A letter by Soka Mthembu, a traditional Zulu dancer and one of our South African staff members.
You would all have seen the photos and heard the stories about the impact of Fay’s work on my community, and how, within a short space of time, she has managed to improve the lives of many. However, it pains me to see her, on many occasions, digging deeper into her own family’s purse because there are just too many people to help, with donations insufficient. I fervently wish I could do more to help her in her efforts.
What also pains me is that the people that she is helping are not as lucky as I am, in that I have access to technology and I have the ability to articulate the impact of her work on the community. I should like to assure you that community members highly appreciate the support they receive, but because they are always emotional, it is difficult to obtain a written narration of their stories. Also, having a smartphone and Internet data is a privilege in Zululand. Many members of society are still illiterate. Sadly, this handicap precludes them from relating in writing the way in which Fay has helped them eradicate extreme poverty. In an attempt to fill that gap, therefore, giving you a glimpse of a life growing up in poverty in Zululand, I should like to share my story with you.
My name is Soka Mthembu. I was born in Melmoth in 1982. Melmoth is a small town in the central district of Zululand—to those who don’t know, it’s the same area in which Fay Bodine Lowry conducts her charity work.
When I was 8 years old I learned that I was poor. It was in January 1990, when I started Grade 1 at a local primary school which was quite a distance away, a walk of about three or four kilometres.
During that year, the learners registered to start Grade 1 were far too numerous, therefore, inevitably, the group was split in two. However, there was a shortage of classrooms, something the school principal solved quite quickly, I might add. We called her Mam Buthelezi. This intimidating woman would also become our teacher, with Mam Ndlovu taking the second class. The principal split the classes based on who had or had not paid the annual school fees of about $2. My sister and I, and about 30 other learners, hadn’t paid our school fees because our parents couldn’t afford to pay. Therefore, for the entire year we learned outside under the scorching sun, or worse, in the rain. This was in a way a punishment for not having paid school fees upon registration.
The fact that my sister and I would become the star performers of the whole of Grade 1 and beyond didn’t matter. We did our best, and between the two of us, fought to come first. When my sister beat me I would be very sad. This didn’t bother my mother, because one of us at least had come first in class: she would try to make us understand this.
As if the humiliation of being singled out to learn in the outdoors was not enough, there came a time when the deadline for all to pay school fees had passed. Mam Buthelezi would call an entire school assembly and ruthlessly group those who were still owing school fees together, making them sing “awungeboleke imbokodwe ngigaye isono sami”, which means “lend me a grinding stone so I can crush my sin”, the sin being this case not having paid school fees for the year. I was humiliated and I was ashamed for having my poverty laid bare for all to see. I would sometimes arrive home, finding no food to eat. If lucky, I would have uphuthu (dried porridge made of maize) and water. If I was luckier still, that water would come with sugar. Regardless of that circumstance, I worked hard at school.
My parents were farm workers, which was a seasonal job. My mother was the luckier one in finding employment; but my father didn’t mind staying home with us, taking on all the tasks that would normally be done by a woman (especially at that time). This must have broken him inside.
When I was in Grade 3, my mother was employed as a domestic worker for a black family in the community. This was uncommon. The wife was a stay-at-home mom—which, to this day, is expected of a wife in Zululand—and her husband was a taxi driver, which was a posh job back then. I happened to be in the same class as the son of the family where my mother worked. One day, Miss Meza, our class teacher, asked, “Which of you has a domestic worker at home?” Within a fraction of a second, Sphamandla’s hand was up—the only person in class so privileged. I had never seen him so happy and so confident in class. That domestic worker he was raising his hand about was my mom. Ashamed doesn’t even begin to define my mood at that moment. And I couldn’t even confront and blame him because he was right: my mother worked for them. The point is that one can never grow used to humiliation and poverty, regardless of age.
Knowing what I know now, poverty had already started way before I was born. My grandfather, Phoyana, who called me “imoto kamkhulu” (granddad’s car, because of how fast I ran to buy him Zulu beer), had no cattle by the time my six siblings and I were born (ownership of cattle being a true measure of wealth at the time). Drought and floods were common occurrences in the mid-to-late 80s. This meant that the wealth of many families was wiped out, and they wouldn’t recover from that. So, he too was poor, and I was the closest thing he ever had to owning a car, hahaha.
My mother had also been born into poverty: her mother died when she was about three years old and her sister at three months. She was raised by her older sister, as her father didn’t live long thereafter. Poverty was therefore the norm in my family.
My cousin often bragged about how his father bought two bags of mealie meal—one for them and one for their dogs, and it became clear that poverty can never be normal after all.
On weekends, my mom, my siblings, and other parents and children in the community would walk to town (17 km per way) using a short cut through Eziweni farm, where we would steal some oranges to eat on the way. Our final destination was the rubbish dumping site we called “KwaDoti.” It was here that the shops and rich people who lived around town would dispose of their rubbish. Because we were so hungry, the first thing we would look for was bread that had been discarded, but was still edible. We would eat that right there and then. Sometimes we would arrive so late that all the rubbish and ‘treasures’ would have been burned, and the trip would have been in vain. We had to arrive before 11 in the morning at least, which meant departing home around 4 a.m.
This continued until one day, Barry Leitch founded a lodge called Simunye Zulu Lodge. Prior to opening it, he visited our primary school saying that he was looking for young boys and girls who could do Zulu dancing, or who were at least willing to learn it. He sent his people to teach us after school. I didn’t bother joining until I heard that there would be monetary compensation. In my community Zingodo Mfeka (aka ‘tall man’) started a group. It was right in my backyard that rehearsals would be conducted, so I decided to give it a try. I learned quickly and I was one of the boys selected to dance. That was my first responsibility. I was left-footed, which is always a problem for a dancer, because, let’s be honest, dance routines are choreographed with right-footed people in mind. Nonetheless, I grew better at performing, and started earning my own money. I would also win all the dance competitions held from time to time, collecting those R50 rewards. In this way, Zulu dancing became my liberator, and Simunye Zulu Lodge a stepping stone in breaking away from extreme poverty.
Simunye opened doors for me, and besides that, it afforded me an opportunity to work in some of the big corporate companies of South Africa. However, poverty followed me, life in the city being expensive: life became meaningless. From time to time I would hit rock bottom, even though I had a job. I therefore took a leap of faith despite having my own family to support. I decided to resign and get back to doing what I love: dancing, and telling stories. Not only do I have vision and dreams for my family and the community—I feel that I’m making a difference. Currently, I’m performing in Vietnam with six other people, who are now receiving an income they wouldn’t have earned had I not decided to change my own life.
Whilst my story is of poverty, it is also a story of hope, and how one may overcome it when someone gives you a hand up, and when you have both parents. Sadly, that’s not the case for many children in my community today. Either their parents have abandoned them, or the parents have died of HIV/AIDS which is devastating many people in South Africa. Fay would also tell you about an HIV-positive man who, even though his medication is supplied by the government, still struggles for bus fare to collect it from town. Even worse, he goes out to kill lizards to eat so that he can take his medication with food.
This is the reality of poverty in Zululand faced by organizations such as The Heart That Gives Foundation. We are grateful to Fay and to all those who donate to make a difference. May she continue to do all the good work that she does. She has my full support, and the entire community appreciates her generosity and hard work.