LET YOUR STORY UNFOLD
At the age of 30, Nthakoana (Nthaks) Maema has been faced with many challenges that were both out of her control and of her doing. She tells us her story of how she discovered her path by going through an uncharted journey.
Born in the United Kingdom, Nthaks was raised by parents who were respected wherever they went.
“At the time of my birth, my dad was studying for his Masters at Cambridge University, I’m not sure if my mom was also furthering her studies as they had both recently graduated.”
Nthaks is the eldest of three girls and says that her family moved back to Lesotho, where they are originally from, at an early age.
Her mom was an Economic Planner in the government and her dad was an Environmental Scientist who managed the Katse Dam project.
“I would describe my childhood as moderate to affluent, we went to a good school and lived a good life. Even though we were more affluent, I never felt like we were different. There were times when we visited my paternal grandmother, I would notice that my cousins ate different food and spoke differently but other than those few times I felt everything else was the same.”
“My parents gave us the freedom to know what was right and wrong. They were both high-achievers and would travel often but I never felt I lacked love. We just knew we were loved, everything was always done so that we were comfortable. They ensured that even when there was a change, it was done in a way that it did not feel it was an overwhelming experience.”
It was normal to start school early in Lesotho, so Nthaks started school the year she turned four.
“I never struggled with grasping ideas at school. Everyone always told me I was clever like my dad. My parents were not hard on us academically but it was expected that we perform well.”
While in Grade 7, Nthaks’ father was offered a position as a Director at the University of Natal.
“My dad moved with my sisters for about six months, while I stayed with my mom in Lesotho to complete the academic year.”
The next year they were all settled in Pietermaritzburg. A while after the move their live-in nanny, who came from Lesotho with the family, disappeared. Nthaks’ parents decided to drive to Lesotho to get a nanny, and come back on the same day.
“I was eleven at the time, they left in the morning. I noticed that it was getting dark and I called my granny to ask if they had left Lesotho and she said they had. At this point, they should have been at home and they were not answering their phones. I called people who were based on route from Pietermaritzburg to Lesotho to check if they had stopped along the way.”
“That same night family from dad’s and mom’s side arrived at our house. En route they visited hospitals, police stations to find out if there were any accidents on the road. But they found nothing.”
“I just knew that something had happened, because my parents would never disappear like that.”
“Throughout the Sunday, everybody continued to search and at this point the police were involved as well. More family (Lesotho) and friends (South Africa) arrived at the house that day. Internally, I knew that my parents weren’t coming back.”
Nthaks says that her dad’s youngest sister took the carer role, “she slept with us, got us ready for school and made the food at home.” They were also given reassurance from family saying that their parents would be found.
During the week her parents were missing, Nthaks and her sisters continued going to school.
“The day they were found I was writing an exam. I was pulled out of class by my teacher and my guardian, an uncle (dad’s cousin) came to fetch me. At home we were told that there was a car accident and both our parents and the nanny they had collected in Lesotho had died. We were told that my dad may have lost control of the car because it was on a very windy and curvy area.”
“The whole experience was surreal, my mind was trying to rationalise it. I kept wondering how my parents were moments before they died. There was an element of strength in the family because a lot of things needed to be done. Everybody was just going through the motions although the shock was palpable.”
During that week, decisions needed to be made regarding Nthaks and her siblings and funeral arrangements.
“I remember being consulted about the school decision. Probably a week later the funeral was held in Lesotho. We drove to Lesotho with my parents’ best friend. We drove in convoy and stopped at the spot where the accident happened. It was strange to see the place, but brought reality to the situation. We had a really good support structure at the time and I tried to be calm because there was no need for anyone to be hysterical. However, when we had a moment of silence for my parents, I felt these warm tears falling down my cheeks.”
“The look of pity from people during that time made me feel uncomfortable, I wanted to shy away from it. I remember we went to the salon before the funeral and the hairstylist was talking about us to another hairstylist and kept saying she couldn’t believe how strong we looked. In my mind I kept thinking how dare she say that because she did not understand my pain.”
The funeral took place in a church and was an open casket.
