The total number of people living with HIV in South Africa is estimated at approximately 7 million. Many children of HIV victims often live disrupted lives. Sakhile Kuzwayo explains how his experience of heartbreaking loss impacted on his life.
Born in Langa, Cape Town, Sakhile (26) is the youngest of three children. “We grew up in a family house that my grandmother left to my mother. My mom was an independent woman who raised her children on her own.
“I think my father’s absence in my life had a huge impact on my life. For a long time, I would think that he wasn’t around because of me – that I did something to him. Whenever I would ask my mother about him she would say that it’s better that we don’t know about him, that he is not a good person. I didn’t ask more questions because my mother always cared and worked hard to provide for us.
“My mom was a street vendor selling second-hand clothes and food at the taxi rank. She made sure that we had money for everything we needed at school. Education was important to her. We wouldn’t have that much food at home, but we always had what we needed for school.”
Sakhile says that everything was good until they moved.
“During my younger years, we stayed in a house in Langa. It had three bedrooms and was comfortable. I would share a room with my mother and sister because we only had one mattress, so we slept together. My uncles would sometimes come to the house in the middle of the week or night and stay for a couple of days. I would often hear my mother arguing with them about them not contributing to food or electricity.
“I was about seven years old when my mother sold the house in Langa, I think maybe she wanted to buy her own house in her own name where her siblings had no claims on the house. From the moment we moved to Delft – where my mom bought a new house – we never saw our relatives again. My mother would say that her family was full of hatred and that’s why we never saw them.
“Moving to a new neighbourhood came with challenges. My brother (17) made the wrong friends and was exposed to bad behaviour. One day I came home from school and there was a taxi in front of our house. I was curious to know who it was and when I went inside my mother was crying. She said that the guys were shouting at her asking where my brother was. They told her that his group of friends jumped over a school fence and began to rob school kids.
“My brother’s behaviour made me see why education and learning were important. My mother would speak to me and say that I must not be like him and that I must always work hard at school. Even my brother spoke to me saying that his life was no way to live.”
Sakhile says that to make his mother proud and at peace, he would work hard at school.
“I was enthusiastic about learning and reading Afrikaans because many of my classmates were Afrikaans speaking. Some days I would stay a bit longer at school, trying to learn more.”
When Sakhile was 12 his mother began getting sick.
“I first noticed that she was sick when she stopped going to set up her stall at the taxi rank. Things became very tough at home financially because my mother would be too weak to go to work. She spent a lot of time at home in bed.
“After a few weeks she began losing weight, then she didn’t want to get out of bed at all. I would notice that her face was thinner and full of pimples.
“I did not know what was wrong with her. When I would ask her what’s wrong she wouldn’t answer. She would often talk to my sister but I thought she was giving her guidance in how to take care of the house when she was sick.”
Sakhile says that over the next year his mother’s condition deteriorated.
“Her complexion became darker, she became even thinner and at this point, the only money we had was from the children in the area that would buy stuff from our house.
“This is when things got really bad at home, the money from selling chips and sweets was not enough so a few of my mother’s friends would bring us food. Finally, my sister told me that my mother was HIV positive. I knew what it was, and I knew that it was a disaster because during that time HIV was still considered a death sentence. When she told me I froze and knew that she was going to leave us sometime soon. I never expected it to happen to my family. I began to worry about what others would say.
“I kept her illness a secret because I was scared of the way my friends would respond. There were times I was alienated by neighbours not wanting their children to play with me because of my mother’s sickness. I would see them avoiding me.”
In the same year Sakhile found out that his mother was suffering from AIDS, his brother was killed.
“One day we got a phone call from a family member who told my mother. I remember coming inside from playing and seeing my mother crying, she told us and we all started crying. We didn’t have clothes to wear to his funeral. We were helped by other people.”
With no way to provide for her family, Sakhile says that his mother sold their house in Delft.
“When we moved to a rented shack in Nyanga it was in the middle of the year and we couldn’t change schools, so instead of dropping out my sister and I walked the 10km required to get to school. In the morning we would take a taxi but then walk home, school would end at 14:00 and we would get home at 17:00 because the walk took about three hours. For me, school was a happy place, at home my mother was sick and there was little I could do to make things better. My mother continued motivating us to work hard at school. Even though there was a lot to do at home because my sister and I had to care for our mother, clean the house and make food, my focus stayed on my books. I remember being tired but making time to go over my school work at home.”
When Sakhile turned 15, his mother succumbed to her illness.
“During the school holidays, my mom told us to call an ambulance. We ran to her friend who stayed 2km’s away to tell her to call because we did not have a phone. When we got back home my mother was not breathing. The ambulance came a while later and took her to the hospital where she died after two days. When I found out I was deeply sad, we felt alone. Who was going to take care of us now? My mom had told us that her friend would look after us, but soon after my mom’s death her friend gave us a letter to take to my mom’s family whom we had not seen in years.
“Another family friend eventually took us to their house. I don’t know what was in the letter – only that it said that my mom had passed away. They invited us to stay with them.”
Sakhile and his sister stayed with them for the following three years.
“Staying there was very unpleasant. We were blamed for everything and treated differently to my cousins. I would cope by standing outside, looking up and talking to the sky, pretending my mother was there. I believed she could see me.
“One evening I stood there crying and my aunt came to me asking what was wrong, and why are my eyes red. She thought I was smoking dagga, so she beat me.
“In Grade 10 after finding out that we passed, we went out to celebrate. My friends bought some beers and meat and I knew I would get into trouble but thought: ‘Oh well, let me enjoy myself for once.’ I called home and told them that I’m not able to come home because it is late. I even got my friend’s mother to call. However, when I got home I was turned away. I tried to apologise but my relatives kept saying that I must go away. I stood at the gate outside of the house for the whole day to show remorse, and I hoped that they would let me back inside, but it got very late and I decided to leave.
“I didn’t know what to do, I was feeling distressed and alone. I went back to my friend’s house and he said that I could stay in his room in the meantime. I only had the clothes I was wearing, so I had to go back to my house for my school bag.
“After school, we went to my house, but they refused to take me back. They said I must go. My friend’s mother allowed me to stay with them. I remained motivated, being on my own I knew that I needed my education to succeed. My friend and I helped each other because we were focussed on finishing high school.
“I completed matric by squatting around with friends but after that, I found myself unemployed.”
Following a few years, Sakhile joined a literacy programme where he began working with children.
“I would sit with them and they would share all the barriers – starting from their homes to their community – that affected their academics. I related to most of their stories. All I could do was use my story to motivate them.”
Sakhile continued feeding his passion by volunteering at a local library and writing a book. “I want to reach out to the youth. Seeing that I was reaching out to a small number of kids, I hoped that the book would reach a larger audience. What I wanted to express, is that anything is possible!
“Don’t look at situations as problems even when it seems you have lost everything. Approach life with respect and show gratitude to the few who helped you. Don’t bottle up, talk and reach out. When you nurture your positive thinking, anything becomes possible.”
* Sakhile is a member of FundZa