Swim to the Shore
A growth mindset is how Musa* overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life. It is this attitude that has informed his outlook on life.
Musa (32) was born in the rural village of Mfekayi, an area near the Mtubatuba town in North Eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN). He was raised in a family homestead with a few of his siblings, his mother and father and his grandmother. Several aunts, uncles and cousins moved in and out of the homestead.
“I have 5 siblings - three older brothers, one younger sister and one younger brother. When I was born, both my older brothers weren’t staying with us as they were schooling at high schools far from us. They didn’t live together. One was staying with an uncle and the other with an auntie.”
“We lived in a very big homestead. In the house were my parents, granny, myself, younger siblings and sometimes my aunts and cousins. There were people coming in and going out. We always had people in the house.”
Musa also had more step brothers and sisters from his father’s side who would regularly visit the homestead from time to time. When Musa was born, his father was violently attacked and left for dead.
“My dad was one of the chiefs in the village. In KZN, you still have the warriors who accompany the King and they are considered the regiment. You can see them even now. The warriors have to be on the side of the new King. In a rural setup such as where I grew up, you still have guys who do things traditionally. But it's sort of a blend because they do work and wear jeans. My dad was working at Spoornet but when he came back home after work each day, he returned to the traditional lifestyle. When there was an event like a reed dance or a traditional ceremony like a wedding, my father would be the one who would organize the men of the area. In a village which is very rural they still practice the culture. He was that induna yensizwa (chief).”
“He was a fighting man. When I'm told the stories about my dad by family and friends, they say that he was the head induna, which is more like a traditional military, and he rubbed people up the wrong way. My mother was pregnant with me at the time he was attacked. There were four guys who stabbed him when he was returning home from work. Back then, in KZN we had a lot of sugar cane fields and they took my father and dumped him in a sugar cane depot in the dark.”
“They left him for dead. The person who found him the next morning was a tractor driver. He literally saved my dad's life. With the same tractor he was using for his job, he took my dad to the nearest clinic to be treated. He was in a coma for some time. I was born during the time that he was in ICU recovering. He couldn’t speak. But apparently, when my family came to tell him the child was born, he asked; ‘is the person here.’ It wasn’t clear if he was asking, or commenting, and then he uttered Mntukohna which means the person is here, and then he went back to sleep. That’s how I got my name. As a result of the attack, the right side of my father’s body doesn’t work. He couldn’t move for some time afterwards. My mom had to stop work altogether to care for him. Now he can move, but he has a permanent limp. He can also speak but doesn’t speak properly, but we can understand him. His speech has been heavily affected but it has improved with time. Following his beating, he also began having epileptic attacks, but over time he has healed from that.”
Musa’s life was simple growing up and he remembers that it was subsistence farming that got the family by.
“When I was younger I didn’t notice that we were poor. In those days, there were a lot of subsistence farmers. We had to plough. We grew sweet potatoes, corn, avocado and a lot of fruits. It meant we didn’t have to buy much food.”
“My mother was a teacher under the Apartheid administration but she had not yet achieved a Matric certificate (finished high school). In the early seventies, there was pressure for her to achieve matric in order to continue teaching but she couldn’t do that because she was the only breadwinner at our home at the time. She ended up being let go and became a domestic worker.”
It was his mother who taught him the basics before Musa started school.
“Before I went to school my mom taught me at home. I had never been to pre-school. We didn’t have money for that. I was about four or five years old when my dad used to take me to the fields to herd cattle. I used to look after our own cattle and other peoples livestock. They would give me some money for that. Even now I still like tending livestock. I remember one day how a cow charged me! There were places where we would dip the cows for lice. From that young age, I could walk with cows from one region to the other just to dip the cows. Those are the moments I remember and it was those experiences that grew me and made me who I am today. It forces you to grow up. I am grateful that I shared those experiences with my father.”
Musa turned six years old and had not yet started primary school.
“I started nagging my mom to go to school. I was in the fields and I would see kids going to school. I was naughty, I would bully the kids and say to them; ‘You think you are better than me?’ I would do that to the boys of my age. My mother didn’t tell me that she didn’t have the money to send me to school at the time. But then we struck a deal where she agreed to teach me. In the area where I lived, we didn’t have a municipality to pick up the trash so households would dig a hole and throw the trash in there. I would go through the holes to retrieve the old calendars and my mom would turn them around and write on the blank pages. This is how she taught me to read and write.”
