RAISING CHILDREN DIFFERENTLY
Ziyanda Mxhobo has become an advocator for children’s rights. Her life experiences have given her the wisdom to choose to raise her future children differently from the way she has been raised. After all, everything in life is a choice.
Ziyanda, 18, from Nyanga East is the third born in her family. “I have been raised by a single mother. I shared a father with my middle sister (23) but my elder brother (35) has a different father. Both dads were absent from our lives.”
Ziyanda remembers her first years with nostalgia. “We lived in my aunt’s house. She was my mom’s sister and she was often sick, so my mom took care of her. She ran a shebeen (drinking place) from home so we could all survive. We lived in a shack with three rooms – one room was the kitchen/living room where my mom sold the drinks; one room was used for the drunk clients to sleep and the other room was our bedroom. I remember being happy. I was too small to understand life.”
Ziyanda’s mom and aunt fell pregnant almost at the same time when Ziyanda was three years old. Unfortunately, her aunt passed away when the baby was three months old, leaving the baby to Ziyanda’s mom. “We were five children at home and my mom kept working hard in the shebeen to sustain us.”
“When I was four years old, a fire began in a nearby church. People used to cook in the church to feed the community and they also had a lot of candles for prayer. My mom told me that no one really knows how the fire started but soon it had extended to all the shacks nearby. Our home burned down and neighbors assisted my mom to save some furniture, but in the rush they forgot me inside, I was sleeping in the third room. At the last minute my mom counted the children and realized that I was missing and she screamed for me. A neighbor ran inside the burning shack and rescued me.”
Ziyanda’s uncle assisted her family to build a one-room shack on land the other side of Nyanga.“This time our home was not properly made. It was small, cold and it had holes all over. With the family business gone, we were only able to survive thanks to the government grant. My elder brother moved to stay with his father’s family and my mom managed to pay for all expenses at home through the three child grants she received.”
At the age of five, Ziyanda’s grandmother passed away in the Eastern Cape. As tradition demands, it was imperative for Ziyanda’s mother to go to her mother’s funeral. Unfortunately, she did not have the money to pay the bus fare for the whole family, so she asked a friend to look after her three children and took only Ziyanda’s younger brother with her.
“I stayed behind with my sister (10) and my cousin (2). My mom’s friend was dating the next door neighbour so my mom thought she was the right person to take care of us. But she used to leave us alone often to be with her boyfriend, and after a few days they had a big fight. We could hear their screams, and she left and never came back. I remember it was winter and it rained all night.”
“The following morning we woke up and our home was flooded. The three of us spent all day sitting on top of the bed waiting for someone to come and rescue us. The following day some neighbours forced their way in, accompanied by a social worker. The state removed us and we stayed in a children’s home for a few months.”
“I hated the place. We were sleeping in one room with many children, many of them sick. The food was terrible and if you did not eat they would hit you. They were not nice and I missed my mom every day.”
In the meantime, Ziyanda’s mom was fighting to regain the custody of her children. “After three months we were allowed to go back home. I was so happy to see my mom, however my cousin was left behind. The state refused to give my cousin to my mom even though she fought for years. We never saw my cousin again.”
Life in Ziyanda’s home was not easy. “My mom always tried to make sure we had something to eat, but on most days we did not have food and we went to bed on an empty stomach. It was hard but I did not mind. At least we were all together.”
When Ziyanda was old enough to start school, she could not go as her mother couldn’t afford to send more than one child. “I started primary school when I was nine years old. My mom could not afford school fees for all the children, so I had to wait. I knew the reason, so I did not ask or complain. My sister used to go to school and I would stay home with my younger brother and wait for her to return.”
“The day I was finally sent to school I was so happy. I was much older than my peers but because I was short I fitted in with them. The teachers were nice and friendly and I loved to study and play with my friends. My sister was moved to live with a cousin because my mom could not sustain all of us, so that gave me a chance.”
“My mom finally got a job sweeping the streets for the city council and things improved, but the job was on a contract basis so it finished after a few months.”
Then, when she was 13 years old, Ziyanda met her father for the first time. “He came to our house and he was talking to my mom when I arrived. He looked at me in a strange manner and stared. My mom told me to sit down and said, ‘This is your father.’ I had so many questions going around in my head, but I did not ask any. He asked me how old I was and which grade I attended, and then left.”
“After a few weeks he came back with a top and a pair of jeans for me. I felt so proud and happy. This was the first thing I had received from my father. I suppose deep inside I secretly wished to have a father”.
