Isibindi Project: Mother and pupil at 13

2015-01-18 15:00

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Mpolokeng Mkhwanazi weeps when she talks about passing matric and doing well enough to apply to university.

But these are not tears of joy. Mkhwanazi, from QwaQwa in the Free State, is an orphan and has raised her three younger siblings since she was 13.

The stress of trying to be a mother and to study was almost too much for her and, in 2012, she failed Grade 11.

A remarkable government programme called the Isibindi Project gave the shy 19-year-old the chance she needed to put her studies first.

The project, which is managed nationally by the department of social development, focuses on supporting needy families.

Last year, Mkhwanazi was one of 119 Isibindi – the word means courage in isiXhosa – matrics in the Free State. She and her classmates recorded an amazing 97% pass rate, well above the 83% recorded by the rest of the province’s matrics.

Mkhwanazi lives in her late grandmother’s RDP house in Hanthabeng, QwaQwa.

The walls are grey, the couches are threadbare and the kitchen has one small, rickety table that looks grey because there is no light bulb in the kitchen.

In the sitting room, music blares from a radio held together by wires. Mkhwanazi’s eyes are tired. She has just returned from Johannesburg, where she was trying to register to study nursing. She was told to return on Tuesday, but might not be able to go back because she’s out of money.

“I love taking care of people and I think nursing would be the best for me,” she says.

Three people know this to be true – her sisters, Thembi (16) and Jane (6), and brother Nkosana (9).

“Jane was six months old when our mother passed away. I’ve been sleeping next to her ever since. We sleep in one room because we are scared to be separated,” she says.

Then she starts to cry.

Her parents, grandparents and aunt are dead.

For the past six years, Mkhwanazi has been the adult in her family. Another relative registered them for grants, collected the money each month and bought them groceries – but she lived in Mpumalanga and wasn’t there most of the time.

So every morning, Mkhwanazi would wake her siblings up very early, get them ready, make sure they ate – if there was food in the house – and then get everyone off to school.

She rushed home in the afternoon to ensure her brood was safe, fed and doing their homework.

Her schoolwork suffered and she failed Grade 11.

Then Joyce Mohlomi came into their lives.

Mohlomi (27) is a trained child and youth care worker who was unemployed until Isibindi arrived in QwaQwa.

Now she takes care of 36 children in her area.

“The first time I met this family, it was heartbreaking,” says Mohlomi.

“They had nothing and their morale was low. Nkosana had just failed Grade 1. Mpolokeng has cried many times on my shoulder, saying how she hates the life she has to live, but every day she has the strength to carry herself and her siblings.

“I’m so proud of what she has achieved after everything that’s happened. She wasn’t happy about her results, but I know she did her best.”

Mohlomi is worried that Mkhwanazi did not get a chance to be a child herself and has now got her involved in the community choir.

“Thembi is old enough now and routines can be changed to give each of them an opportunity to be a child,” says Mohlomi.

Giving kids a second chance

The department of social development this week announced that 1?226 of the 1?703 matric candidates in its Isibindi programme had passed.

That’s a pass rate of almost 72% – and in four of the nine provinces, Isibindi pupils recorded a higher pass rate than the overall official provincial pass rate.

Not all the programme’s pupils are from child-headed households like Mpolokeng Mkhwanazi, but everyone involved in Isibindi needs some kind of support and social services.

Joyce Mohlomi is responsible for 36 of Isibindi’s 104?587 beneficiaries.

A trained child and youth care worker, 27-year-old Mohlomi helps struggling youngsters in QwaQwa by offering them emotional support and teaching them life skills.

She was unemployed for years after qualifying, but then Isibindi came to town. Mohlomi was the first to get involved and though she loves her work, she says it’s sometimes stressful because she wants so badly to help all of “her” families.

“The families are different and they have different needs. But with [Mpolokeng Mkhwanazi and her] family, it’s different as they need more of my time to monitor their homework, where they are living and making sure they have groceries.

“I check up on the other families to ensure that they are practising what I have taught them and the household is running smoothly.”

Her day starts very early with a visit to the Mkhwanazis to ensure the younger children have gone to school.

Then she will rush on to her next family to get an update on the situation.

She’ll give advice and guidance to another, before she has to get back to the Mkhwanazis as the younger siblings return.

Her work day can stretch well into the night and she is always on call for these families.

“We don’t want to make them dependent on us so we teach them and equip them with life skills in all sectors.

“We make sure the children have grants and all their paperwork is in order. We help with homework and teach grandmothers how to do the same. This programme is to empower people and then we let them do it on their own. Some families take longer than others but I have faith in all of them,” she said.

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