Choosing to be different
Nineteen-year-old Danielle Human was brought up in a happy, stable home for the first few years of her life, but a sudden life-changing event in her childhood led to her being neglected and experiencing first-hand the brutal effects of losing a parent.
Born in Cape Town, Danielle Human remembers the first few years of her life living with an intact and secure family. Her mother was a stay at home mom who took care of Danielle and her siblings which included an older brother and a younger sister. Danielle's father was the family breadwinner, who worked a 9 to 5 job in the Cape Town CBD. She recalls him leaving home every morning for work and coming home every evening to the family.
When Danielle was four-years-old, life as she knew it changed forever. The day is permanently ingrained in Danielle’s memory.
“I was at home and my mom was busy cooking in the kitchen. My mom asked me to switch on the TV and put the news on. A lady on the TV was reporting that there was a workplace accident and that a man died and I remember my mom still said she felt sorry for the family because their dad was not coming home that night.”
Later, when Danielle heard someone at the front door of the house, she ran to open it as she usually did in the evenings, expecting it to be her father.
“I ran to the door but it was not my dad. There were two of his colleagues and his boss. They came to talk to my mom. My mom asked me to go and play in the bedroom with my baby sister who was ten days old, while they were talking inside. When the people left, my mom was crying but she did not explain why.”
Danielle’s father had died at work in an accident earlier that day. Ten wooden doors collapsed on top of him.
The next day relatives from the Eastern Cape arrived at Danielle’s family home. She remembers not fully comprehending her father’s passing at the time.
“I was confused. My mom said I was too little to understand what was going on. It was my grandmother who sat me down in my room and told me that my dad is gone and never coming back. I didn’t cry because I was too little.
“At the funeral, I didn’t feel any emotion. I saw people crying. It was when they buried him and people threw sand in his grave that I realised he might be gone forever.”
The death of her father changed family life as she knew it.
“After the funeral, my mom took it very badly. My parents had been married for a short while and I think my dad’s death broke her heart. Before my dad died she always used to spend a lot of time with us but not anymore. Now she spent a lot of time with her friends. My grandmother started taking care of us when she was away during the day.
“As time when on, my mom started drinking heavily and she would come home drunk. She just acted like everything was okay. She looked happy but if you irritated her she became angry and she would shout and start swearing. I just kept to my space.”
Years passed by and the situation kept deteriorating. Danielle and her siblings started going hungry as their mother’s dependency on alcohol intensified and she neglected her children.
“We were basically poor and my mom would forget to provide for us. Our neighbours gave us food to eat in the evenings. My best friend at school would also pack an extra sandwich for me to eat and my sister had a friend who did the same for her. When we were alone at home, we knew where to find our mom – she was always in the shebeen*. My mom also fell pregnant and we ended up with another child to care for at home.
“Three days before my birthday, when I was in Grade 3. My mom came to fetch me from school. I was so shocked because I always walked home from school on my own. We got to the corner of our street and I saw a car outside the house. I asked my mom who’s there at the house and she said it was my grandpa. When we got to the house there were some people crying. One lady stood up and she said she was a social worker. I wanted to turn around and run away. I was standing at the gate of the front door but my mom was holding me tight.”
That was the day Danielle and her two sisters were removed from their mother’s care and placed in an orphanage in Mitchell’s Plain. The neighbours had alerted the authorities. Her older brother, 16 at the time, stayed with their grandmother since he was too old to be cared for by the State.
“The first time I was in the orphanage, it was strange. I wanted my mother and I did not want to be there. The house mom introduced me to everyone. Things were so different from home. We had to hug everyone, so I got used to hugs because we never hug at home. In the evenings, we also needed to talk about our day with our house mom that was also strange. As time went on, I tried to fit in and I started being myself. But I still missed my mom and I really wanted to go home.”
Danielle and her sisters did not see their mother often after they arrived at the orphanage.
But there were times that she would make her way to her daughters’ school so that they could all see each other.
“We used to run to the school gate to see her because she stayed nearby. That were short but very special moments because at least I knew she was ok. If she had money she would give it to us.”
Things began looking up for Danielle’s family when the Director of the orphanage assisted her mother to get into a rehabilitation programme for six months.
After almost two years, Danielle and her two sisters were returned to their mother’s care. Danielle was looking forward to being part of a happy family again.
“My mom had clean up. We could see progress, she got better. It was good to be back together as a family.
“Unfortunately, it did not last for too long. One day, we arrive home and my mom was not there. I did what I used to do in the past, after a few hours, I went to look for her in the shebeen and I saw her drinking again. She started with the light stuff like ciders but after six months she had fully relapsed and was drinking heavy things again.
“At the time, she had this guy friend that she used to bring home. I told my Mom I don’t like this guy, but my pleas were ignored. My mom began neglecting us again.
“After a few weeks, the social worker came to fetch us and took us back to the orphanage in Mitchells Plain. I suppose this time was easier to reintegrate, we were used to the place.”
Danielle’s mother returned for another stint at rehabilitation and afterwards secured employment at the same orphanage where her daughters lived, but worked in the section for boys. After some time, she told Danielle that she had decided to leave Cape Town. She had found a job near Bot Rivier and she was keen for a fresh start in her life.
Danielle and her sisters got to see their mother each time the orphanage arranged holiday camping trips to a farm owned by the orphanage’s Director that was close by where her mom stayed.
“I grew up getting used to the fact that my destiny was to be away from my mom. But even though my mom and I did not have a strong bond, I did look forward to the little time we spent together.”