Ziyanda’s father never went back to her house again, but she began noticing that he had always been around. Almost each day she would pass by him on the street and if he was with friends he would point to her and say, “this is one of my children,” or sometimes when he was alone he would just nod. “I always kept walking, repeating to myself ‘he is not my father’. Once my mom told me that we could fight in court to force him to pay for maintenance, but I told her I did not want anything to do with him, not even his money.”
Ziyanda grew up with a smile on her face all the time. “My mom taught me that even when things are bad to keep smiling. She does the same – I know when she is stressed but she always looks at me and smiles.”
“Things at home did not improve financially. When I was in Grade 8 the uniform that I had used since Grade 6 was too small, and my skirt and shirt could not close any longer. I used a piece of stocking to hold my skirt and two clips from a hanger to close my shirt. I would wear my jersey over my shirt and skirt to go to school, so no one would notice.”
“My worst nightmare was on hot days. One of my teachers would always say, ‘class take your jerseys off.’ I would continue as if I had not heard him and he would say, ‘Ziyanda what is wrong with you?’ I would reply ‘I have a fever Sir,’ and would force myself to cough. The class would laugh and he would say, ‘you are such a cheeky child’ and he would leave me alone and continue with the class.”
“I was so desperate that I decided to ask for assistance from my father for the first time in my life. I went to his house. In my mind, I thought that a few years before he had given me a shirt and a pair of jeans without me asking, so maybe now he would say yes because I was asking for help for a school shirt. My father promised that he would take me shopping the next Monday. He told me I should not go to school and he would come and pick me up and buy a school uniform for me.”
“I was so excited. I ran home and told my mom. I took my clothes off and I ripped my shirt apart in small pieces and threw it in the bin. I kept my jersey because I loved it. I was so happy all weekend, but when Monday arrived I waited and waited and he never came. I called him on his cellphone and asked where he was and he told me he was out of town. I did not say anything I just put the phone down and cried.”
The following day Ziyanda wore her church shirt under her school jersey and went to school. “As soon as I arrived in class my teacher asked me where I had been, I stood up and said that there is a very vicious dog in my road, whose name is peaches and over the weekend he ate my school shirt so I could not come to school yesterday. The class couldn’t stop laughing about the story, but inside I knew I preferred them to laugh about the peaches’ story than knowing what had really happened.”
“I only told my best friend the truth because I felt bad. I loved peaches and he was my friend, so I told her that it was my dad’s fault and not the dog.”
“That day when we were walking home my friend pointed to the bus stop and asked me, “is that not your dad?” I looked and there he was, dressed in new clothes from top to bottom. I felt so embarrassed that he had treated me as a fool and I had fallen for it. I ran home crying.”
“When I told my mom she felt so bad that she told me that she was going to borrow money from the loan sharks to buy me a shirt. The money she used to repay the loan the following month was our food money. It was a difficult month for the family, but I was so proud of my shirt and the fact that someone who loves me had given everything to wipe the tears off my face. I owe everything to my mom. That month we survived by eating a lot during the day at the school-feeding scheme. I also asked my friends to lend me R1 per day to buy chips, and gave them to my brother in the evening – you know boys are always hungry!”
Ziyanda’s mom finally found a more permanent job as a cleaner in Gugulethu Mall. “I was so happy that things had improved at home. My mom tried her best to fulfill the role of a mother and a father. I know she is the one I can count on.”
“I have decided to use my mom’s clan name as my own, against Xhosa tradition. I feel that people like my father have put his clan name (Mqwathi) to shame. My father plants everywhere he goes – he has many children all over the place but does not take proper care of any of them.”
“When I finish school, I want to study social work. I would like to be involved in changing South Africa. I am passionate about helping children in need. I know what it means to grow up without food and a school uniform and feeling a sense of inferiority because you do not have what others have. I wish to be able to give a smile to other children as my mom did for me.
When we asked Ziyanda what she would like to say to conclude, she said: “People should think very carefully about having kids. Only when you can afford to give them a good life with a lot of love you should consider starting your own family. Children have basic needs, and it is the responsibility of their parents to fulfill those needs (physical and emotional). We can’t continue treating children as we do in South Africa. I would like to urge people of my age to stop this vicious cycle. We, too, have the responsibility to choose to raise our children differently than the way we have been raised.”
Ziyanda is a Leaders’ Quest participant.