Always Help When You Can
In this story, Mongezi Mabena (20) tells us his life transformation from being neglected and abused as a child to understanding the real meaning of success through helping others.
Mongezi was born in Durban, “both of my parents are from the Eastern Cape but they moved to Durban for work. My parents had children from previous relationships; my mom had two girls and my dad two boys, but only the girls stayed with them. Together they had two more boys and I was the youngest of everyone.”
Mongezi’s parents got separated when he was two years old, his dad stayed in Durban and his mom relocated with all her children.
“My mom moved all my siblings to the Easter Cape nearer to her family, as I was the youngest, she took me to live with her in the Western Cape. I suppose she moved to Cape Town because working opportunities were better, so we stayed together in Gugulethu.”
The arrangement with Mongezi’s dad was that Mongezi and his brother would visit him in December every two years. “I don’t recall those years very well, because I was too young but I remember that my mother would be absent for long periods of time and I would stay with a nanny. The few occasions I visited my dad, they were also strange, we hardly knew each other and we did not have a lot in common.”
At the age of seven, Mongezi was sent to stay with his siblings in the Eastern Cape. “I had just started school and no one explained to me why I was sent to live away from home. I remember feeling as if I had done something wrong and I was being punished.”
After one year, Mongezi’s mom moved him back to Cape Town and he finally understood the reason for his move. His mother had just had a new baby-boy.
“I was now in Grade 2, I was eight years old and I decided that I did not like school. I felt it was boring and it did not stimulate me in any way. I started missing a lot of school days, because I did not have a lot of supervision at home (mainly a nanny). I would leave home as if I was going to school but I would spend my days in Montana, Bonteheuwel, Rylands and Pinelands with friends.”
“We would ask for money and food on the street or we would go door to door. We would also shoplift chocolates at Shoprite. With the money we would raise, we would buy fish & chips and play machine games the rest of the day.”
“I only went to school to write tests. I had a neighbor that would tell me when we would write and I made sure on that day I would be at school.”
At the frustration of his teacher, Mongezi’s test results always came on top of his class. “The teacher would always be furious because she couldn’t comprehend how I could perform well at school, to me the scores kept reinforcing my belief that school was for idiots.”
Mongezi kept passing school and he was the school top achiever in Grade 3. When he reached Grade 4, his mom brought all his siblings (two sisters and one brother) to live with them.
“My brother joined my school. He was older than me and he noticed my absenteeism patterns. Soon he reported me to my mom. I remember my mom visiting my school, she confronted the Principal and they called me to his office. She commanded the Principal to give me a hiding; he beat me heavily. I still remember her words to him, ‘I will not visit this school again; it is your responsibility to keep my child here. If you beat him every day, be it’.”
Mongezi resisted for a while to the new rules but in Grade 5 he started attending school regularly. “I think it was a combination of my siblings supervision and the Grade 5 curriculum that I found more challenging. I finally felt I was learning something.”
Life continued as normal, Mongezi was now mainly cared for by his elder siblings instead of a nanny. His mom continued being absent for long periods of time and their relationship was almost non existent. “The few times she would visit, she was cold and bossing everyone around. If you did not do what she wanted she would beat you up. So, we preferred to be alone rather than with her.”
In the same year, Mongezi’s father passed away, “I did not know the guy, so I didn’t feel anything. However when I got to know that he had asked few weeks before his death to see my brother and I and my mom had refused, I did get upset with her.”
Mongezi was now in Grade 6 and for the first time in his life he had a strict teacher, “Mr. Madubedube was very strict with us, so I feared him and I became even more committed to my studies. At the same time, I joined an organization in my community that taught me life skills, exposed me to youth with positive dreams and had facilitators who believed in me. The two things combined, made me understand that I had not received any education from home and that I had just been given free will. This was the year, I decided I wanted something better for myself.”
This resolution combined with the support he found from the teacher and the community organization, supported Mongezi to cope with deterioration of his fragile family life.
“My brother, the one that brought me back to school, dropped out of school in Grade 7. He was using drugs and my mom forced him to move to the Eastern Cape.”
