A parent at 15
More than 10% of children in South Africa are orphans. With the gradual loss of the African kinship care system, children are no longer taken in by the extended family, and most have no access to alternative care structures. So, they end up living alone or with their younger siblings in what are called child-headed households. Jocelyne Sambira reports.
Thandazile Nombele is a fifteen year old South African girl who lives in Port St. John, in Eastern Cape. The one bedroom house where she lives in is on top of a mountain with a breath-taking view of the Indian Ocean. In this idyllic surrounding, she lived a carefree and happy life with her Mother, Aunt and three cousins, until one day, she came home to find her mother had been rushed to a hospital. What followed came as a shock.
Listen: Being a parent at 15
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THANDAZILE: My mother was sick with the stomach. Then she was taken to the hospital called Slimeli. After 2 weeks, I heard that she died. Then I didn’t believe it, even at school, I always cried. I asked myself how am I going to survive for myself?
NARR: Soon after her mother’s death, her Aunt also passed away and with that her childhood came to an abrupt end. She was left to care for her Aunt’s children, being the oldest of the group. Times were hard says Thandazile.
THANDAZILE: It was so hard because they had lunch and we didn’t have lunch.
NARR: Nancy Erasmus is a teacher at Thandazile’s school. She took an immediate liking to Thandazile because, she says, she stood out. And when her mom fell sick, Nancy was the first person the young girl turned to.
NANCY: The day she came and told me and her mother passed away. That was the time I felt that they need me, and that was the time I just felt they need me and I need to give them more support. After two weeks, she came and told me her Aunt died. That was a very devastating time for them. They were left here without anything. No food. She told me they were just living on maize meal and rice.
NARR: Nancy Erasmus and her husband did everything they could to help. They even set up electricity in the small house and furnished it. She became Thandazile’s foster mother, but at a distance. Thandazile continues to live in her Aunt’s house and Nancy worries every time she leaves her behind.
NANCY: Ay, it is not easy, for me the area is not safe and they are young, because every night I just pray that God must protect them. Because really, for me as a mother, I know my children are safe, but to leave them here is not easy. So, security is a big concern for me, so really if I can take them out of these circumstances, this environment, it would make me much happier and give me peace of mind.
NARR: Security in child-headed households is a big issue in Port St John’s municipality, especially for young girls. There is only one orphanage in the area, and it only takes boys. A situation that the Executive Mayor of OR Tambo District, Zoleka Capa, deplores.
MAYOR: they stay alone, they are orphans, there is no proper home. Caregivers don’t stay in those homes, they only visit and give support. All night long they are alone.
NARR: Some of the children receive government aid, but it is not enough to live on.
says Zamela Noyene, a local official in Port St John’s area where Thandazile lives.
NOYENE: There is a lot of kids who go to bed without eating. And even the programs that we get from social development like the food parcels and all that, really it looks like the budget is too small, it is never enough to cater for the needs really.
NARR: In the meantime, life is hard for Thandazile, and she often feels overwhelmed.
THANDAZILE: When I have to shout at them, when they do not want to do their work. Sometimes I cry because I don’t know how to talk to the young children because they don’t listen. I think if their Mother were here, it would be better for her to talk to them.
NARR: Being the “parent” puts a lot of stress on orphans, and it is a heavy responsibility to shoulder at such a young age, says the Mayor.
MAYOR: Child-headed homes, this is a serious challenge because that young woman or young man ceases to be a child psychologically. Because while in the classroom, he or she has to also plan what they are going to have that night, will also have to take care of others and to be able to respond to their needs day-in and day-out, and is thereby not a child in thinking but a child in our simple understanding.
NARR: So Thandazile writes poems with her best friend Esabong as a way to release some of the pain.
NARR: I am Jocelyne Sambira, for UN Radio.