her she visited us for one day. She looked homeless, I asked her to let me wash her cloths and the next day she left. I am worried for her, but deep inside I know she always comes back.”
In Matric this year, Cabangile has been selected to be the head-girl in school, “students selected me, I did not expect them to vote for me. I was glad for the recognition but it has been complicated as it gave me more work beyond home and academics. But I am glad I am giving my best and leave my legacy at school before I leave.”
Cabangile is a top student in her grade and she is planning next year to study Bcom Accounting, “my wish is to have a career that gives me a decent salary, I want to buy a house for my mom.”
Cabangile ends by saying, “I have two big beliefs in my life, the first one is that I always forgive. I forgive people that have done things to me that I don’t like. If you don’t forgive you become bitter and you stop living. So forgive people and move on. My second belief is to be grateful no matter what. I never forget that there are people out there in worse situations than I am. So always make the best out of your situation, no matter how hard it is.
Cabangile is a Leaders’ Quest participant, and intervention offered by Salesian Life Choices
*Tuck shop – is a small, food-selling retailer