Onesimo Dokoolwana


Loss and violence have made an unforgettable mark on sixteen-year-old Onesimo Dokolwana’s young life, but she has transformed these experiences into valuable lessons.  

For the first seven years of Onesimo’s life, she lived in an informal settlement called KTC in Gugulethu. She lived in a shack*. They were six-people – father, mother, aunt and later two younger brothers – all living together.

“When I was very young, I was close to my dad. I grew up in a family where we would go to church and I felt protected. I remember I would stay behind after church, be with my dad, and he would piggyback me home. He would teach me how to read the bible and how to read books in general.

“But life became difficult because my dad began to physically abuse my mom. Most nights when he did that, my aunt who was only a few years older than me, would take all the children outside so we would not witness the abuse. She would take us to the local pastor to ask him to intervene.”

Onesimo remembers her father, himself a pastor, placing value in the local pastor’s visit to the house to make him stop beating her mother.

“The pastor would come to talk my dad down. My dad would listen to him because he was a big influencer.”

Onesimo recalls the reason her father picked fights with her mother.

“My mom was working in a restaurant in town and she would come home late after my dad had already arrived home from work. My father would accuse my mother of cheating on him. My father was also sceptical of my youngest brother, saying he wasn’t his son and was born as a result of my mother’s cheating. That’s what they normally fought about. He never beat us. He would just always go after my mother.”

One day the physical abuse escalated into a bloody scene of violence involving a weapon.

“I was actually sitting watching TV with my siblings. My mother was cooking. My father came into our home and I am not sure how the argument started but they began fighting. I thought, ‘let me run immediately to the pastor’s house’ but I decided first to take my brothers to the other room.

“When I got in there (where her mom and dad were) I saw my father getting up from my mother laying down on the floor and he had a knife in his hand. It was bloody. The blood was gushing and there was blood on the floor. She was quiet. He just dropped the knife and went outside and started smoking. He normally did that after a fight. I thought she was dead.

“I went to her and I was crying. I was screaming. I was screaming for help. I was screaming, ‘why did my father kill my mother?’. I knelt down next to her and started shaking her and noticed she was breathing.

“I called my aunt. She was in shock. She went outside, straight to the pastor’s house and minutes later they came back. I didn’t know where my dad went, because I didn’t see him when the pastor called the ambulance. It took long for the ambulance to come and since my mother was losing a lot of blood the pastor took her in his car. The pastor and my aunt took my mom to the hospital.

“After they left, I began doing what I would normally do when they fought. After they fought, we would come in and clean up because we would find things misplaced. I decided that no-one was going to touch my mother’s blood, so I cleaned it up.

“It was torture. To me, it felt like my mother was dead. The hope within me was dead. I didn’t think my mom was going to come back alive. I thought I had already lost her. I remember cleaning the blood and tears rolling down my face dropping into her blood.”

As news spread about what had happened to Onesimo’s mother, their home filled up with concerned and intrigued neighbours.

“The pastor came back. I am not sure about the time, because it was really late. When he came in, he came with my dad. The pastor told us my mother was going to be okay…and that she would be back in a few days. I had doubts about whether he was telling the truth because my mother had lost a lot of blood. My father was just sitting there looking confused as though he hadn’t just tried to kill my mother. The pastor was asking him why he did what he did. My father said, ‘I know what I did was wrong, but she is disrespectful and she deserved it’. The pastor said that if he continued to do what he did, he would end up in jail because my mother would report him.

“At that moment in my mind I thought that bad people should go to jail and I felt that my father should go to jail. He almost killed my mom and even though he hadn’t raised his hand to me, I believed he would do it someday. I didn’t feel safe like any child would normally under the care of their parents. Minutes later the police came in and arrested my father. He didn’t say anything.”

“I hated him. He was like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was always preaching how it’s like to believe in God and that you shouldn’t resent people or feel the urge to do something bad, so I thought he wasn’t a good example of a man of God.”

While Onesimo’s mother was recovering in hospital and her father was in prison, she, her brothers and aunt, took care of themselves with the support of the pastor and his wife, who provided them with food. Onesimo and her siblings were taken by the pastor’s wife to the hospital regularly to visit their mother.

“I didn’t mind that my mother was in the hospital. I was happy to see that she was alive. However, it pained me to see my younger brothers crying when we had to go home from the hospital.”

Onesimo’s mother was discharged from hospital after a week and returned home.

“She didn’t say much. She stopped being the person who engaged with people and she stopped doing house chores. She always complained about being in pain when she stood for too long and I would give her the pain relief pills. Most days she stayed in bed. She didn’t go to work. It was the pastor’s family who would come to us with food.

Onesimo’s aunt stayed at home from school during this time to support Onesimo’s mother and her younger brothers.

“Little by little my mom gained strength to do things around the house. The pastor told her to make a decision about my father – either to let him come back home or to lay charges against him. I think my mother decided for my father to come back home after some weeks.

“Everything looked fine, but it was awkward. When we were sitting around talking and he came inside, we would go quiet. My mom and dad didn’t talk a lot. They would keep face and we would go to church together as a family. I never saw them arguing like they used to.”

But just as Onesimo was beginning to get used to a calmer home life, she was faced with drama once again.

