If Everyone Felt Safe
Namhla Naki (17) lived through domestic violence and survived a random incident of violent crime all of which have facilitated a new sense of compassion within her.
“I was born in Cape Town. I grew up with my mom and dad who are married and my older brother, who is three years older than me. We live in Khayelitsha in a house. When I was growing up my mom was a domestic worker who worked in Claremont. My mother has always been the only one working since I can remember. We always had clothes and enough to eat. We had enough, never feeling like we were lacking. In addition to working as a domestic worker, she used to sell meat and snacks in order to make extra money.”
Namhla’s father was employed when she was born but he became unemployed when she was small.
“I am not sure if the stress of losing his job and not being able to work again was a contributor. But over the years, I noticed that my father was becoming abusive towards my mother. He was also physically abusive. They usually argued in the bedroom and then we would hear my mom screaming. My brother and I would run to the neighbour to ask for help and my brother would phone my aunt who always came to help us. Growing up, I would see my mom with bruises on her body. I would ask why they were fighting because I didn’t see this happening at the neighbours’ house or my aunt's house, but my mother would always say it's not the same in other people’s homes because they have different circumstances.”
Since Namhla’s mother was working, their father took care of them when she and her brother arrived home from school.
“My dad took good care of us when we came home from school while my mother was at work. He used to make us food and that kind of thing. For me, it didn’t make sense because I didn’t trust him because of what he was doing to my mom. My instinct told me that he could do something wrong so I always asked him to taste the food he was making for us. He would get offended but he would do it.”
Namhla recalls a particularly violent incident between her parents.
“It was Mothers’ day - I was ten years old. My mother had just finished cooking when my dad arrived back home. I’m not sure where he had come from. Then he started an argument with my mother. I don't remember what the argument was about but it led him to almost stabbing my mother with a knife. She moved out of the way when he tried to stab her and she ran out of the house. At the time, my brother and I were watching TV but when the argument started we went to hide behind our mother. We were screaming and crying. We asked them to stop fighting and we were calling the neighbours to help.”
“When my mother ran out of the house she went to the neighbour and the neighbour came with my mother into the house to ask what was happening. My dad got aggressive with the neighbour, asking her why she was there and saying; ‘This is not your house, you are not supposed to be here.’ The neighbour told my mother that she must call my aunt. My aunt came with her son who was a young man at the time and they sat with my parents and neighbour to talk about my parents fighting. My mom started telling them what had happened and my dad got angry. My aunt suggested that my mom, my brother and I pack our clothes and live with her at her place which was also in Khayelitsha. That night we left. I was really confused then because my dad started begging us to stay and asking us not to leave. But I went with my aunt because I was scared of my dad.”
Namhla and her brother stayed with their aunt for a short time.
“Living with my aunt, her husband and their son was nice and we got a chance to play together. My mom didn't take her clothes with her when we moved to our aunt, so every day she went back home to get dressed. My cousin was a young man and would accompany her and then walk with her to the bus stop. I don't know why she didn’t take her clothes when we moved to our aunt. Eventually, I think she got tired of going to the house every morning and after two weeks she went back to live with my dad. She told us she is going back to the house. I asked her why she was going back; ‘Is he not going to do it again?’ She would always say that he had stopped doing those things. I believed her. My brother and I continued to stay with my aunt. My mom would always come after work to visit us. After three months of living with my aunt, my brother and I moved back home. My aunt did daily check-ups on us to see how we were when we moved back home.”
After Namhla’s family was reunited under one roof, things became awkward.
“When we moved back I could say that my parents were pretending that things were okay. They stopped fighting but they no longer spoke to each other. My brother and I started sleeping in the same room with my mother. My parents were like strangers to each other. They have been like that for as long as I can remember, up until this day. They still don’t talk. They would just ask each other questions like where things are and that’s it. I think it's fine if they don't talk because the fighting was too much for me.”
Namhla began accepting the way it was.
“It was like living with a stranger because my dad also didn't talk to us, and he stopped taking care of us, only returning home at 7 o'clock in the evening. We never knew where he went during the day. I knew it wasn’t normal because I knew other families had a relationship with each other but eventually I started to accept that there was nothing I could do to change it because they had both made up their minds not to interact with each other. My mom took care of us emotionally and because my brother was older than me he took care of me when my mother was at work. My mother had a strong bond with us and she used to say; ‘I live for my children’. She also used to say that the only person she had thought would be her partner had left her stranded.”
