Alone in my classroom I sit, bewildered. Outside my door and in the adjoining classroom voices of students can be heard, members of the debating society who stay late most days to practice, Friday after all the other kids have gone home being no exception.
I have just had an almost 2 hour conversation with one of my students, T. Of all the stories about all the lives of all the students I have been privy to since I began at Fezeka, none have shook me more than the one I just heard.
In class today I noticed that this usually vivacious and social young man was uncharacteristically silent. His face betrayed the truth when after class I asked him if he was okay. He told me he was fine but was not even able to smile. I asked him to come see me after school.
When he sat down I told him that he didn’t seem to be himself today and if there was anything he wanted to talk about. He sighed.
The conversation starts with him telling me that he is unable to concentrate at home or study because his mother always has people in the house (a 2 room shack), people drinking alcohol and smoking weed.
He goes on to tell me that sleep at 2-3AM each night as this is when the last of her friends usually leave. After only a few hours sleep he wakes up, goes to a nearby field to train, then walks an hour to school
When I ask if he has spoken to his mother about her behavior and how it affects her, he tells me that he has told her many times – many, many times – and each time she tells him that she was drinking and smoking before he was born so why should she just because he came into her life?
After this disclosure, his story comes fast and hard. The two-room shack that he and his mother share consists of a kitchenette and a bedroom – his mother’s bedroom that he shares with her and sleeps on a mat on the floor of. The shack is in yard of a house owner who rents out 4 of the 5 shacks he has built almost on top of each other the yard for R150 a month. At one point all 5 shacks were rented but those tenants moved out, as they could no longer take the unsanitary and horrific living conditions they provided. I notice he does not mention a bathroom in the house so I ask. He tells me that all those living in the shacks share the toilet but house owner locks it and keeps the key. They must ask permission to go to the toilet and the owner questions their reasons for using bathroom. T says this is ridiculous: ‘Why should we have to justify why we need to go to the toilet?’ he asks. I agree, making no effort to hide my immediate hatred for this slumlord. I ask about showers and he tells me there is no shower, they bathe using boiled water and a baby bath. ‘We cannot wash our face with the same water we have washed our bodies with, it gets dirty,’ he tells me. ‘But when we heat more water to use to wash our faces the house owner tells us we are using too much electricity.’
His mother is a full-fledged alcoholic who is unemployed and smokes weed chronically. She is a lesbian who has many lovers that come in and out of the house til all hours of the night. His mother spends most of her time drunk. When she gets drunk she goes on tirades and gets into fights – both verbal and physical. T often has to go and get her out of the situations she has gotten herself into and they have had to relocate all over the Western Cape upwards of 6 times because she has burned bridges in so many places.
Often, she will get drunk and go up on top of a roof, yelling at people, airing all kinds of dirty laundry. If she has a grievance with someone, T tells me, the whole yard will know.
T’s mother has thrown him out of the house many times and he has slept outside lots. He tells of a time, year before last, when he had to sleep outside during the winter. He would be so cold that he would wake up and his teeth were so cold that they became loose. His toes were completely numb that he could not feel them for days. He tells me that he often thinks of giving up, and for a time considered dropping out of school and joining the community of street kids living in Sea Point who ask tourists and wealthy residents for money. This seemed a more viable option to him because at least he was more likely to not go hungry.
If his mother doesn’t work, I ask, where do they get money to eat? He tells me that he has gotten used to not eating. He may eat one meal a day, sometimes not for a couple days at a time. ‘I don’t let it bother me,’ he says, ‘I have gotten used to it. Any money my mother gets she spends on alcohol and dagga (weed). I tell her I need food to eat; I cannot concentrate in school on an empty stomach. She tells me to find a way to get money if I want to eat.’
He won R1000 once, in a debating competition. He gave all the money to his mother. She spent the vast majority of it on alcohol for her and her friends, and on fixing up the rotting wooden walls of the shack.
I ask him if his mother ever hits him. ‘Not anymore,’ he tells me. ‘About a year and a half ago I told her she must not hit me anymore because I would hit her back. She has not hit me since. But boy did she used to beat me. She would throw me into walls, kick me, punch me.’
T goes for long walks when his mother is drunk, sometimes at 8pm at night. He will walk for hours. I ask him if it isn’t dangerous for him to do this, to walk alone in the township at night. He says that most of the gangsters know him, know he is a leader and focused on school so they leave him alone for the most part. The same applies at school. He says that he thinks he is well known among the students and aside from making fun of him for his prowess in English and dedication to his studies, generally they leave him alone.
