An absent father and the sudden passing of their mother during childhood, saw Athi Mbondwana (26) and his brother develop an unbreakable bond that helped them through the worst of times.
Athi was born in the Eastern Cape. He and his older brother (six-years older) were raised single-handedly by their mother.
“We lived on the outskirts of Mthatha in a three-bedroom house, which my grandmother had left to my mom, as she was the eldest. It was always me, my brother and my mom. The three of us. She was the one taking care of us. She was a lovely person who always made me feel special. She made us forget that we even needed a father. At the time, I was too young to ask where my dad was. I wasn’t mature enough.
“I never got to meet my father. At a later stage, my aunt told me about him, but I have no desire to see him.”
His mother was working and so provided Athi and his brother with what they needed.
“There was a meal every night, but sometimes it was not a proper meal. She made sure that she came back with something for us to eat. Sometimes we would go to sleep after eating just bread with coffee. I did not question it. At least we were having something to eat. She was a person of faith. She gave us hope. Whatever she brought us, she gave it with love and that’s what made me feel like it was enough. I was happy while I was young.”
Athi’s world collapsed one day when his aunt unexpectedly fetched him from school.
“I was 11 years old and one day my mom’s sister came to the school to pick me up. When we were on our way home, my aunt told me that my mom had died in a car accident. She was in a taxi going to visit some relatives and something went wrong. They did not tell us much of what happened. They just told us it was an accident.
“I cried and cried. I just knew it was over for me and my brother. My mother was the only person capable of taking care of us. Without her, I immediately knew there was no way forward. I felt lost. The person that gave me hope was gone. I felt a deep sadness and emptiness. I was alone.
“My brother and I immediately moved in with my aunt. We were living with her kids. She had two boys and one girl who were all older than me (6, 5 and 2 years older). I remember my brother telling me, ‘it's going to be okay’. And that he’d take care of us.
“I felt like I didn’t belong there. I knew my cousins, but we were not close. I just knew my aunt could not love us as much as she loved her own family.
“My aunt was not working. She used the child grant money to feed us. There was food, but not enough for all of us. We had to share clothes. I had to share a mattress with my younger cousin, and my brother had to share a mattress with our two older cousins. It was a two-roomed house (one bedroom and a kitchen/living room). We had to put the mattresses down in the kitchen/living room area because that’s where the kids slept and my aunt would sleep in the bedroom.
“It was more frustrating for my cousins than it was for us because what they had was little and it felt like we were finishing up the little that they had. We felt like intruders.”
The pressure of not working and taking care of five children frustrated Athi’s aunt too.
“My aunt would show sometimes how frustrated she was. She would say things to us like, ‘all you want to do is eat and do nothing.’ My brother and I paid for what we were getting by doing chores. My cousins did chores, but not as much as we did. We would clean the house, do the dishes and wash the school uniforms for everyone. I didn’t know what else I could do.
“I was submissive to whatever I was told and never answered back. I was not happy, but I was silent. We had come from living with someone who showed us love - to a totally different situation.
“My relationship with my brother was good. He was the only person whom I could talk to. I felt like he was the only person whom I had, and I could trust him.”
Athi’s childhood house - his mother's house - was being taken care of by someone unrelated to them, while he and his brother lived at his aunt’s house.
After two years, when Athi’s brother was 19 years old and a first-year computer science student at Walter Sisulu University, he made an announcement to his brother.
“My brother came home and said that we should go back to our mother’s house. I think he knew we weren’t wanted and we were making the household’s situation even worse.
“I did not know what his plan was, but I became confident that we should go back. I was 13 years old at the time. I did not know how we were going to manage to stay on our own. He was not working. I was very nervous. But the way he was confident, I knew that he meant it. It was easy for my aunt when we said that we were moving out. I think it was a bit of a relief for her.
“Then my brother and I stayed together. I don’t know how he did it. We managed to have food on most days. But some days there was nothing to eat at all. If we were lucky, we would have one meal a day. We got used to that.
“I could not figure out how he took care of us at the time. But later I found out that he used to ask for money from people he knew and he kept the little he had for the both of us. Our neighbours also gave us plates of food. His studies were paid for from financial aid, but the money only covered the university fees and little more. My brother used to walk two hours to get to University and two hours back. I also walked to school because we did not have transport money, but my distance was a shorter one - close to one hour each way.