“In my first year of school, I got a good passing. It was then that I realized that if you pass well, you get this kind of recognition from your peers. It motivated me and from there I started being a top achiever at school. I was either in position one or two. That sparked my desire for excellence.”
Musa recalls living a humble life when he was growing up.
“My dad used to get a stipend because of his disability. He would buy maize meal and beans and that’s what we would eat. My mom would go to the fields and plant and that’s how we survived. When family visited they would bring us some things. There were times that we wouldn’t have stuff like cooking oil, but my mother was so creative that she would use ground nuts. It was only when I was much older, that I could see the poverty we lived in.”
The environment at home could get emotionally charged when Musa’s father was under the influence of alcohol.
“I would say my dad was addicted to alcohol and he would be very abusive and aggressive. He would often beat us especially when he was drunk. He didn’t care if he used a knobkerrie*. One day he beat my brother up so badly that he needed to be taken to the clinic. He used to beat my mother too.”
“My father had been a warrior. After his attack, when he went out of the house, people would make comments like; ‘Look at how you are now. You used to be this champion.’ People in the community used to tell me that my father was respected in the time before he was attacked. After the attack, my father would just go and drink in order to drown himself. I think he was very angry and alcohol and his family were his scapegoats.”
Musa’s mother never worked again after she gave up her job as a domestic worker to care for her husband after he’d been assaulted.
“My dad didn’t want her to work. That was a point of contestation between her and dad but as a woman, she had to submit so there were those dynamics to deal with.”
When still at primary school, Musa recalls the political violence in his area.
“Around this time shootings were happening because of the ANC-IFP fight. People were losing their lives just like that. I saw a lot of violence. Even the trauma of hearing about the violence was constant during that time. For example, my mother and grandmother would come home and report back about people who died in the violence. These were teenagers and at the most in their twenties. I still have the memory of two men in the area I used to refer to as uncles, who died in the violence. These were people I used to interact with and then they were no more. There was fear but this was the reality of where we lived. My dad used to say you can’t run away from death.”
After Musa’s brother endured a particularly bad beating from their father, his mother left the family home.
“My mom took me and my two youngest siblings with her to stay at my mother’s family. We stayed there for a few years. It was really nice there. My mom’s family is very big, but the person in command was my grandmother. She was really tough. In that time, you would rarely see a woman with a lot of cows and keeping a homestead together. My mother’s family was successful. We had uncles who were working. I used to visit my dad after school because the homestead was along the route I walked home on. For me, I didn’t fully understand what was happening between my parents.”
Once out of the homestead, Musa’s mother started working again. But a major challenge for Musa at that time was that he walked a daily distance of 13 km to get to school and then covered that same distance to get back home.
“At that time, we used to have corporal punishment at school and I would get beaten every morning because I was late. I would cry. I was now known as the guy who would cry because of being late. Even if I had to wake up at 5am I would still be late. After a year of walking to school and getting beat up, my mom finally was able to organize school transport for my younger brother and me.”
While life was stable for Musa and his younger siblings while living with their mother, Musa’s older brothers began negotiating with Musa’s father for his mother to return to the homestead.
“The older siblings negotiated so that my mother and father would come back together. But my dad was saying that because my mom was the one who left she needed to apologise. For context, two of my aunts were married in a polygamous marriage and it’s a culture that’s accepted - one man having more than one wife. So when you leave the marriage as my mother did, she needed to come up with goats in order to apologise because she was the wife and she couldn’t just leave like that. That’s because, when you get married you speak to the ancestors. The woman is no longer of the family she was born to and as the wife, she is now of the family of the husbands. My dad was saying the ancestors were confused by my mom’s decision to leave. My mother said that she was happy where she was but my brothers insisted; ‘We need to fix this.’”
Part of the negotiation for Musa’s parents’ reconciliation was that his older brothers would build them a separate house to live in and that it would be away from the homestead. That dream never materialized because Musa’s eldest brother died after a short illness.
“When we went back to the house things went back to square one. My mom continued to do what she was supposed to do like cooking and cleaning. My other older brother was sending us money. My mom stopped working again.”
The family suffered another setback when Musa’s only sister fell ill with TB.
“Almost for the whole year we were caring for my sister who had to be carried and fed. Initially, the doctors couldn’t find out what was wrong but later they said it was TB. After a year of taking treatment, she recovered. Those were scary times.”