Making use of his usually cheerful disposition, T often has to put out the fiery outbursts of anger that his mother has set in the community, though he tells me that he has heard that people question his authenticity as they think his kindness is only because he wants to suck up to them so they wont think he is like his mother
While she is currently unemployed, he tells me, his mother has worked various jobs at some stage or another, but was fired from all because she would show up to work drunk or get into fight with colleagues or bosses
It’s very difficult. Very, very difficult, he tells me.
His father is not around and T has only met him twice. ‘He called me ‘boy’,’ he says.
His mother wanted him to meet his father though it is not clear how old he was when this happened. When he did, she told him to ask his father for money. When his father didn’t give him any money his mother unleashed the fury, calling him names, making a scene and embarrassing L. Had his father given him money though, she would have been happy with him, he thinks.
The hardest part about not having a father, he tells me, is that there is no one to take him to for esuthwini (the circumcision ritual that represents the right of passage of a boy making the transition to adulthood). I have heard this from other young men before. Boys who do not have an older male relative to take them to the circumcision ritual usually rely on a man from their clan (most black South Africans belong to a tribal clan, based on their name and/or where they were born). Having no blood relative to accompany you on this most important of rites of passage makes these young men feel very ashamed and alone.
At one point T mentions a brother. I ask about the brother. He tells me that his brother died when they were younger.
Life in the Eastern Cape.
T tells me that his life as a child in the Eastern Cape was not easy. I cannot comprehend how much more difficult things could be but I am about to understand
When most kids his age were starting school, T and his brother were sent on the road every day to beg for money and food. They would leave in the morning were told by their mother not to return home until they had something to show for the day. They would walk for up to 20 kms a day. If night fell and they had not ‘earned’ anything, they would sleep on the road, in the bushes, covering themselves with plastic or pieces of paper and resume the search the next morning. He was 6 years old.
He would usually do better [at getting food and money] than other boys, he says, because he liked to talk to people and was a good storyteller. If his child self was anything like the young man who sits in front of me, this is not difficult to imagine.
This went on for some years – they would leave in the morning and walk all day, in search of money and food. He tells me they would have respect for white people because they would usually give them some food or money. ‘They would take pity on us,’ he says.
Others would not be so kind. They would turn them away – he 6, his brother 8, telling them not to come to their door. Others would give them R2, others R5, and tell them never to come back. But, he says, they knew they would see them again.
He talks of one time where he went to a house and asked for food. The man took a loaf of bread – moldy bread – out of the bin and gave it to them. He then asked them if they were thirsty and they said yes. The man filled a glass with water from a pail that he had in his garden. The pail had salt water in it. Apparently there is a belief that if you keep salt water in your garden it will keep you safe from crime and intruders. The man gave these children moldy bread and salt water to drink. ‘We ate the bread and drank the water,’ T tells me, ‘and it tasted awful and was so salty. We still ate it though as we were staving. After walking all day on empty stomachs we didn’t have a choice. We called him names to each other as we ate though,’ he laughs.
‘You know,’ he says, ‘apartheid was officially over at that time (roughly 1999), but it really wasn’t. Some white men would chase us off their property with a gun and tell us that if we came back they would kill us. We knew they weren’t joking.’
A popular way to get money, he tells me, was to sell metals of any kind to a scrap yard. The scrap yard owners would give them money for the metal, which they would use to buy food. Because it was practically impossible to find metal to sell, some of the boys took to stealing from the scrap yard and then selling it back to them. It wasn’t long before the owners caught on and hired armed guards to patrol the yards. T’s brother was shot trying to break into the scrap yard. He died. He was 10 years old. T says he has lots of friends who died that same way, shot by the guards at scrap yards. The yard owners gave them orders to shoot to kill, he tells me. The bodies of the boys would be dumped over the fence or far, far away from the scrap yard and never found. ‘So many boys died like how my brother died,’ he says. ‘They died looking for food.’
T speaks of older boys, 18, 19-year old boys who would get the younger boys - 5, 6, 7 and 8 year old boys – to do their bidding, forcing them to break into homes and steal things for them. Those who refused would be beaten or raped by the older boys.
T says he was never raped and that the older boys liked him because he could tell stories. He has always been a good storyteller and today is an incredible poet. The older boys liked hearing his stories and would tell him to listen to the 9pm story (it is unclear if this is a radio or television show), and then repeat it to them. He was able to do it almost verbatim, which they loved. ‘And they didn’t beat me,’ he says, ‘because they knew that when they beat me I wouldn’t talk for the whole day, no matter how hard they beat me.’