School proved to be a challenge for Athi.
“As a child going to school was supposed to be exciting, but it was not. I compared myself with my peers and I realised we were poor. The most difficult part during that time was seeing other kids with lunchboxes and me not carrying anything like that. That was the toughest thing. It would stop me from making friends because I knew that friends would group together and eat together. My brother tried to make a lunchbox for me but it was just bread and I would think, ‘how am I going to share it with my friends?’ It was hard making friends because I felt ashamed. I wouldn’t want to go to school, especially on days like casual day. But my brother would say, ‘you can wear my clothes’, but they weren’t as good as the clothes of other kids my age. It really affected me. I ended up hating school.
“I knew that this was what we had to do in order to survive. But we were in a very sad place even though my brother never showed it to me. I would get upset many times and blame him for the things that were happening. I wanted him to do something, to do more. I felt like it was him who put us in a tough situation when we could have stayed with my aunt, no matter how bad things were. But he understood things better than I did. He was mature and always kept calm during my anger blasts.”
Through it all, Athi’s brother, Masande, encouraged him to keep going.
“I did not stay away from school. My brother said, I have to go to school, whatever it takes. He kept reassuring me. He would go to my school and get my marks report and sit with me to discuss it. He would say, ‘there are a few subjects that we need to improve. So, let us make a plan.’ He would try to assist me with those subjects afterwards. Our situation went on for the entire time I was at high school. I did not perform very well and I only made a few friends at school.
“My brother managed to finish his degree. I did not know his story at the time, but I found out later that he was also struggling to finish his degree. I am guessing the pressure was a lot on him. He looked for a job after he graduated. He found a job. It was just a job and not in the field that he studied for. He worked there for about six months and things got a bit better at home. Then, one day, he said we must put my mom’s house up for rent and move to Cape Town for him to get a job. At the time, I had just finished matric.
“It sounded exciting to me. We were moving to a new place and were going to have to start afresh. He said that we were going to be okay. We arrived in Cape Town and rented a shack in Phillippi. It was a big transition living in Cape Town. We didn’t know anybody. It was just the two of us.
“To get used to living in a shack was not a big problem. Our home in the Eastern Cape did not have running water and we needed to collect water from a communal tap. Our toilet was also outside, so Phillipi was not a big difference. The space was definitely smaller, but the real difference was that life here was faster. Violence was high. It was a scary place to live in.”
“As soon as we move to Cape Town my brother got a job in a Call Centre and that helped us to survive.”
At the end of their first year in Cape Town, Athi’s brother came back home one day with good news.
“He told me that he got a better job. I remember him saying that we had made it. It felt a big relief. I believed it when he said that we had made it.”
Athi had hoped to pursue tertiary level studies in Cape Town.
“I was looking to study, but since my matric results were bad I had to look for a job. I began working in a factory in Parow. It was a pharmaceutical company where my main job was packing and scanning products.
“When I started working, I felt like I could contribute to the household. I did not enjoy the work, as it was not challenging. But we were finally able to do things like eating what we wanted to eat and wearing the clothes we wanted to wear.”
Athi and his brother moved from Philippi to Kuils River to a three-bedroom house.
“Our quality of life improved a lot. My brother kept motivating me to build a skill that I could use to make a living. So, I enrolled in an academy to learn to code. My brother committed to supporting me through my studies.”
Athi’s brother has made a big life decision recently.
“My brother is getting married. He is now 32 and I asked him why he waited so long. His answer was that he was waiting for me to stand on my own two feet and figure out what I wanted to do in life.”
Athi believes the hard times he and his brother went through taught him important life lessons. “One of the biggest lessons is that going through difficult times helps you to distinguish what you need versus what you want. It forces you to have a different perspective on things. I don’t think the mindset we have developed will ever change, even though we now have money.”
When asked for his final remarks, Athi concluded: “I couldn’t have asked for a better brother. I know that if my brother wasn’t around then I wouldn’t be the person that I am. His role-modelling has taught me how to treat people and be good to others. He is my best friend, my brother and a father figure to me. Never doubt that a committed young person can make the world of difference to his/her younger siblings and, who knows what else, to the world.”
Athi is a Life Choices Academy student.