When Namhla was at the end of primary school, she began looking at high schools that she could attend the following year. She recalls one normal day when things went horribly wrong during this time of her planning for high school.
“I was 12 years old. It was a Tuesday. I wanted to join an extracurricular class in public speaking at my future school. The orientation was at 6 PM. My mother left work early at 4 PM to go with me. My cousin was driving the car. He had already picked up my mother and was coming to fetch me as we were going to do grocery shopping afterwards. So it was my mom, cousin, brother and me in the car. We went to the orientation very early. It ended at about 7.45 PM and the grocery store was closing at 8. I can still remember the rush, we bought the groceries but not everything we needed because of the limited time. When we got back to the car, my mom decided that we would go to site C in Khayelitsha, so that she could visit her brother.”
It was her mother’s spontaneous decision that turned into a night of terror.
“When we arrived at the house there was a commotion at the back of my uncle’s house. The neighbours’ child was young and dated a gangster. Because of that, her family sent her to live in Kraaifontein. But that day the gangsters came with guns to the neighbours’ house demanding to know where she was staying now. The parents didn't tell them anything. My uncle was called to mediate because he was a respected member of the community. My brother, cousin and I stayed in the car but my mother went inside my uncle's house. My uncle was at the neighbours’ house trying to resolve things. When the gangsters came out of the house and saw our car, they thought we were a backup for my uncle. In other words, if they were going to shoot then they thought we were the backup for my uncle if things had gone wrong.”
“They came to the car. There were two of them. They started knocking on my cousin's window telling him to open the car, demanding our phones. We gave them our phones and then they said we must get out of the car. They were pointing guns at us and said they wanted the car. My uncle and my mom were still inside the house so were unaware of what was happening to us. They had me against the wall with a gun pointed at my neck and they said that if I screamed or shouted they were going to shoot me and I would die. My cousin was pleading with them to let me go. Each one of the gangsters had a gun. It was very scary. Then they said they were taking me with them. My cousin and brother begged them to let me go. They put me in the car, locked the doors and sped away. I was knocking on the windows and screaming for help. I was pleading with them to let me go but they ignored me.”
Namhla believes that her brother and cousin sounded the alarm and the police were called.
“I am not sure if it was luck or if the police were called but outside Site C there was a roadblock in front of us and behind us. That's when the gangsters started panicking and asking themselves how they were going to get out of the situation. The police yelled through the loudspeaker that the blue car with the lady inside should stop. Then they jumped out of the moving car. The car was heading towards a container and I knew I had to do something to save myself so I jumped out of the car as well, even though it was still going fast. I jumped onto the road and hurt my knee.”
“The detective who was part of the roadblock ran to the car and stopped the car before it hit the container. The police took me to the hospital because I was badly injured. I had a fracture and something had protruded into my knee. By the time I was admitted to hospital my mother, uncle and brother were there because my uncle had begun calling all the hospitals thinking they were looking for a dead person. That same night I was operated on.”
“I was crying the whole time. I would have lost my life if I hadn’t jumped, or if they had shot me. I had all these scenarios going around my head about what would happen to my mother if I’d died. I was counselled once while I was at hospital but after that, I didn't have more counselling. I was in the hospital for three days. When I went home I needed crutches to walk and again my mother took care of me.”
“For some time I had nightmares about what had happened and I was overall quite frightened.”
“Two weeks after the incident I went back to school because I was starting with exams. I healed and I did very well with my year-end exams. I was telling my story to everybody who asked and doing that kind of counselled me. The more I spoke about it, the more it assisted me to release the trauma and ease my mind. Time does heal and I managed to put the incident behind me because I was grateful to be alive.”
Namhla has learned some lessons from her life's journey.
“It still saddens me that South Africans live amongst so much violence, in and outside their homes. I so wish we could all feel safe. In a strange way, my experiences have taught me to be less judgemental. I learned not to judge a person without knowing what she/he has gone through, because the majority of people are a product of their own past and experiences. If everyone felt safe, including the people who commit violent acts, maybe we would begin seeing some change.”
Namhla is a Leaders’ Quest participant.