Different… Makes Us Unique
Xenophobia was a big part of Amanda Makara's (21) life growing up, but it was the devastating abuse that she later suffered which almost broke her. Amanda’s sheer will to live propelled her forward to regain love for herself.
“I was born in Cape Town and moved to Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape when I was six months old. It is a rural area. I lived with my grandmother and it was just the two of us. It was so quiet and I enjoyed it. My grandmother was like my own mother. We did many things together and I did not feel lonely.”
Growing up, Amanda was shunned by other children in her community.
“There were other children there but I didn’t communicate with them because I am half Congolese and half South African. As a ‘foreigner’ staying in a rural area, I was treated differently. I think because I have very dark-coloured skin, they thought I was not a South African. Also, my grandmother spoke English to me. I don’t really know why. I think perhaps she did that because she was thinking of my future and that if I moved back to my dad I would be able to communicate with him since he is Congolese and doesn’t know isiXhosa. I could speak isiXhosa but my accent was not fluent.”
“The people in the area would make comments about me. They would say to me; ‘How does it feel not to be South African?’ They would say; ‘You look different to other children.’ I didn’t have friends in the area because of that stigma. My grandmother always used to say to me; ‘You are different and being different is what makes you unique’.”
“I used to wonder where the Congo was. I was still too young to understand so I used to wonder, ‘is it another country?’ I wished that I could go there sometime to see if people look like me. I developed very low self-esteem when I was young.”
“The other kids used to scream and call me ‘kwerekwere.’* That’s why I stayed home the whole time because I didn’t want to go out and hear those things being said to me. I felt like they could harm me because they used to ask me weird questions and I thought maybe they would beat me one day. I felt like the adults were telling their children things about me and the children were acting out what they were hearing.”
Primary school was Amanda’s refuge because she was not teased.
“At school, I never had any issues. I did my best and got in the top five regularly. My primary school was in the area but it was about 10 kilometres from home. I walked every day and I was at school on time, but I used to be very tired after school.”
In addition, Amanda showed exceptional talent in Athletics at primary school and that boosted her confidence.
“I was an athlete and I was winning and getting position 1 for sprints. It made me popular and it helped boost my confidence even more. It really did. I started in grade 3 and I have been running until now.”
Amanda’s grandmother supported the two of them while working at a major grocery store.
“My mom and dad didn’t visit me. I was in touch with my mother on the phone and she would say she would come but she never pitched. She only came once on my eighth birthday. She came for a short time and left again without giving my grandmother money. I just knew while I was growing up that she lived in Johannesburg but I didn’t know if she was working. When she called me, the conversation on the phone was not easy because I was not used to her and our relationship was lacking.”
“I did miss her because when you hear other kids talking about being comforted by their mothers, I felt that I was missing out on that kind of relationship. But even though I missed her, my grandmother was a mother to me. I had everything that I needed growing up because my grandmother made sure of that and that I didn’t go to bed without eating. I would say my grandmother spoiled me but in a good way because she gave me a lot of attention.”
When Amanda was 11 years old her grandmother fell ill.
“My grandmother became very sick, she had low blood pressure. My uncle moved in to help my grandmother. She was so weak, she was in bed. It was difficult for her to walk but she was trying. I was worried that she might leave me. She was sick for three years.”
“The first year she was so sick, she had to stop working and my social grant was not helping a lot. My uncle who moved in was my mother’s brother. He was not working, all he did was drink. I didn’t see any reason for him to come since he was not helping my grandmother. I feel like those were the worst days of my life. He would come home so drunk. But first, for a while, he played at being good with my grandmother and then he started coming home drunk and shouting and swearing at both of us, especially me. Basically, he would say, ‘why are you living with your grandmother?’ He would ask; ‘Why is your mother was not taking care of you’. I think he was angry because maybe he had a conflict with my mother. I just didn’t understand why he was like that.”
It wasn’t long after her uncle moved in when Amanda suffered what can be described as a living nightmare.