“It was one night in June, I was coming back home from church with my best friend. She lived a few houses away from my house. Her parents didn’t approve of our friendship. At their house they sold alcohol and they had this mindset that Christian people thought that they were better. But this night she managed to convince them that she could join me.

“After the service, we walked home together. She was scared of the dark and I agreed to accompany her to her house and then go back home. When we got to her gate we saw that her older sister was chasing away three men.

“They made remarks about why she would close early on a Friday night and my friend’s sister politely explained to them that her mother was not around, and that that was why she was closing early, and that they should come back another time. I hugged my friend and we did the shake and pinky promise that we would be friends forever. She went into the house and I walked out of the gate to go to my house.”

Onesimo walked slowly to her house, gazing to the houses in the street.

“Before arriving home I heard screams. I heard someone calling my name. My friend’s scream was not that of a person who just wanted to talk. It was a scream for help. I turned back and ran to her house.

“As I arrived at her house, there was something strange at the security gate. There was a big lock with a chain, but they didn’t usually lock up. I was first confused by the lock and I noticed a strong smell like petrol. Her sister and my friend were banging the windows. There were burglar bars on the windows and they were saying I must call for help. I noticed there was fire at the back of the house. Someone had poured petrol around the house and the house was burning.

“I was confused by what was happening. A lot of questions flooded my mind, like how was I going to stop the fire alone. I then started screaming for help but no-one came out. I decided to run back home. I thought maybe my parents would know what to do and put the fire out. As I was running and screaming, I heard an explosion. The screams had died down.

“When I got close to home, there were people with buckets in their hands. My parents also had buckets in their hands. People were using buckets of water to help put the fire out. I noticed some other houses had caught fire. People were taking their furniture out and making sure children were out of the houses. Later, the fire brigade came in and put out the fire. The firemen went to where the fire started, no one asked me what had happened, no one knew that I knew what had happened.

“I stood near my friend’s house which was burnt. There was a forensic car and the police were removing the bones. I saw how they were removing their bones. There was this unusual smell of her cremated body. I stood around the house and cried. The question in my mind was, ‘why did God take my friend away?’”

Onesimo told her parents what she had witnessed that night and they felt she should see a counsellor, but Onesimo declined and said she was fine. Her friend’s mother was informed by Onesimo’s parents about what Onesimo had witnessed in the hope that she would inform the police. But this had a negative impact on Onesimo since her friend’s mother forbade her to attend the funeral of her friend. She blamed Onesimo for the loss of her daughters in the blaze.

“She told me that I was the reason why her daughters had burned. I already felt guilty before her words, I had not been able to save my friends. Not going to the funeral made me even sadder.

“There were days I would feel like my friend was around me. She was the most genuine person I ever met and I missed her so much. I would ask why God would take her instead of me because I didn’t deserve to live. That’s how I felt.”

Onesimo says her parents allowed her the space to grieve and treated her to the things she liked best to help her feel better. Onesimo was only nine years old at the time when she lost her best friend and her home in the fire.

“In the fire, we lost our house. We saved clothes and furniture. After the fire, the government provided us with materials to build shelter temporarily. After a week, there was a truck that came to fetch us and took us to the RDP* house in Delft.”

The family moved into a brick and mortar home and it was Onesimo’s first experience of living in such a structure.

“I always dreamed of living in a house. To live in a house with stairs made me happy. But the happiness was short-lived because my father started again with the abuse. We were new in the neighbourhood and I didn’t know who to call for help.

“My mother gained the courage to fight back. I’d make sure my brothers would be upstairs to make sure they didn’t see the fighting. They would fight until the neighbours would come. On the weekends the pastor would come and counsel my parents.

“After a few months, they realized it wasn’t working. My mother decided to send us to stay with family in the Eastern Cape. My aunt, my brother and I moved and my mom remained in Cape Town with the youngest sibling.

“I was in the Eastern Cape for two years. We came back when I was about to start Grade 6. My mom felt there were more opportunities in Cape Town. When we got to where we live right now in Philippi she introduced me to my stepfather. That’s when I found out that my parents were divorced.

“My stepfather is actually humble. If my father wasn’t my biological father, I would choose my stepfather to be my real father. He never shouts and he has never shouted at my mother. They never fight and they are always happy.”

Despite the tense relationship between her and her father in the past, Onesimo has patched up the relationship.

“I visit my father sometimes and it’s a lot better now. He is better than when we stayed with him. My father is part of my life but he doesn’t play a big role. He is just there.

“I have actually forgiven him even though he didn’t apologise. I never really talk to him about my mother and brothers. I have also decided to forgive everyone else that has played a negative role in my life.”

When asked, for her final remarks Onesimo said, “loss is a big theme in my life. I almost lost my mom, I lost my ideal father, my best friend, and our home. My story taught me that life is too short to be wasted playing around. I have decided that I am not going to let loss define me. I am going to focus on living my life to the best of my abilities. Knowing that my time is limited and nothing is permanent, encourages me to try my best in everything I do and never settle.”

Onesimo is a Leaders’ Quest participant.

* Shack = a small informal dwelling constructed by hand using any available or scavenged materials such as man-made construction debris, discarded objects and natural materials like mud, sticks, rocks etc.

** RDP house = a house built as part of a government-funded social housing project.

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