“We missed him so during the summer school holidays all of us (his siblings) visited him in the Eastern Cape. We were all small and my older sister (15) was the one who took care of us. During the holiday, my sister disappeared for few days visiting her boyfriend and the rest of us stayed without supervision and food. We called my mom and told her.”
“I will never forget the day we returned to Cape Town, my mom was waiting for all of us. She confronted my sister about what had happen and beat her up badly. She broke my sister’s finger. My sister went to the clinic and reported my mother to the authorities, she was in Grade 10 at the time and she had been exposed to Children Rights information.”
“The police came to our house and arrested my mom. She screamed to the police that if they think they can tell her how to raise her children, they should take my sister and raise her themselves. She screamed to my sister that she would be out of the house as soon as she was released. Deep inside I knew my mother was not joking.”
Mongezi’s mother fulfilled her promise; she kicked her daughter out of the house. Mongezi heard that for some time his sister lived with friends but after few months she moved in with an older man and felt pregnant.
“I started hating my mom, she was such a bully. Every time I made a mistake I would make sure it was worse. I knew I was going to get a big hiding so I wanted to give her a good reason for it.”
Mongezi’s body scars kept accumulating but none was as sever as the one infringed on him when he was 15.
“The previous day, we had an African ritual at home. As it is tradition, there was a lot of alcohol around, I drank and got tipsy. The following day, my mom confronted me. We were in the kitchen and she started screaming, I told her that I just drank at home and used the drinks she had bought. I turned my back to her to walk away and she poured a boiled kettle over my back.”
“I still remember the pain of the water entering my skin. I ran out, took my t-shirt off and tried to clean myself with cold water. The pain was so intense that I took a taxi* and went to the nearest clinic by myself. The clinic staff asked me about the incident and encouraged me to report it but I knew that if I did it, I would be without a home in no time. So, I refused.”
Since that incident, Mongezi tried to keep distance from his mother every time she returned home. The only times he addressed her was when she was targeting Mongezi’s younger brother. “I felt responsible for my brother, every time she was abusive towards him I would intervene.”
When Mongezi reached Grade 10, at the age of 16, the only sister remaining at home got married and moved out. “I was left in charge for my young brother (11). My sister would visit once every two weeks to bring groceries. I did not feel I had received a big responsibility, we were always taught to be self-sufficient and it was much better to be alone than have my mom around.”
“By that time I was a top student at my school and my brother was also very dedicated to his studies. So, we would go to school and keep to each other company afterwards. I don’t feel I really took care of him, I think we both supported each other.”
One year went by and Mongezi’s older brother in the Eastern Cape broke into a shop to maintain his drug addiction. He was beaten to death. “I remember hearing the news on a Saturday morning, I was getting ready to go for a tutoring session and my mom called me to let me know. For the first few hours I was emotionless, I got dressed and went to tutoring. I am not sure I was very present in the session but when I returned home it hit me. My dear brother was dead and I did not have the chance to help him to free himself from this end. Even today, when I think about him, I still feel guilty. I feel it was my responsibility to keep him safe after what he had done for me.”
As a result of Mongezi’s determination he was accepted to study Bcom Accounting at the University of the Western Cape.
In his first year at University, Mongezi is not just doing well academically but he has started an organization on campus to help others. ‘Barefoot Thursday For Africa’ is an initiative that collects shoes to give to those who don’t have them.
“Through my teen years I was motivated by the desire for my own success. I wanted to have a job that would pay me a very good salary, so I had all the freedom and power to make decisions over my life. As I get older, I have come to realize that real success is not an individual journey. I am now working hard to get a job that provides me with a decent salary and will avail time for me to help others.”
Mongezi concludes by saying, “I was lucky enough to understand at a younger age that there was more to life than what I saw at home. As soon as I committed to succeed and I set up a clear goal for myself, there was nothing happening around me that could deter me from my goal. Although the real lesson happened when I realized that my personal success would mean nothing unless I use it to assist others to succeed as well. So don’t forget to always help when you can.”
Mongezi is a Leaders’ Quest Alumnus, an intervention offered by Salesian Life Choices
*Taxi – Mini bus that carries passengers