THE GIRL WHO FOUND HER VOICE
Eugené Nelson grew up in the Eastern Cape in a small town called Humansdorp. She was raised in a multicultural family but battled to find her voice for most of her life. This is the story of how she found it when she moved to Johannesburg to work as a domestic worker, and how she dedicated her life to helping others to find theirs.
Eugené was born to a 16-year-old mother who had contracted polio at the age of 12. Her mother was very ill after the delivery, so the mother and child stayed in hospital for three months. There was talk of adoption, but Eugené’s mother and grandmother decided to keep her.
‘My grandmother was already raising two of my cousins. We lived in a small house and the three of us slept on the floor. My grandmother bathed us every day using one bucket of water. I was lucky to be the girl and to go first. Even though we did not have a lot, my grandparents were protective, loved us and provided a safe roof over our heads’.
However due to the cramped conditions, at times Eugené spent her time living between her aunt and her grandmother. ‘I struggled to make roots in one place as I moved up and down a lot, sometimes on a weekly basis. Because I didn’t have a sense of home I struggled to communicate.’ Despite the displacement, Eugene found her home at school, ‘My school empowered me and helped me to believe I could become whatever I wanted. I loved school, it gave me the platform I needed to express myself and I fitted in.’
Eugené completed her matric and at 18 and she decided to move to Johannesburg to start her adult life as a domestic worker. ‘There was already a stigma about being a domestic worker but that did not matter to me. I took this chance as a stepping-stone in my life, I wanted to become independent’.
Through a neighbour, Eugené had found an elderly couple that needed some assistance in a period of transition. It was an ideal opportunity and the family became more than just her employers.
‘This was the best and most liberating decision I made,’ says Eugené. ‘In those two years I became friends with the family. They introduced me to studying through UNISA. For the first time, someone asked me what I wanted and made me think about my future. They supported me in finding my worth and I feel this is where my journey began. I started studying B Com Law. At the time I wasn’t sure what my passion was, but it gave me the confidence and the initial push I needed.’
Despite the liberating experience of Johannesburg, speaking up and becoming assertive was a continual struggle. It was only when Eugené moved to Cape Town and started working in a fish-and-chip shop that she found her true voice. ‘During lunch I’d see young people wearing similar t-shirts. I asked them where they worked and they told me about their youth development organisation. I just knew that I also wanted to work there’.
‘For a few months I called the office and asked to see the manager. The receptionist kept telling me that I should send my CV and that they would call me back. After two months, I decided to walk to their office during my break. I told the receptionist that I was there to see the manager. She asked if I had an appointment and I replied that I would only take few minutes of her time. I was surprised when the manager agreed to see me. We spoke for a few minutes and she told me that there were no positions available. However, the following day, I received a phone call offering me a position. I knew at that moment that my voice could be heard’.
‘Working with youth developed my awareness about myself. I needed to piece myself back together and build my self-esteem so that I could understand my dreams. It was through this kind of work that I began to find who I really am.’
Eugené has big plans; she has discovered her passion for children and education. She changed her studies to BEd Education and she is working towards being in a position that will allow her to have a positive impact on the educational system. ‘A school has the power to change a community,’ she says. ‘Education can change lives; it changed mine. I want to be part of that change. I face daily challenges but always remind myself to reflect, improve and achieve. Life doesn’t get better, you do!’