He tells me that it was so very hard, the long days, walking barefoot under the hot sun or the cold rain of winter. He never cried though, he tells me, and used to tell himself that men don’t cry. He and his friends, children just like him, used to sing struggle songs to keep their spirits up and from crying from the pain – physical and other. He tells of the thorns, glass and rocks that would cut their feet and bodies as they walked. I ask if his feet are still to this day scarred. He laughs a strange laugh.
He tells me he has many scars and begins to show them to me. A huge welt on his right ankle, scarred in two places. Various other cuts and gouges have healed all over his arms. He tells me he has scars on his thighs and of a time when an older boy came at him with a red-hot poker that had just been heated over an open flame. The boy attacked him in the back with the poker and T managed to move and the poker caught him in the nape of his arm. He bends his arm and demonstrates how the poker was trapped in between his forearm and bicep against his skin. When the poker was pulled away, he says, he could see pieces of his skin attached to it. He does not show me that scar and I do not ask to see it.
Then he tells me that he was hit by a mini taxi when he was 8. An older boy had wanted him to go rob a house and L had refused. The older boy then pushed him into oncoming traffic. He was 8 years old. T managed to dodge the first car but when he turned to catch his balance, a mini taxi hit him. He says he doesn’t remember much about the accident just that he tried to run after he was hit but his leg wouldn’t move. Then he passed out and woke up in the hospital. He spent 9 months in hospital recovering from the accident. I am confused as to how he could have spent so long in the hospital and not have any visible neurological or physical damage from the accident. He then asks me if I notice anything different about his shoes. I never have before but when I pay attention I see that the toe box of one of them is bent up, almost as if he is missing toes on his left foot. He begins to unlace his shoe and stops. ‘I don’t know if you are ready for this,’ he tells me. ‘Do you think you are?’
‘If you want to show me,’ I tell him.
He unlaces his shoe and takes off his sock. My breath catches in my throat and I am unable to speak. His foot is completely deformed, a huge angry scar cutting across the bridge on the diagonal. The toes have not developed properly, and his damaged left foot is somewhere between 1.5 and 2 sizes smaller than his right.
He tells me that the taxi ended up running over his foot and seriously damaged his leg and knee. It was a hit and run. Thankfully, he tells me, one of his friends, a slightly older girl was nearby. She was a good student and spoke English well. She was brave, he says, braver than the rest of us. She wrote down all the information about the taxi and took note of the driver’s face. It was a white man driving, he tells me, and a white man owned the taxi. Somehow this young girl managed to convince the taxi driver to get him to the hospital. He says that this girl disappeared soon after. Word on the street is that she is living someplace else in a nice house because the driver gave her lots of money to not report him to the police. I shudder at this story and have to force my mind to not think about what likely really happened.
He does not remember much of his time in hospital, though he remembers telling his friends not to tell his mother that he was in the hospital, because he feared she would be upset with him. Eventually though, she found out and she came to see him.
When he got out of the hospital he was a year behind in school. Not one ounce of self-pity is evident in his demeanor though, as he tells me that before he came to Fezeka he was a top athlete and won medals in all kinds of competitions at his last school. ‘There is nothing that someone with two perfect feet can do that I can’t,’ he tells me. I believe him.
He moves his foot for me and shows me that he has mobility and feeling in his toes, though for a long time he didn’t, he says. He doesn’t walk around barefoot though, as the sole of his left foot is not used to being on flat ground.
Looking at his foot I struggle to hold back tears. I have never seen anything like it.
I ask him if he has ever seen a specialist about his foot. He smiles and says that no, but he dreams of when he is older and making money and being able to do that. His mom tries to get him to play up his injury, to hobble around and walk with a cane to gain sympathy from strangers, similar to what the older boys used to do with him when he came out of the hospital. He grimaces and says he won’t do that.
‘My main problem is with my shoes,’ he says, ‘because my feet are different sizes so my left shoe usually wears out before the other one.’
Looking at his mismatched feet, it would seem the best solution would be to buy two different pairs of shoes of different sizes and have him wear one of each. Obviously this has not been an option for a young man who can scarcely afford to eat.
I ask him if he has any pain. He tells me that no, he doesn’t. When he used to walk barefoot he says that his left knee used to give him pain but if he doesn’t do that it is okay. He said that when he was younger people used to tell him that as he grew he would heal, that his bones would fix themselves. One look at his underdeveloped and mangled foot tells me this has clearly not happened.
I make a silent pledge to myself to get him to see a podiatrist as soon as I can.
He puts his shoe and sock back on and we sit in silence for a few moments. I ask him how he feels about telling me this. He says it is strange telling me, as he has never told anyone the things he has told me. He does not tell anyone his own age, he says, because he does not trust anyone. Those close to him have betrayed him so many times, and the friends he has confided in have time after time spoken his business to others. So he keeps his mouth shut.
