The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
THABISO Ngwenya was only nine when she came face to face with the embarrassment that grinding poverty brings.
Sure, she already knew that at school, she was not like the other children. The others came to school well-fed and they turned up to class in beautiful uniforms with their feet protected by the toughest leather. Among such abundance, Thabiso’s life was a heartbreaking contrast. She did not have any fancy uniforms and neither did she have shoes protecting her nine-year-old soles and toes. The soils of Gwanda are rich with gold but for little girls without shoes, they are only a source of pain.
Even a nine-year-old knows when she is poor. Thabiso was after all one of the most intelligent students in her grade. A teacher’s favourite, her intelligence was her greatest asset. On the one occasion when her poverty was laid bare in public however, she learnt that even intelligence can be an unlikely source of embarrassment.
It was the occasion of the prize giving ceremony at Makwe Primary School and Thabiso had watched as a succession of her close competitors at school received their prizes. She was supposed to be the star of the show, having scooped first prizes. As her name was called, she rose and strode towards the stage, with cheers and screams ringing in her ears. The celebrations would be cut painfully short.
“I was very intelligent at school so teachers realised that there were many kids from my household and I was the only one without uniforms, school shoes and books,” she told Sunday Life.
“So, they followed up quietly on my situation. What happens when we held our prize giving day at school, I had won the first prize and when it was my turn to take to the podium, they said they could not give me my prize because I had not paid for my school fees. They waited until I was on stage to tell me that. The teachers objected and said they’d settle whatever I owed the school. They were told that I had not paid fees from the moment I had started school. I was in Grade 5 at the time,” she said.
Ngwenya’s plight had not gone unnoticed to the teachers at her school. It was evidently clear to everybody that had been watching her that those at home could not take care of her. It was time to hand her to better custodians.
In Zimbabwe, when a child is deemed to be in a non-conducive environment, they are removed, put in a place of safety. This can refer to one’s biological family and, if there is no biological family to take a child in, someone within the extended family. If there is no one to take the child within the family, authorities then seek someone from within the community.
Again, if there are no takers there, a child is then taken to foster care, where someone is supposed to look after them while authorities try to find a remedy within the child’s family. If that fails, adoption is then considered as an option, although one cannot adopt a child, they have not fostered for at least six months. This way, no prospective parent can adopt a child they have never fostered. After those six months, it is assessed whether the potential parent loved and took care of the child adequately during the foster period. When all other steps have failed, this is when a child is taken to a Residential Care Facility.
It was after all these steps that little Thabiso found herself at Ekhaya Kip Keino Children’s Home, a home whose paint had not even dried yet when she and her younger sister moved in at took residence.
“Fortunately, there was a home that had been built in my area. It had not yet been finished. They had built only one homestead but me and my younger sister went to live there,” she said.
Eight years later, an unknown relative would turn up asking for the return of a now adolescent Thabiso, claiming that the family could now take care of her.
“What happened is that the same family came when I was 17 and said ‘we will look after her now’. I had gone a year without schooling because I had passed my O Level and I ended up volunteering as a commerce teacher at a nearby high school. I don’t know who talked to the institution up until this day. I was just told on the last day of school, when I had packed my clothes that I should not come back on the January of the following year,” she said.
Back in the real world again, Thabiso was now stuck. Her worst fears came true. Her family could not take care of her. Even with that realisation, she could not return to the care home, as she had reached 18 and taking her in would be against the law. Thinking on her feet, she located a brother in South Africa who had been looking for his long-lost younger sisters. Their reunion would be short and sweet. It would meet its permanent end before the year was over.
In the bright lights of South Africa, far away from home, Thabiso knew that her only option was to move in with her boyfriend.
“My brother had tried looking for us so I traced and found him and he got me immediately and took me to SA.
Unfortunately, he passed on 10 months later. The first option for me was to move in with a boyfriend and within a year I got married. Four years down the line I realised that this is not what I wanted. I had bigger dreams than this.
Why did I get married? I think I did it because I needed security. That’s when I left and came back to start educating myself,” she said.
Thabiso, who is now part of the Zimbabwe Care Leavers Network, has a story similar to many others who, at turning 18, where dumped in the “real world.” At, 30, she can now reflect on her experience and that of others.
