After first meeting Zaza, I had initially felt quite sad and a bit angry when I would have to say goodbye to her knowing that her mom was never around. My mind began to wander. I thought that her mom was not around because she did not want to be with Zaza or didn’t care enough to find care for her during the day. I was wrong. She did care. She cared more than I could have ever imagined, and her love shines through Zaza’s joy that I have been honored to experience each day in Soweto for the past few weeks. On her relationship with Zaza, Thabisile told me, “our relationship is great. Yes, there are challenges and all that, but currently, she is such a sweet child. I am enjoying mothering her.” Then, I asked her about her situation at home given her experience being a 24-year-old with a 6-year-old child. She said that after giving birth to Zaza, “I needed a job, since I have a child. I needed to help my mother because my mother did almost everything. I was like, okay, ‘What do I want?’ When you are looking for a job, especially a job where work – it’s where you spend most of your time at. So, when I started looking, I wanted something that will make me happy because I’d spend most of my time there. When I was looking, I was passing by the Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre and then I just thought, ‘Let me just go in and check here.’ So I went to Nkanyezi and I saw the kids and played with them. Everything was just…they were so welcoming and all. I thought that since I was not working I could come and volunteer. Then I came, and when I went to Nkanyezi to assist with decorations and all and we played and all that. I enjoyed it a lot. I thought to myself, ‘you know, I wouldn’t mind doing this for the rest of my life…you know, teaching and all.’ I wouldn’t mind to do it and you know what, it is something I want to do. So then, since volunteering at Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre, Ms. Tshabalala took me to a course to learn more about kids that are disabled. I went to the course, the course was nice, I enjoyed, and I came back and shared the information and then I started looking now for a job. I got a job at Forrest Town School – it also deals with kids with cerebral palsy and then I enjoy it still. But you know, you always have to upgrade and all that. So I said, ‘Let me take this as a real carrier. Let me go to school and then let me pursue teaching.’ At Forrest Town School, I am just an assistant, so now, I am corresponding with the University of South Africa to do it professionally. That’s how I fell in love with kids. You know what, they are also kids. They might be different in some certain ways – yes, they are different – but you just need to understand every child. This child has this problem, and whatever they can do, make sure they can do it mostly so that they can enjoy what they do, just like any other kids.”
I sat in awe. Here I was, invited into the home of someone who’s story I had once shortened. Listening to the depths of Thabisile’s story made me realize the depths and complexities of the stories that we all carry. It was a joy to hear Thabisile tell me her story, yet it was difficult to hear the challenges, “the most difficult thing is because I’m a single mother. The most difficult thing is when your child is going to notice that. You know when your child is still young–maybe 6 months–they might feel it but they don’t know it. There was a moment when she came from preschool–around 2 or 3 years old – and then she had a paper–a drawing. They were drawing in preschool and all that. When she came to me, she showed me the paper and I asked her what was going on in the paper and then she told me, ‘Okay, I drew it! This is you, this is me, and this is my father.’ And then, I was like…I didn’t know how to explain it…I didn’t know how to…It was very very difficult because they know there is a mother and there is a family when they talk about families and all that. That moment was very very difficult and all that. Then when she kept growing up, she kept asking more questions and wants to know lots of things. Where is he? You have to try and protect her. In order to protect her, you sometimes have to protect the father that is not there. If you going to say bad things, you are also going to hurt the child. Because it’s not like he passed away or something, but I don’t know if he was also too young or what but it was more difficult for him compared to me, so that’s why I think he distanced and all that. I wouldn’t know really the reason. Still, I’m not saying it’s a good thing because everyone has to be responsible, you know, and now we have to protect and all so she doesn’t say, ‘you don’t love me’ and all that. She doesn’t have to hear all that now.”
Continuing to describe her relationship with Zaza’s father, Thabisile said, “he used to come and promise. He’d say that he would give her these things and come tomorrow and all that but then the next day he would not come. He would come after 6 months and all that but he just does whatever he wants and all that, and I think it just hurts my child more to promise–to have all those promises–and not deliver. I think it comes natural to want to have a mother and a father, so I sometimes think that maybe she does miss that part in her life.” What amazed me was Thabisile’s grace in the midst of remembering this difficult time. As she told me this story, she sat with Zaza on her lap, combing her hair and holding her hand. “You know sometimes he would find my numbers and all that and call, try to stop by and I would say yes. You know I’m really not angry at him. I keep waiting for the day when he feels responsible and all that. So, even that day can be today or tomorrow. We are still waiting. He would come and make these promises to Amaza to come the next, but he never came. He would come after 6 months.”
While her love was evident in the way she held and looked at Zaza, Thabisile admitted that things were and are not always easy. “You know what happens, it’s not easy. I’m not going to lie. Because sometimes when it is Father’s Day, they celebrate it at school and bring home gifts. When it’s Father’s Day, here is this gift, and who do I give it to? Since she was young, we got used to giving it to her uncle–my brother. The families are not all the same, some people have mothers and some don’t and some have fathers and some don’t, but the fact that this family doesn’t have a father doesn’t mean that it’s not full. It’s just a different family. The uncle loves her so much, so at least, even though it doesn’t replace that part, she can give the gifts to him.”
