Not your average mother

2008-08-22 00:00

Dudu Radebe’s colleagues describe her as a woman “with a big heart”. Her heart has to be big to make room for the 17 children she is mother to already, and the many more she will mother in the future.

Radebe has a son and is a housemother in a home for 10 children at the SOS Children’s Village in The Grange. She and the children in her care create a family that lives, loves, laughs, fights (sometimes), prays and shares the household chores like any family. Except, that Radebe’s family is not just “any family”. The children she mothers are either orphaned or abandoned. They range in age from three to 18 and include three disabled children. When they turn 16 and are independent enough to take care of themselves, children move from the family houses to a youth house for teenagers. Six of her children have moved on already, and six more replaced them — all of them vulnerable. As those currently with her grow up and move out, yet more children will fill their places. This is a special kind of family, requiring a special kind of mother and a special kind of loving.

Talking to Radebe, it becomes clear what is closest to her heart: it is all about her children. “I believe working with children is my calling. When I was young I liked children but I never thought I would end up caring for many like this.”

She laughs when she remembers that growing up in Lamontville, Durban, she wanted to be a railway police officer, or a social worker. Her mother was a domestic worker and a single mother to Radebe and her three brothers. “Life was hard for us. I went to school in Lamontville, then Umkomaas, then boarding school in Umzimkulu and finally Mount Frere, where I stayed with relatives.”

Radebe’s greatest regret is that she fell pregnant in 1980 when she was in Grade 11 and had to leave school to raise her son, Zolani. “Although I love him very much, I know my life would have been very different if I had not become pregnant. I’m sorry I was not able to study and have a career. I swore to myself that I would never have another child out of wedlock and I never have.”

She has never married either and has had to support Zolani and herself. She worked first in the hospitality industry in hotels in Durban before training as a hairdresser and working in several salons in the city. It was while she was the supervisor of a block of holiday flats on the South Coast in 1995 that she saw an advertisement in the newspaper for the job of housemother at the Pietermaritzburg SOS Children’s Village. She applied and was accepted, and started childcare training in January 1996. She was one of the first housemothers who moved into the current village when it opened with 24 children in April 1996. There are now 150 children in the village.

Radebe says what gives her joy is her children. “I really enjoy being with the children. Watching them grow up, doing well at school and achieving their goals makes me very happy. I am happy to have this family and Zolani is happy too. He sees the children as his brothers and sisters.”

Radebe’s own life experiences are the foundation on which she bases the values she tries to teach her children and the advice she gives them. “I try to teach them to work hard at their studies, to be honest and trustworthy, to respect themselves, to respect other people and to believe in God. If they respect themselves, they must also take care of themselves and look after their health. I warn the girls not to do what I did and fall pregnant. In those days, parents did not talk about ‘the facts of life’ with their children. My mother just warned me to ‘be careful of boys’. I didn’t understand what she meant. Now, everyone is more open and I talk about sexuality and HIV/Aids with my children. However, the most important thing is love. I try to love my children as much as I can and teach them to love themselves and others.”

Talking of her proudest achievements, Radebe says winning a Woman of Courage award recently was a high point (see box). However, her proudest achievement was completing her Matric through private correspondence last year. “I wanted to get my Matric because I want to study to become a professional childcare worker. I am working towards a certificate in childcare and I want to do a diploma next. I want to better myself through study and gain more skills, which you do each time you study.

“My children are all different, they come from different backgrounds and have different needs, so I need to keep gaining new skills. I am proud that through study and experience I have learned how to cope with most children’s behaviour.”

Considering the future, Radebe says: “I see myself being here for many years. I want to see my children grow up and become good citizens.” Although no parents can guarantee their children will turn out well, Radebe’s children seem blessed indeed to have such a big-hearted mother to give them a good start.

Woman of Courage

Dudu Radebe’s loving commitment to the children in her care was recognised recently when she won a local Woman of Courage Award. These awards are held every two years by the eight SOS Children’s Villages around the country to recognise and motivate unsung heroines. The awards have two categories: SOS Village housemothers and women from the community.

Radebe’s colleagues nominated her for “going over and above the call of duty”. She says: “Being chosen by my colleagues makes me very proud because it shows that others have seen some good in me.” She is now a nominee for the national award.

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