The Responsibility of Freedom
Freedom is a fickle thing according to Sinesipho Aimengs. She shares her challenges of growing up in a strong traditional African home and mishandling her freedom.
Sinesipho (28) grew up in Khayemandi, a mixed area with both formal and informal settlements in the Western Cape. She describes her childhood as complicated and filled with family secrets.
“I grew up believing that my mother was my sister and my grandparents were my parents. I only found out the truth when I was ten years old. One day after somebody upset me, my mother pulled me into a room with her. She bent down to comfort me, held me tightly and told me that everything was going to be okay. I didn’t want to listen to her, so she pulled me closer and whispered that she was my mother… she said that I mustn’t talk about it and that it’s our secret.”
Sinesipho says that later she found out that her mom was 21 and unmarried when she had her. And her grandfather forbid her mother to raise her.
“My grandfather is a very strict and traditional Xhosa man. When he found out that my mother was pregnant, he told her that my grandparents would raise me and that she must never speak about it again. It was commonplace for grandparents to raise their grandchildren while their mothers’ worked or studied away from home. Many of my friends were raised by their grandparents but they knew who their biological parents were. I felt surprise with the news and ashamed because it was such a secret. I felt like I was a mistake.”
Sinesipho says that she knew better than to talk to her grandfather about it.
“My grandfather is very strict, very traditional. But he is loving, I knew he cared about me purely by the way he treated me. The other children in the house were mainly boys and everyone had their role in the house. For example, I had to assume a women’s role from a young age (11), that included scrubbing floors and making food. The boys never did any housework, they had to clean my grandfather’s taxis (he owned a fleet). Sometimes he would let me help clean the taxis too. As traditional as my grandfather was, he made me feel like I belonged and that I was strong. However, I disliked to be so strictly controlled and not being able to have any freedoms.”
“My secret mom was studying to be a teacher in the Eastern Cape, so she was not around often. My grandfather believed that I should receive the best education, so he sacrificed a lot for me. He placed me in a private high school for girls in the town that is close to where we stay.”
Unfortunately, the girls that surrounded Sinesipho were described by their peers as the “fun squad”.
“They were called the fun squad because they knew how to have fun - this included drinking at school and smoking weed. I was delighted. For the first time I was experiencing some kind of freedom. Soon after I started Grade 8 I was smoking and drinking. I was enjoying it and I was never caught. I would make sure I was home by my curfew, I would carry mints and extra clothes to cover the smell.”
Sinesipho says that this behaviour continued through high school but reached a peak when she was in Grade 11.
“I was smoking weed before school, because it made me feel calmer and I thought it helped me learn better. My marks were fine at school so I never thought it was a problem because I was passing well. But I was lying more and more to my family. I would say I was studying after school when I was actually smoking and drinking with my friends. I never felt bad because like I said, my marks were fine and I was never caught. I used to be in the top ten in my class.”
Following a great Grade 12 pass, Sinesipho decided to study graphic design after school and enrolled at a college in Cape Town.
“It was a great time of freedom because I lived in the college’s residence that was down the road from the city’s busiest streets. When it came to night life, partying happened at all times. I partied non-stop, but again, my marks were fine. Even when I skipped class I would make a plan to catch up.”
“Unfortunately, we also began hanging out with a group of guys who stayed in a flat in town. They were selling cocaine and would give it to us for free. All they wanted was for us to party with them, and for people to see us together. We didn’t mind at all because we were seen as those girls who could get anything they want because of their connections.”
Even though her drug use was increasing, Sinesipho continued to get great marks in class.
“One of my friends called me a high-functioning drug addict. I saw nothing wrong with my behaviour, even though I was doing drugs every day - before, in-between and after classes and then binge drink over the weekend.”
Sinesipho says that her wakeup call came when one of her friends was raped by the guys they were hanging out with.
“We were all partying together one night in the club, we got bored and decided to do some blow at their apartment. It was three girls with about five guys… it was a normal thing. One of the girls fell asleep in the flat while we were partying and we thought because we need to get back before they close the gates of the residence that it would be okay to leave her there. The next morning at about 6am when the gates opened, she came back to the flat. She looked terrible and told us that she felt wet and sore… like she had sex. But she didn’t remember anything. She went to the clinic, they confirmed that she had had forced sex. We felt so bad for her, she didn’t even know who did it. We also felt guilty for leaving her there. I kept thinking that it could have been me.”
Supporting her friend gave Sinesipho the courage to rethink the choices she made in her life.
“I spoke to the counsellor in college and she referred me to rehab. It was weird because one of the rehab’s counsellors confirmed that I was a high-functioning addict. A person who can actually enjoy professional success, maintain an active social live and hide their demons from the ones they love most – for a while, at least. Unfortunately, the “high-functioning” comes at a great price and a considerable amount of danger. Functioning addicts are so good at masking their struggles and covering their tracks that friends and loved ones often aren’t aware of a problem until it’s too late. She said that because I wasn’t struggling at school I thought I was okay. She was right, I always thought I was in control but rehab made me realise that I was not. When I tried get off the drugs I couldn’t and that’s when I knew I had a bigger problem than I thought. It took me a few weeks to get off the drugs.”
“Physically it was difficult, but the hardest part was facing my grandfather while in rehab because he was very disappointed in me.”
“At first my grandfather didn’t want to see me, but then my grandmother convinced him to come.
At first he couldn’t look at me but then the counsellor sat with us and spoke to him. She said that I was strong and needed his love. He stood up, began crying and apologized to me. He kept saying sorry… for not telling me about my mother. He thought that was what had caused me to use drugs. For the first time we spoke about everything that was going on in our lives. And I felt like a new person.”
Sinesipho has been clean of drugs for the past two years, however her choices caught up with her and she never completed her degree.
In conclusion, Sinesipho says “my freedom was kept away from me as a child, when I finally got it, I did not have the skills to deal with it. Freedom became my worst enemy and an addiction. I have learnt that freedom is beyond having a wild life and that real freedom comes from managing our life choices.”
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