Diving deeper, Thabisile explained how she derives a lot of strength and poise from her relationship with her own parents, “you know I think it was because of the situation where I grew up. I grew up with both parents but they stayed separate. So, I would visit this one and then go visit that one – this one, this one, that one, that one. I still love them both, even though this one would talk bad about that one. I still loved them both. I wouldn’t choose sides. So I think as a child, it doesn’t help for me to be angry. The more you try to forgive, the more you try to relax, it’s better. It eases the pain. I think when you are not angry–when you are at peace–it eases the pain. Peace eases the pain. When you are going to be angry, the other person is free, and you are angry and bitter and then when the child asks you about things, you take out the anger with the child.”
Thabisile then went on to tell me that as a coping mechanism, for her difficulties she used to write, “I used to write a lot of poems. I really enjoy that a lot. I still write a lot, even though at times, it takes me three days to finish a poem and all that. Even telling stories, I love telling stories. Me and Amaza we read stories like every day before we go to bed.” As lovers of stories, we then went on to exchange poems for stories. I told her how frustrations with misunderstanding my half-Filipino and half-white background has often led me to attempt to “erase” my own Filipino identify by disregarding and shortening my own story. I explained how it wasn’t until the death of my Filipino uncle – my mom’s brother–and my physical escape from home to South Africa in 2015 that I finally began to ask the genuinely curious questions to my mom to hear our full story, to feel our sources of pain, and to wear it on my whitish-yellow skin. In response, Thabisile read me the first poem she ever wrote, titled, “A Trillion Miles Away.”
Here are some of the lines that stood out to me from Thabisile’s poem:
“I was caught in a cottage, couldn’t run or hide.”
“I’ve cried almost every tear in my body.”
“Now that I am jeopardized / And kept in prison behind bars / Miles away / Miles away from my family and friends / The image has been stolen / My dignity has been accused / Family and friends have been traumatized / Because they have to travel a trillion miles to see me.”
After reading her poem to me, Thabisile said, “So, the reason why that was my first poem is because my father was in prison. In 2005, my father went to prison and so now, I had to go stay with 1 parent only. This was the situation. I took it hard. My father felt like a trillion miles away. It was very very far. We had to use a train. That distance felt like a trillion miles away. People used to know him and now the dignity was jeopardized. When you are in prison and all that, it is something else.” It turns out that this poem was a mixture of her own feelings interjected with a narrative written in the perspective of her father. It was beautiful–sadly moving–in such a way that was only visually expressed in the love of the moment as Zaza sat in her lap while a flickering light gave beat to a living room.
Continuing to express her emotions in response to the situation with her father, Thabisile said, “he kept stealing and all that. When people see a criminal around here, they chase them, hold them, and stone them. The whole community would come and hit that person. He was hurt so badly when he was caught. The police took him and he went to prison. He was also caught doing fraud too. He was someone who did something bad and the family had to suffer from it. The people who suffered the most were those he left behind. The family was affected.” This deeply affected Thabisile, for she explained, It also still hurt me a lot. When people would ask, ‘Where is your father?’ I would have to say, ‘My father is in prison.’ It was very difficult, especially to explain as a child that my father was in prison. It hurt me how selfish he was to do something to go to prison and to not think of his kids. I really don’t find a good reason for crime.” Thabisile told me that the most moving experience was visiting her father for the first time in prison. As she put it, “Visiting my father the first time…it was very very difficult to see him behind bars. There was this glass window between us. It was very very difficult. We had to use the speakers and it was hard to hear him. It was one of the reasons I’d rather stay away from crime because I don’t want to see myself in prison and have to see my kids come visit me and all that. It’s something I wouldn’t want anyone else to experience.”
After hours of discussion, all I could think about was how Thabisile is a perfect role model for a woman and a mother for and with others. Hidden away in a room off to the side of a former milk store and tucked away behind a yard of zinc shacks, Thabisile gives light to the waves of love that shower in Soweto in the midst of so much darkness. Her final words were a testament to her beliefs, “I want Amaza–yes I am her mother–but I also want to be her friend. A mother is a friend. When you’ve got a friend – when your mother is your friend–I think things are much easier. Because most of the time, we trust our mothers, but when you go outside, there is always that peer pressure. They want you to do this, say that. So rather, when you’ve got a friend at home–I want to be the friend and the mother to Amaza at the same time. She’s allowed to have other friends and all that, but I want to be her friend too.” As she concluded, “Seeing a child improve, whether at home or at work…it just makes me so happy.”
My time spent with Thabisile has made me reflect on my experience as a whole in Soweto. In the end, I have found it difficult to be with the people of Soweto and ask them questions on life when I do not quite fully understand myself yet. While many of my experiences have been depressing and overwhelming, this journey has motivated me to continue to dive deeper into a sense of self. It has been such an honor to be surrounded by the joy of people like, Thabisile and Amaza; yet their daily struggles weigh heavy on my heart. I have found it difficult articulating my time in Soweto, but in the midst of this frustration, I have had an incredible experience, and I hope to challenge all those following this journey to experience it themselves–to go out to the margins of our society–whether it is visiting Soweto or simply saying hi to the homeless person at the local shopping center and ask: Am I becoming friends with those on the margins? What is their story? What is their source of pain?
The Simunye Team