“One night he came home and he was so drunk. My grandmother and I were both already sleeping. He came into my room and switched on the light and I told him to switch off the light. But then he closed the door and locked it. I told him to go away and that I wanted to sleep but he said he wanted to talk to me. He sat on the bed and just took the blankets off me. I didn’t understand the reason for him taking off the blankets, because he said he just wanted to talk to me. He told me how beautiful I was. I just kept quiet. He started touching me and I jumped out of the bed. He took out a knife and told me to keep quiet or else he was going to stab my grandmother. I did as he said because I was scared. He pushed me against the wall and closed my mouth with his hand and he put something like a pill in my mouth and I fell unconscious. I don’t know if I fell asleep or if I fainted because I can’t remember what happened, but the next morning I woke up with blood all over me. I didn’t tell my grandmother. I just went to bathe myself and I was crying. After that happened, he went away and didn’t come back for two days. I didn’t understand what happened to my body because I couldn’t remember anything. I was scared to tell my grandmother because I felt it would make her condition worse. I just kept it to myself. He came back and couldn’t look into my eyes. When he was sober he was alright, when he was drunk he behaved badly.”
“It continued happening every time he came to my room drunk. It went on for a few months until I went to boarding school.”
Amanda went to boarding school for high school and she confessed the ordeal she suffered to a friend.
“My friend told my teacher. My teacher came to ask me about it and I told her everything. My teacher called the police to arrest my uncle and I went with her to the police station. My teacher also called my grandmother to tell her what had happened to me. When my grandmother knew about it she just came, hugged me and cried. She asked me why I didn’t tell her. Deep inside I didn’t want to stress her further because I thought that she was going to leave me and then it would just get worse.”
Her uncle was arrested and a court case followed.
“I went to court for a first hearing but I didn’t understand what was happening and when the lawyers asked me questions I would just break down and cry. I couldn’t say anything. My uncle was in the courtroom. There was not much proof of what he did to me even though I had scars on my body but I feel like he had more of a voice when it came to justice than I did. There were many court hearings but I was still young and I didn’t know what was happening. My teacher and grandmother were in court with me all the time. Then he got bail. He came back to the house to get his clothes, then he left for good and never came back.”
The experience haunted Amanda for a long time.
“After that, I had nightmares every night. I was scared to sleep alone. I slept with my grandmother. Everywhere she went I would go with her because we were scared that my uncle might come back. My grandmother told the community what happened for safety, which is the reason my uncle left because the community knew and they threatened to burn him with a tyre. He never came back. During this time my grandmother's health was swinging between improving and then getting worse. The only thing that kept me going was when I was in the field running, competing in athletics. It was basically a coping mechanism.”
What made matters worse for Amanda was that what happened to her was public knowledge in her community and at school.
“Everybody knew about it and I lost confidence again. People started looking at me with pity at school and in the area I lived in when I came home from boarding school on the weekends. As a result, I would stay by myself and I became a loner again. I started writing poetry about my feelings and that helped me. My teacher suggested that I write down what saddened me and then burn it afterwards. I did that and it helped me so much.”
The healing process was difficult and Amanda struggled with suicidal thoughts.
“There were times when I thought of ending my life. I felt like what happened to me was going to haunt me for the rest of my life and I would never feel confident again. I just didn’t want to be alive at times especially at night when I would have nightmares and sleepwalk. At boarding school, one night my roommate didn’t lock the door and I started sleepwalking and I woke up outside. I just broke down and cried. My grandmother would always ask how I was feeling and would tell me that what happened to me was not my fault. It did make me feel better when she said that because I felt that in my life there is someone who really cares about me.”
“I was 13 or 14 years old when I become depressed. There was this one time that I took my grandmother's pills. My intention was to drink all the pills in the three bottles that I had taken. But when I got to my room and was about to take the pills, I looked at all the medals I had won from running and the motivational quotes I had put up on the wall. I put the pills down, took my shoes and started running. I ran for several kilometres, crying all the way.”
“Running is the only thing that makes me feel better. When I saw my medals, I felt like it proved that I was doing something worthwhile and that I am recognised in this world. It made me feel better. After that, I barely went home on weekends. Instead, I would just ask my grandmother to come and visit me in the hostel. She did ask me why I didn't want to come home and I told her that all the memories are there of what my uncle did to me. She said that it will take time for those memories to fade because in order for a wound to heal one must first come to terms with the pain.
