Nhlanhla Mamputa


At two years old, Nhlanhla Mamputa (17) lost her mother and was left in the care of her grandmother as no one else in her family could look after her. Nhlanhla shares the story of how a game of chess changed her life.

Born and raised in various homes across Gugulethu, Nhlanhla had what many would view as a rocky childhood. Her grandmother who lacked the patience and capabilities to raise a young child, and she would often leave the little girl with friends or family.

“My mom passed away when I was two. I know very little about her except that she was a talented hairdresser; that was the only thing my granny ever told me.”

“I don’t remember much about my younger days, but what I do remember was my granny often fighting with people we lived with. This forced us to move often.”

“She was short tempered and would hit me sometimes. She would also leave me with different people all the time. I wouldn’t see her for long periods of time, and she would not visit me until the day she was ready to take me with her again.”

When Nhlanhla was five years old, her grandmother took her to stay with a relative because she needed to focus on looking for work.

“I was living alone with my granny’s sister – I called her aunty – and her children (4), (7) and (18). She would often do something called Snyfing – where they sniff or smoke drugs – with her boyfriend and they would drink alcohol a lot. I would see her do that every day; she was in her forties and unemployed.”

“We all stayed in a shack at the back of a house, there was not much space and the children shared a single bed. My aunty would go out often in the evenings.”

Nhlanhla says that although she was young, she remembers an incident with her aunt’s son that scared her.

“We were all sleeping in the same bed: him, his sister, his brother and me. On this particular morning the younger ones woke up early and went out to play. I kept sleeping and that’s when he tried. I awoke to find him pulling off his pants. He looked at me while we were lying in the bed and told me to lick his genitals. I was afraid of him because on our day-to-day interaction he would always shout and push us around. A cupboard divided the shack, so I tried to turn and look for help from my aunt but she wasn’t there. It made my heart sore because I was so scared.”

“He held my head, he didn’t say anything but he had a look on his face. I remember feeling sick.”

“As soon as my face was close to him, his mother walked into the room and saw what he was doing. I was shocked but happy when she walked in. She shouted at him, telling him he was mad, and she told me to get out. I just stood in the yard and started playing with the stones. I was wearing a pink skirt and a top, because I never had pyjamas so I would sleep in my clothes. I remember spending the rest of the day on the street with my friends.”

“After that, the only thing that changed was that he slept in the single bed and my aunt slept in the bed with us. I stayed there for about a year, before I went back to live with my granny. Every day I saw him I was scared he would try it again. My aunt never asked me about the incident and we never spoke about it.”

Moving back to stay with her grandmother made Nhlanhla feel safer, but her granny’s situation had not changed.

“I don’t know what the arguments with everyone were about; she was always fighting. I was raised never to question my granny, so when she said we were leaving, I just followed. I had learned from the past not to cry or moan because when I did she would hit me.”

The pair would move three times within the year, forcing Nhlanhla to change schools each time.

“I know that in Grade Two, I changed school four times because of moving from house to house.”

Nhlanhla’s granny finally decided to stay with her sister-in-law.

“I felt cared for and I liked the place, but I was always afraid that we would need to move whenever my grandmother would argue.”

During that time Nhlanhla discovered something that she would come to love dearly: playing chess.

“An organisation came to my school and asked our teachers to nominate learners they felt would do well in chess and who were performing well academically. I was one of the 25 learners who they chose in our primary school. I felt good but I didn’t know what chess was, I thought it was like soccer or netball.”

“I learned how to play chess when I was eight years old. I enjoyed the tactics and the thinking behind the game. From the first lesson, I loved it and I would always look forward to our practice games.”

“Fortunately we never moved home for the next few years, so I could continue practising and playing. It was also one of the few times I saw my granny happy; she loved that I played chess and when I won medals she would tell her friends.”

“Our club was called ‘Chess For Hope’ and that is exactly what it gave me: hope. During that time there were other kids who were smoking or doing bad things like bunking school, but I was never interested in doing anything like that because I would go to school as all I wanted to do was play chess.”

Nhlanhla played the game so well that she was chosen to represent the Western Cape at a tournament in Johannesburg.

“I was 11 years old and I was one of 10 chess players chosen to play in Joburg. It was my first time on an aeroplane, but I was more excited to play chess than to fly. We were there for 11 days and it was the best time I had ever had.”

Shortly after returning from Johannusburg, Nhlanhla’s grandmother bought a shack and the pair of them moved again.

Although she did not change schools, Nhlanhla needed to travel further to get to school.

“I had to travel for a longer period of time, but I was dedicated to becoming the best chess player in Gugulethu so I did not mind arriving home much later.”

One day, however, Nhlanhla found out some unfortunate news: the chess programme could not continue due to a major withdrawal in funding.

“We wanted to continue playing chess so I searched for my coach’s number on the internet in our library. I called him and asked him to come back but he said that he lived far away in Uitsig so he could not coach us anymore.”

Currently in high school, Nhlanhla says that she has not given up on her dream to become a champion chess player.

“I don’t have many things of value, but my chess board is one of my treasures. I’ve looked on the internet for a chess club in Gugulethu but I can’t find anything. We tried starting a chess club at school, but no one was interested, so I only play from time to time with anyone who wants to.”

Nhlanhla’s grandmother passed away and she currently lives with her grandfather’s sister.

“Moving there made a huge difference in my life because I am stable; I feel free and I feel loved. This makes me happy.”

Nhlanhla concludes by saying: “Life is like a game of chess: you will lose and win at times. By not focusing on the times you lose but rather on the pleasure of playing, you will keep being motivated to become a better player in the game… of life.”

Nhlanhla is a Leaders’ Quest participant

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