Unathi Maqhula

Unathi Maqhula

I Am Who I Am Because Of Where I Have Been

The link between individual poverty and mental illness is well known. At the age of 12, Unathi Maqhula was abandoned by her mother who was suffering from an unspecified mental illness. Today, at 16, Unathi shares her story. 

Unathi grew up in Cape Town, raised by her mother.  She knew her father because he visited them from time to time, but she describes him as having a drinking problem. Unathi and her mother moved often because of financial reasons. Her mother, who was unemployed at the time, would provide for Unathi with the income she earned from odd jobs. When she turned six, the family found stability as her mom secured a full-time job working at a hotel as a waitress.

“My mom worked mostly night shifts, so during the first year of her working at the hotel I stayed with my aunt, but I would see my mom often – almost every day. When I started school, my mom hired a nanny so I could stay at home with her.”

“My mom had a good job, so I had everything that I needed. She also gave birth to my sister during that time. I was seven years old. My mom is a loving parent and she would always spend time with my sister and I when she was at home.”

Shortly after her sister’s birth, the family moved twice.

“My aunt’s place felt like home; we stayed in a shack in her backyard. Unfortunately, my mom would get into arguments with her so we had to move again. I don’t know what they would fight about, but my mom’s behaviour started changing slowly - she would suddenly get angry with people around her and it would be difficult to talk to her. Our relatives turned on us because of the way my mom was acting.”

When Unathi turned 10, her mom gave birth to her baby brother and things got even tougher at home. The family moved often after that, mostly because of financial problems and her mom’s behaviour.

“My mom lost her job at the hotel - I am not sure why. We moved to New Rest. The house had no electricity and there were often times when there was no food.  I would go to school after having a bath in cold water, it was difficult but we made it.”

“During that time, my mom’s behaviour became worse, and she would often get furious with me. Even something small like when I would go to the loo before doing the dishes, would make her really angry. She became aggressive and would sometimes just slap me out of the blue.”

“I changed my behaviour, I would be on edge every time she was around. I avoided doing anything I perceived would disturb her or asking her any questions. It was difficult, I was unable to be myself around her.”

Unathi’s mother’s behaviour became erratic and unrecognisable.

“My mom would say the strangest things to people. It was like all the crazy things people would  think in their minds, but she would just verbalise them. She upset everyone around her, including people in our church. Everyone distanced themselves from us because we were her children. It was difficult to see how people judged my mom and how they rejected my siblings and I. People would say we were no longer welcome in their homes.”

“My mom would also do the strangest things. I remember being so confused with what was going on. One Sunday, she woke us up early and told us to get ready for church. We left home and got into a taxi. When we arrived at the church, she told us we are going home, so we turned around and went back home.”

Unathi, who was 12 and the eldest, cared for her siblings in the best way she could.

“I remember the day my mom disappeared. I was at home alone with my siblings. It was getting dark and my mom did not come home. I ended up falling asleep, but when I woke up my mom was still not home. I was wondering where she was – it was very abnormal – I kept thinking that she would never do that to us.”

“I couldn’t go to school because there was no one to look after my brother and sister. I was really worried that something had happened to her. I couldn’t fully explain the depth of sadness I was feeling. My brother started crying, I checked in the cupboards but I didn’t have anything to give him. I found some sugar so I gave him sugar water. I was just expecting my mom to come home so I told myself that she would be home soon.”

“She was gone for three days and it was very difficult.  I didn’t know any of the neighbours and I was too scared to tell anyone because I thought my mom would get into trouble.”

“The first night was really hard, my sister and brother were crying and the only thing I had to give them was sugar water. The next day, I walked to my aunt who lived in Gugulethu and I told her that I didn’t know where my mom was. She said that she wasn’t working and couldn’t help us, but that she could give us some mielie meal. When I got home I fed it to my siblings.”

“I couldn’t sleep at night and it was really hard. I would pray at night and ask God to please bring my mom back.”

“People would tell me that they had seen my mom in the neighbourhood and she was shouting at people. I was really worried about her and was confused by what everyone was telling me.”

After three days she came back.

“She just walked in, and she was bleeding.  She looked terrible and locked herself in her room. She didn’t say anything and I was afraid to ask her where she had been because I didn’t want her to leave again.”

After that, and for a few weeks, Unathi’s mother’s behaviour remained erratic.

“She would shout at me about anything; nothing was good enough for her. She didn’t leave again but it was difficult having her around.”

“People in the community told me what had happened during the time my mom had disappeared. It seems that my mom was walking around in the community half-naked, wearing a bra and shouting at everyone. When people would ask her why she was naked, she would answer them by saying, ‘don’t people on the beach walk around like this, so what is your problem?’ The day she came back home, two teenagers had stoned her because they felt she was too rude or indecent.”

“The hardest part is that people would tell me these things and they would be laughing and making fun of my mom. They would tell me it was like watching a movie. It was painful to hear what they had to say; after all, she was still my mom and I loved her.”

Unathi says that after a few months, her mother’s behaviour began to improve and she began acting in the same way as she did when Unathi was younger.

“Her behaviour began to change and she would not shout as much and she went back to spending more time with us.”

Things at home are still difficult but Unathi has learnt to adapt and be thankful for the little she has.

“My mom has never been able to hold down a full time job, so she spends her days trying to do things to survive. She is always busy trying to do her best and many days I don’t even see her.”

“I have developed a routine in my life and irrespective of what is going on around me I just stick to it. Every day I wake up and go to school. It takes me 45 minutes to walk to school. I know education is the only thing that can assist me to liberate myself from poverty.”

“I eat at the school feeding scheme because I know it might be my only meal for the day. After school I always walk to the library, and I stay in the library and study with my best friend until the library closes at 18.00. We both know we need to study extra hard if we want to compensate for our absent teachers and be able to make it to university.”

“Afterwards I walk home and wait. On some days, no one joins me; I go to bed and the next day I just start my routine again. For a few days a week my mom comes home and those are the happiest days of all.”

“Sometimes my mom still loses it with me, but I am fortunate enough that she apologises afterwards: she always says ‘a princess like me should not be treated like that.’ I choose to hold her loving words close to my heart and dismiss her behaviour. I love my mom and I know I am blessed to have her in my life.”

“I am a true believer that poverty can’t take your dignity away. No one at school or in my neighbourhood knows about my situation. Even though I wear old clothes, I am always clean and I constantly have a smile on my face.”    

Unathi concludes by saying, “I am telling my story for the first time, not because I want you to feel sorry for me. I wish for you to connect with me, see yourself in parts of my story and see me as an equal. We all are what we are because of who we have been. The interesting part is that no matter what your background is, in essence we all have a need for the same basic things but also a choice in how we deal with the life we are given.”    


Unathi is a Leaders’ Quest participant