“According to the law, a child is supposed to be discharged when they reach the age of 18, regardless of their situation. But sometimes you get a child whose parents maybe died when she’s 10 years old and so she spent the next three years out of school. When they get committed to an institution, they’re taken back to Grade 5 although they’re 13. At 18 they’re supposed to be in Form 3. That’s when they get taken out of the institution. There’s no support afforded to them. If institutions keep you beyond the age of 18, they’re breaking the law. All these kids get is the phone number of a relative that said they will take them in and $20 for transport,” she said.
For Sipho Zama (24), Thembiso Children’s Home is the only home he has ever known before he was discharged.
There was no homestead that he could visit during school holidays like other children, just like there was no one to chart his family history to him. The children at the home were the only family he ever knew.
“Adjusting to new families is hard. At the care home I was the big brother but when I went to a new family you find that I was now the youngest. Learning to adjust has been hard. For me adjusting to the new environment, meeting new people and knowing the Dos n Don’ts since we were not accustomed to such living and the life in the locations, has been hard. In the midst of all that we are trying to make new friends,” he said.
Sipho is one of the success stories among former children of care homes. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Development Studies from Lupane State University and a Special Honours in Monitoring and Evaluation from the same institution. However, despite the strides he has taken, he acknowledges that it has not been easy.
“I left the institution in 2018. I was taken to Lupane and Thembiso Children’s Home continued paying my fees. They couldn’t just dump me. The second degree I financed myself. I couldn’t let my challenges deter me from achieving my goal because I know where I’m going,” he said.
According to Thabiso however, others are not so lucky.
“Six months prior to discharge, you are supposed to get a mentor to guide you. This is because you have children that maybe were left there as infants, so that institution is their homestead, it is their whole life. You have kids in there whose date of birth are the days when they were admitted at the institution. They don’t know anything about their families. So, at 18 when you tell them to leave, they have to be prepared. To them, it’s like being chucked out of home when they haven’t done any wrong.
“They look for jobs and they don’t find them. They end up giving up. They are sitting on all these certificates and there seems to be no one who cares about them. They’re not wanted by the institution and no one seems to be following up on how they’re surviving. They become alcoholics and some suffer from anxiety and depression,” she said.
For Presca Ndlovu (22), the challenges faced by male and female care home leavers are quite different. First at Thembiso and then at Luveve’s Training School for Girls, she was just another “broiler”, as children in care homes are derogatorily referred. She was just another child that was fed and not given the basics for life outside the home’s walls. Like the chickens they are cruelly labelled after, some believe that those children are only bred for slaughter in the great “outside”.
“As girls we face many problems. When you’re at home (care home) you’re given things like clothes and toiletries. It’s different when you’re outside. For instance, let’s say you don’t work and the people that you’re staying with don’t work you end up going without some things. Because outside you will told that you are grown up and need to look for a job. Where do you start?
“As a girl when you’re given a chance you have to use it. For the boys at least there are options. You can wake up and just be a tout or a panner. Those are things you can’t do as a girl. At times also, because of the way we are raised in care homes, some girls shun jobs like house work. The truth is that as you’re growing up, you become used to certain standards without realising that when you’re outside, those things will require you to work for them,” she said.
For girls, chances of abuse once discharged are also high.
“We had a case where a girl was sexually abused by an uncle. So, she went to a home at 9 and was removed at 18.
When she was discharged that same uncle was still waiting for her, to resume that same abuse. So, she tried to kill him,” Thabiso said.
Now an advocate for the rights of care leavers, Thabiso said priority should be given to an effective after-care policy.
“There is no after care support. There is no policy that speaks directly to after care support,” she said.
On 12 May in parliament, Umzingwane legislator Levi Mayihlome raised the issue of the reintegration of children from care homes into wider society after they reach 18 in the August House.
“It’s about social justice and representation. As an MP one has to be sensitive to issues affecting societies we represent,” he told Sunday Life.
On that occasion, The Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, Professor Larry Mavima said government was committed to taking care of children after they leave care homes.
“We look after children until they are, in some cases, even above 18 years, especially when they are going to school.
The whole idea is to leave these children at a point when they have become independent. So, we send these children to school. We also take care of their tertiary education needs and at the time that they leave, we would have already given them skills that can sustain them. You can also be interested to know that in cases where children have not been very good in the academics, we also train them in livelihood skills in various areas so that they can actually go out and fend for themselves,” he said.