“I remember watching and observing what was happening. I felt empty, like I was outside of my body and I was watching everything. I chose to view them, it was very weird seeing my dad and mom with absolutely no life. I kept thinking who the hell is this? I said a silent prayer, saying go well to them.”
That was the moment Nthaks broke down.
“My heart was sore. Every emotion just flooded me and I had a deep cry.”
Their uncle (dad’s cousin) was named their guardian and a trust fund was established with their parents salaries, insurance policy and money from the sale of the family house. The Trust had the objective to support the children’s studies. They would go on to attend a top private girl’s school in Pietermaritzburg.
“The school offered great stability; they were sensitive to our situation. It was a small school, and we saw a psychologist at the school to deal with our grief.”
Nthaks would go on to be a top student in high school.
“In matric I was awarded the Victorian Award, the award was given to the student that embodied the school ethos the best and most likely to become successful. It was a great confirmation, I also had academic honors.”
After high school, Nthaks chose to study Business Science at the University of Cape Town.
“I applied at all universities and for different things, Engineering, Medicine and was accepted for all of them. But I chose to study Business Science because it offered the highest return and I received a 100% scholarship. At the time the perception was that it was rare to find a black Chartered Accountant so I thought I would stand out.”
Staying on campus and in a new city was an exciting time for Nthaks.
“There were no rules, I felt liberated. The fact that no one was telling me what to do, there were no curfews, I just felt free. There was no system around me determining how I should be, there was no instruction manual.”
“First day of lectures (17), I was traumatised because of the size of the class, there were so many of us. I was entering a very unhealthy space. I became unsure about what I wanted to do, I stopped attending classes because I didn’t find the value in the teaching.”
Because Nthaks was naturally clever she got by on the bare minimum. However, financially things began to change in Nthaks’ life.
“I passed the first year but my scholarship was reduced and eventually changed to a bursary. The bursary would take care of a portion of my fees but then I needed money from the trust fund for accommodation and this is where things started changing. I now needed to think about money and the trust was not open to paying for the private accommodation with my best friend. I needed to put a request in for the money and that process took long.”
“Eventually I got my answer for my accommodation request, but by that time friendships had already been negatively affected because I had failed to fufil financial commitments. The lump sum I received needed to pay for next year’s rent and I was unable to pay my debts back.”
“At that time, I didn’t care about anything happening in my life, I would go often to the doctor to get sick notes so that I can skip tests. The doctor noticed a change in my demeanour and said that the very fact that I was losing so much interest in life, it meant that something was wrong and referred me to a psychologist.”
Nthaks attended three sessions, was diagnosed with depression and was given medication. Although she only took it for one day because it made her feel dead. So, the depression continued.
At that point, Nthaks was completely separated from the student life and just went to university to write exams. During her 4th year at University there was a discrepancy between the fund and her University fees.
“It didn’t feel like it was worth the fight, I felt empty and the majority of the days I did not even want to wake up. I had the realisation of the dark hole I was in, I wanted to get out but I wasn’t motivated enough to do it.”
“I was 20 and I dropped out of university. I started waitressing because I needed an income and I enjoyed it because I was surrounded by different kinds of people. I had never worked side by side with people from the township. They were only interested in who I was not anything else. They showed me a different way of looking at life. I also realised how they were ill treated by management and they did not fight for their rights, that really disturbed me.”
“At some point it became clear that I needed to find a career path of doing good and dealing with these kind of injustices. I was going to be receiving a lump sum from the trust fund that I thought would buy me time to start my new path. My next job was with a non-profit organisation educating youth in the township. Through this experience, I found myself and I started to manage my depression”
“My life experience has taught me humanity and compassion. Through the gifts I have received along the way, I now know my responsibility in this world is to up-lift people, so that they may harness who they truly are.”
Nthaks concludes by saying: “Always look into your inner resources and you’ll be able to identify what you want in life. Be aware that there is a thin line between setting yourself up for failure and finding success in your failures. One is self-destruction and the other is self-discovery. Let your story unfold and be present in it.”
Nthaks is a Salesian Life Choices staff member