When Emihle Gudwana (16) finally moved from a shack into a brick and mortar home, she could not have anticipated that the move to a new community would require such a big adjustment.
Emihle was born in Cape Town. Up to the age of five, she lived in a shack in Khayelitsha with her mom, dad and uncle. Her family has grown to be four siblings and a cousin whom her parents are taking care of.
“My father was a security guard and most of the time he worked night shifts. He would always come home in the morning. There was lots of love in our home. It was warm and caring. I don’t remember seeing my parents fighting.
“Since I was the first born, my mother was very protective of me. I was close to my uncle. He was the one who used to take me to crèche. I did not feel like it was crowded inside the shack. My mom, dad and I shared a bed and my uncle slept in front on a blanket on the floor. My mom was not working at the time, but we always had enough food to eat. My other uncle lived opposite us. He was working and very supportive.
Emihle describes her first few years of life in a shack.
“What I loved the most was when it rained. I loved the sound of the rain on the zinc structure. The shack was all made of zinc sheets - walls and roof.
“However, sometimes it was painful because when it rained, the water would flood the shack. Or when it was windy, the sand would come in and everything would be white. If there was too much water inside, we would use buckets, mops and towels to mop up the water. The cupboard would be ruined from the water. We also had the bed on crates, so that if the water came in, it wouldn’t get wet. Sometimes I would feel sorry for my mother because she would have to clean it up since I was too young at that time to help. But sometimes I had fun since I would play in the water.”
Emihle’s family shack was in their landlord’s yard. Her family would collect water from inside the house for bathing, drinking and cooking. They would also have to ask permission to use the toilet when they needed it.
“Sometimes the owner of the house would say, ‘go home’, when we wanted to use the toilet and, ‘don’t act like you own this house and come and go whenever you want to’. Those times, we would need to relieve ourselves in a bucket or walk to the nearest public toilet.”
When Emihle was five years old the family welcomed her baby sister. They stayed in Khayelitsha an extra year before the family moved into a brick and mortar house in Mitchell’s Plain.
“We moved into one of the government houses. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a toilet and a living room. For me, it was fun, because I had a room with my younger sister, so I had freedom and space. I also enjoyed the toilet and shower. It was my first time in a shower. Everyone was happy. My mother was the happiest because she finally got her own house.”
But the new community was a big adjustment for Emihle and her family.
“The neighbourhood was not so quiet. There were a lot of gangsters and they would always fight. They would throw stones at one another and it would affect our houses. At night they would also shoot. It was not as safe as the place we first lived in. I was so scared and I would not go out often. When I heard gunshots for the first time, I was terrified. I was afraid of what might happen to my father since he worked nightshifts. I would cry and ask my mom to call him to make sure that he was safe.
Emihle also tasted racism in the community, especially amongst the children.
“They would mock and provoke me. They would call me the k-word.* I would physically fight with the kids in the neighbourhood when they called me that. They would tell us we don’t belong there and that we should go back where we belong in the Eastern Cape. It made me feel inferior and unwelcome.
“When we first moved I was happy. But soon after, I actually asked my mother if we could go back to Khayelitsha because it was better there. She said I must ignore the kids because it is better than where we were living because we now had running water and electricity. I tried to cope as much as I could.”
Emihle began attending a local primary school.
“The teachers were very supportive of me academically, and there was a feeding scheme at the school. It was wonderful there. The students at school were also friendlier and kinder.”
It took four years for Emihle to finally settle in the new community.
“It eventually stopped when I was in Grade Four. They started welcoming me. Instead of mocking me, they would greet me. It felt awkward when they stopped. In the beginning, I thought it was a joke, and soon they would retaliate again. But they never did, they got used to us.”
But just as living in the new community became easier, Emihle was involved in an accident.
“I was 10 years old at the time and one day I was on my way home from the shop. I was walking in the middle of the road. On my way back, there was a house, and people were celebrating something because there was loud music and they were drinking and dancing. I stopped to observe them.
“My father was off that day and he was sitting outside with my cousin. My father stood up and I could see that he was shouting at me but I couldn’t hear the words he was saying because of the loud music. I thought he was saying maybe I should go back to the shop. He was shouting, ‘Emihle, Emihle, Emihle!’ I could hear my name, that’s all.
“When I turned to look back, I saw a red car. As I was about to turn and run, the car hit me. The driver of the car didn’t know he drove into me. The driver stopped after he heard me screaming. My father came and shouted at the driver. He was so angry. He said to the driver, ‘you can’t even see the child walking on the road because you were busy looking at the back while you were driving.’ The driver apologised but he was drunk. I think it was my father who called the ambulance.”
Emihle was the centre of attention that day.
“People came out of their houses to see what happened and because they heard me screaming. There was this lady who was saying, ‘why didn’t I see the car in the first place.’ By now, it was crowded around me. I sat there waiting for the ambulance and the police to arrive. Both my legs were swollen and I couldn’t walk. Everything seemed to have happened so fast that initially, I was not feeling any pain.
I just became irritated because I needed to go to the toilet. My father had to carry me to the toilet, and back again, to the spot where the accident happened.
“As time passed, I began feeling pain. My mother gave me a grandpa for the pain and they covered me with a blanket because it was cold. I was crying a lot. I think it was the pain mixed with the shock. I could see in the driver’s face that he wasn’t sorry for what he did. He went to his car and started eating baby tomatoes and laughing with his friends as if nothing had happened.
“The accident happened at 4 pm and the ambulance came late at night. I’m not sure what the exact time was, but we waited for many hours. The police eventually arrived, then the fire brigade. I’m not sure who called the fire brigade. Then, after that, the ambulance came.
“The police took the number plate and details of the driver. When the ambulance came, they rushed me to the hospital. My father came with me. At the hospital, we had to wait again for a long time. We saw a doctor close to 12.00 pm. I needed to do some X-rays and they said that one of my legs was broken and that the other one was cracked. They put a cast on the one leg.”
A police officer gave Emihle and her father a lift home.
“I was relieved I was going home and thankful that I was alive. We went home in the early hours of the morning. When I arrived home, I slept and when I woke up, my mother had prepared breakfast. I was pampered a lot during my first days of recovery.”
It took Emihle a few months to fully recover from her injury.
“I fully recovered the mobility in my legs. I believe time can treat any challenge you are faced with. Nowadays, I feel integrated into my neighbourhood. Everyone knows me as ‘the girl who was knocked by a car and waited in the road for hours.’
When Emihle was asked her last remarks, she concluded: “I don’t think there is anything in life that time cannot resolve. With patience and the right mindset, every challenge life throws at you can be overcome.”
Emihle is a Leaders’ Quest participant.
*‘the k-word’ – a derogative term used in South Africa towards black people.