In the homestead tensions simmered because Musa’s father’s family were unhappy that his mother had returned to live there. They wanted her to live with his father someplace else. Years before Musa was born and before his father was assaulted, his parents had their own place but it had burned down and that’s when they moved into the homestead.
“The tensions were still there between family members in the house since my mom returned. That was the nature of the situation. That’s why my mom said she wanted her own space outside the homestead. The uncles were upset that my mom returned to the homestead because they said that once she left she couldn’t come back and she needed to move into her own place.”
Musa recalls that one day he came home and his mother looked hurt. She told him that she just fell and she wanted to be taken to her family home.
“We took my mom in the evening to her side of the family. The next day they took her to the doctor. The next day I passed by after school and saw her washing her clothes. She had recovered and said; ‘I’m ready to come back home. I feel much better.’ Then the following day, at school, I was called out of class and told that she had passed on. I was 16 years old at the time and in Grade 10. That created havoc in the family. The tension escalated, her side of the family was questioning the cause of her death. It created tension at my mom's funeral and there were even guns drawn. After that, my older brother who was supporting us never came back to visit.”
“For the rest of the year, I stayed with my younger brother and my dad at the homestead. It was an unhealthy environment at home because of the tension, so my sister left to stay with a relative in the township. The next thing my Dad went to the chief to say that he didn’t want me and my brother at home anymore and the chief said that it's not his jurisdiction and that my father needed to go to Home Affairs. My brother and I then moved out and lived with my uncle. It was a blessing in disguise. That’s how we left home and lost contact with my dad.”
“I worked during holidays and weekends. The principal at my school started giving me jobs at the school. She trusted me. I mowed grass and I stamped books. I even worked as security.”
Musa had applied for a bursary and he was saving money in order to pay for the travel costs to get to the bursary selection interview. He received a bursary from Anglo American which facilitated an exposure year of working while studying before he began full-time studies in chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
“I was the first in my family to go to University but I wasn’t thinking about that. There was a lot of pressure on me now. I felt like I couldn’t mess this up because if I failed I would have to pay from my own pocket. The change of environment was very new to me. Things at UCT were tough. At university, we had a computer and even though I had used one during my exposure year when I had to capture data, I still didn’t know how to type well. The lectures were fast-paced for me. I hadn't been in a place where people spoke English fluently, so I couldn't understand the lecturers. I felt like I wasted time attending lectures rather than going to the library to read and understand. It took me time to realise what worked for me. I wasn’t doing badly at all but it was so hard to accept the drop in my grades.”
“It was my first time in Cape Town, the environment was new and I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t go to parties because I was advised that I needed to focus.”
Musa took to heart the advice to also focus on self-care, so he signed up for the soccer team - only to be hit with a setback.
“I joined the soccer team towards the end of the first year. But then I suffered a knee fracture. That caused a bit of depression for me. I began asking why life is this difficult. At the time, I embraced the victim mentality. I was speaking a negative narrative. I wasn’t attending my lectures and I was always late because I relied on special transport to help those who were injured or otherwise abled. I just had to go through it, though it hit me hard.”
Around the same time, Musa’s bursary sponsors contacted him so that he could meet the final requirements to finish the programme. It meant that he had to leave Cape Town and work again. He found it difficult to study and work at the same time. He returned to Cape Town the day before his exam, the results of which disappointed him.
“I had to chase from behind. I managed to pass maths, but I wasn’t allowed to continue with the chemical engineering course. I didn’t even know that I could appeal that decision. Whatever I was told, I ended up doing.”
“I came back the following year to do that course again. Anglo was no longer paying for the module that I failed. So I reverted back to working to cover that cost. I got a job at reception after hours and that’s how I started making money just like I had been doing at high school. After my undergrad, I felt that I needed to do a postgraduate because it would solidify what I knew. I studied for a postgraduate degree and became a teaching assistant in order to complete the last year.”
When asked about some of the lessons learnt through his life, Musa replied.
“One of the phrases that I live for is; ‘it doesn’t matter how you find yourself in the deep end, it's your responsibility to swim to the shore.’ I truly believe in this. If you are alive it means that you can keep swimming to get where you want to be.”
*Musa is a pseudonym in order to protect his family.
*Knobkerrie - a short stick with a knob at the top, traditionally used as a weapon.