When Amanda was 15, her mother came to live with her at her grandmother’s house.
“My mom was very sick. She had TB. She was coughing a lot and coughing up blood. When my grandmother first told me that my mother was coming to live with us, I asked her; ‘why is she here?’ I was angry because she hadn’t been there for me when I needed her the most. When I saw my mother I didn’t know how I felt, I was just emotionless. I didn’t cry, I didn’t do anything, I just stared at her. Then she came and hugged me and told me how sorry she was. I didn’t say anything, I just kept quiet. The whole of the first week when she was there, it was weird and it was awkward because we barely talked. But seeing her in the state she was in, I told myself that being angry wouldn’t help. Instead, I had a lot of questions and one of those questions was that if she wasn’t sick, would she have come back home. But I did not ask her that.”
Grade 10 was a struggle for Amanda who was normally a top student. With all that had happened, she lost focus on her schoolwork and failed the year.
“I repeated Grade 10, but I still had a lot on my mind and I didn’t focus on school. I talked about my problems to my teacher who had helped me and she told me to forgive my mother because being angry with her won’t help me. So, I talked to my mother about my feelings only to find out that she couldn’t afford to look after me. That's why she had left me at my grandmother's. She wanted to fetch me and have me stay with her, but her financial situation did not allow her to do that. I was sad to repeat grade 10 but I told myself that I’m going to do my best and be top of the class again.”
It turned out that repeating Grade 10 helped Amanda build resilience.
“Failing grade 10 made me stronger. After that I never allowed myself to fail. It set me up to excel academically that year. I was feeling more confident and happier and one of the reasons was because of my relationship with my mother. We had begun to build a relationship together. I got a chance to ask her about my father. She told me everything about my father including that he is kind. They were engaged, not married. I asked her why they separated and she said that there were a lot of misunderstandings. She had to leave him to find her own life and not live my dad's one. We got to be so close, my mother and I. I told her that I want to meet my father. My mother said I needed to ask my grandmother for approval because when I was a baby my grandmother and father had a fight. She told him that she was going to take care of me and he would never see me again.”
“My mother started getting better and landed a job. My grandmother's health improved and even now at 72 years of age she is healthy. When I was repeating Grade 10 my mother had my brother. My brother and I are very close. Last year she had her last born, another boy, who is now a year old.”
In Grade 11, Amanda travelled to Cape Town to meet her father for the first time. She spent the December holidays with him and his family.
“I asked my mother for his number and she gave it to me. I called him and said ‘I want to see you’. He was staying in Century City. He was fixing computers and phones for a living. He was married. From my dad’s side, I have two brothers who are younger than me. I was so pleased to meet my dad and the family he had. I didn’t know that my dad had another life here. I initially felt like he had a life without me but I just ignored that feeling. My stepmother treated me well. He was so happy to meet me. I asked him why he never made contact, but he did not answer. I think it was because there was a conflict between my mother and father’s families. My dad asked me to move in with him after I matriculated. I was so happy and I agreed.”
After Amanda matriculated, she took a gap year.
“I had a gap year and moved in with my dad. My stepmother and I are still finding a way to be together and have a good relationship. We used to fight but I am just avoiding that which makes things easier. I am still adjusting to staying in a big family. I have a good relationship with my father and I talk with my mother over the phone every day. In the holidays I visit my mother, and grandmother in the Eastern Cape.”
Amanda believes she has learned some important lessons in life.
“Different is not bad, it is unique as my grandmother used to tell me. We are all unique and worthy to be respected. I choose to be positive towards others because that is the world I wish to live in. I have learned that if people try to break me with nasty words or nasty actions, I still have a choice. I can give them the power and allow them to hurt me, or I can choose to block their power through practising the art of forgiveness and kindness towards them.”
Amanda is attending the Life Choices Academy
*kwerekwere - a derogatory word for foreigners in South Africa.