I ask him if there are ever times that his mother is kind to him, times where she acts like a mother. He tells me that yes, sometimes, when she is not drunk. When she is not drunk and he tells her that he has done well at school or in one of the countless (debating, environmental club, drama, poetry, student council, peer educator) extra curricular activities he is involved in, she will tell him that is good. But this does not happen often.
‘I am always cheerful and friendly,’ he says, ‘even when I don’t feel it, even when I feel empty and numb inside, because people expect me to be that way and sometimes it is easier to pretend. I know I must work hard because I have to be able to support myself to get anywhere. This is my only option. So I work hard. I study hard. There is a small storage area in our yard. I spend lots of my time there, reading my books. There is no roof so when it rains I get very wet.’ He tells of a time last winter when he fell asleep in the shed and it began to rain. He woke up to find all his books soaked.
‘There is a streetlight right above the storage area that is on all night, so there is always light for me to read.’
I ask him about his classmates and how they receive him. I am conscious of the general feeling among students towards those who are exceptional. The crabs in the bucket/tall poppy analogy holds very true here, and students often mock and try to knock down those who rise above the rest. This is not altogether unsurprising, as I have been told there is a similar mentality in many of the communities that if you succeed, you are a sell-out.
He says his classmates vary on how they feel about him. They have voted him class rep for the student council, and sometimes acknowledge his strengths as a leader, asking him to lead the class in a lesson when the teacher hasn’t shown up. Other times they make fun of him when he answers questions, calling him a ‘model C boy’ who thinks he is better than the rest of them. On a recent geography test of bodies or water in Africa he scored the highest mark in the class, and rhymed off at least 12 different rivers and lakes on the continent while he sat in front of me. He says his classmates couldn’t figure out how he knew all the answers. ‘They have the same books as I do,’ he says. ‘Only I read mine.’
He tells me that he used to have a map of Africa pasted to the ceiling of his mother’s room that he used to look at every night from his mat on the floor.
‘What happened to it?’ I ask.
‘She took it down,’ T answers. ‘I don’t know what she did with it.’
I ask him what he needs most.
‘Well I have a school uniform,’ he says, ‘so that is the one thing I really need. One of my teachers was able to get me it from a student who had left the school.’ Though the collar of his sweater is badly torn, it is not the first time I have noticed that his shirt is always crisply ironed.
I ask him about toiletries, soap, toothbrush, deodorant. He tells me that he uses his mother’s deodorant and soap but that he has his own washcloth. He doesn’t mention a toothbrush.
He has a cell phone that an older Nigerian friend of his who refurbishes phones gave him. Since he gave it to him, the friend often calls T to watch his container whenever he goes to town. Usually T is not doing anything when the guy asks so he doesn’t mind. He sits inside the container and reads his books. Plus, he continues, he doesn’t really have a choice because the guy would probably ask for the phone back if he didn’t do it.
And casual clothes?
Not really, he says. ‘I have one pair of shorts and 2 t-shirts. I had a pair of jeans but they got so ripped that I can’t wear them anymore. One time this guy gave me a new outfit. I was so happy to have new clothes and couldn’t wait to wear them. When I was walking in the street wearing my new gear these gangsters robbed me. They took everything, even my underwear, and left me naked. I was so sad that day. Not about being naked but about losing my new clothes. I had never had new clothes. And I didn’t even have them for one whole day.’
People often ask him why he is so serious, he says. It is not that he is serious, he continues, it is just that he doesn’t have much to smile about. He tries to focus on his books as much as he can because that is all that he has. He doesn’t have any friends (that he trusts) who he can talk to, his mother is drunk the majority of the time, and with hardly any street clothes, going out of the house anywhere but school is not easy.
I give him R100 and tell him that I want him to use it to buy groceries. He mustn’t give it to his mother. He doesn’t take it at first and I can see he is holding back tears. Fighting them back. But he wont let himself cry, especially not in front of me. Eventually he takes it from my hand and his voice cracks as he thanks me. I have to look away as I am on the verge of losing it.
He makes a hasty exit telling me that he should get to the debating club meeting that has been going on during our whole conversation. He thanks me for listening, tells me that it has been really good for him to talk about it. I tell him that it was my pleasure and thank him for sharing, that anytime he wants to talk I am here.
He can see on my face how sad his story has made me and in his typical fashion, smiles and breaks out into a laugh.
‘Don’t let my story kill you,’ T says as he walks out the door. ‘It has already killed me. I am a living dead person.’