When Danielle was 15, her mother asked the Director of the orphanage if she could spend Christmas holidays with her daughters. It was agreed and mother and daughters spent 10 days together.
“For the first time, my mom and I began having talks with each other. During this time, we took a walk and she said she was going to give me money for schooling. We talked about how alcoholism is prevalent in my mom’s family. And I also told her about the pastor’s son I was spending a lot of my time with. She asked if he was my boyfriend and I said no. She just said to be careful.
“She told me she was feeling pain in the left side of her chest and I told her to see a doctor about it. But she refused and said she would take some grandpa’s (pain relief medication). She said that I must take care of my sisters and that she loves me. She never told me that she loved me before so I asked her if she was feeling okay.”
That afternoon, Danielle and her sisters left to join the rest of the orphanage kids in their Christmas camp. She describes feeling uneasy after the conversation with her mother and saying goodbye to her felt different.
“That night I was feeling funny but I was on camp and enjoying myself. Staff came in and confiscated all children’s cell phones, this was so unusual. It didn’t make sense at the time but now I know why it was done.
“The following morning, they told my sisters and me that my grandmother wanted us to visit her for the New Year’s holiday. It was still 5 days left of camp, I was not in the mood because she had just spoiled my holiday. I really wanted to stay.”
Danielle and her sisters left the camp immediately and were taken to the orphanage’s Director house. She was surprised to find that her grandmother and older brother were also there.
“I was so confused. Then my grandmother told us that my mom died. And I began shouting at them that it wasn’t true. I said that they were lying and that I don’t believe them. I just saw her the day before! I asked my mom’s friend who was there if it was true and she said yes because she had died at her place.”
Danielle’s mother had taken an afternoon nap and never woke up, she was 36 years old at the time.
“We went to identify my mom’s body in the morgue. My grandmother and brother went inside first, when my brother came out he started swearing, kicking things, he was so angry. Then I went into the room where my mom’s body was and I knew it was her from her hair and clothes that she was wearing. I just fell to the floor crying. How could it be possible? I wanted to hug my mom but they said I could not.
“At my mom’s funeral, I didn’t cry. I felt like she was still here.
“After the funeral, I acted like things were okay. Slowly I left my old friends and got involved with the wrong squad. I was drinking and smoking with my friends. I did it because I saw that my brother and my mom drank alcohol and I thought maybe it will help me too. Looking back, it seemed at the time that to follow the destructive behaviour of my mom was bringing me close to her.
“I told the people at the orphanage that I didn’t want to go to school again. They told me I could not stay if I stop studying.” It was during this time, Danielle left Cape Town to live with her mother’s family in the Eastern Cape to start Grade 9 there.
But for Danielle, it was not an environment where she wanted to be. Danielle said past issues between her father’s and mother’s family surfaced during her time in the Eastern Cape.
“My mother and father’s family don’t sit around the same fire. They also accused me of being like my mom, promiscuous and an addict, which I denied. I left my bad friends behind and I was trying my best. After a few months, I could not take it any longer and I asked to return to Cape Town.”
On her return, Danielle was unable to go back to the orphanage because it was too full. A Social Worker met with her maternal grandmother to find a solution.
“I arrived in Cape Town in a taxi at 4 am. I slept on the orphanage for a few hours and I was brought to Social Development the next morning in town. My grandmother was there and it was agreed I would stay with her. After the meeting when we had walked out, without me noticing my grandmother disappear. I was left alone in the streets of Cape Town without knowing what to do.”
With nowhere to go, Danielle reached out to her brother’s girlfriend for a place to stay. On the same night, her maternal aunt came to fetch her to live with her and her husband.
Danielle (16) and her sister who share the same father lived with their aunt and uncle and the baby sister remained in the orphanage.
“Even though we had a roof over our heads, my family continue labelling me as if I was like my mom. After a while, I wanted to prove them right and I began drinking and partying as I did during the morning period. We argued a lot. When I turned 18 years old my uncle and aunt started saying that I must pay rent.”
It was not long after, that an argument ensued between Danielle, her aunt and uncle and she left their home to return to the same orphanage.
Danielle and her two sisters are back at the orphanage.
“It’s going in for the ninth year at the orphanage. Living here it’s good and tough at the same time. You don’t get the same attention and love you should get if you got good parents, but at least people here take an interest in us. I have cleaned-up and I am fully focused in my future.”
The orphanage has allowed Danielle an extended stay up until she is 21 years old. Danielle no longer keeps contact with her father’s family and she says she only keeps in contact with a few family members from her mother’s side.
“My family said I would never finish matric and I’ll have a baby at 17 years old. This year, I’m finishing matric and I don’t have a baby. There are days when my friends talk about their parents and their valedictory and I feel sad and I tell them to appreciate what they have.
“The other day I was looking through my file at the orphanage and I read a letter from my mother where she says I must promise her that I’ll finish matric and be successful. She never had that. She never had matric and she had a baby before matric.
“I took that letter as motivation, especially during my saddest days. I have decided to take one day at a time. I want to study further and my goal is to be a businesswoman. I want to show my sisters the right way to go.”
Despite a challenging childhood, Danielle has learned a few valuable lessons.
When asked to conclude, Danielle said “I’ve learned that you should not let the noise of the voices of others to determine who you truly are. Life is about the choices you make each day and you can decide to break the patterns of your family if you want. Sadly, my mom and brother fell for the trap … but I am choosing to be different.”
Danielle is a Leaders’ Quest participant.
*Shebeen - an unlicensed establishment or private house selling alcohol.