From scavenger to survivor

From scavenger to survivor

    May 20 2008 at 02:23PM

By VIVIAN ATTWOOD.

To begin to understand what life is like for a street child, one would need to spend months building bonds of trust. All children on the streets have a profound mistrust of strangers, particularly adults.

Virtually without exception they have been subjected to neglect and abuse at the hands of those who should have cared for them.

Bulelwa Hewitt should know. The 27-year-old mother of two survived life on a waste dump, and later the streets of East London, to come full circle to the point where she and her husband, Tom, founded the Umthombo project for street children, based in Durban. The organisation is dedicated to "turning despair into hope on the streets of South Africa".

Bulelwa is highly articulate and radiates vitality; a far cry from the skinny child who sniffed benzine or thinners to ward off persistent hunger and her feelings of helplessness as she tried to raise her younger brother and sister by scavenging for scraps in dustbins.

She lavishes love on her sons, determined that they should never feel the pain of rejection she experienced.

Contemplating motherhood was a daunting prospect for Bulelwa, because she had had no role model. "I had intensive counselling when I was pregnant.I felt it was my fault that I was sexually abused as a child," she recounted.

"I used to wake up screaming in the night. ‘What happens if I raise my child the way I was raised?’ I thought. My therapist just listened while I talked and cried."

With tremendous support from her husband, Bulelwa conquered her fears, and equipped herself to be a mom by reading "just about everything ever written on the subject of childbirth and child rearing". To see her with her boys today, no one would imagine the turmoil she endured.

Discarded lives

The children’s activist was born into a community with little hope for the future, beyond finding the next drink or cigarette. Her mother and step-father lived in a makeshift shack on the edge of the East London municipal waste dump.

Bulelwa and her two younger siblings, Nosiphiwe and Bulelani, spent their days scouring the dump for anything that could be eaten or sold. Their mother kept them out of school for that purpose.

"We were scavengers, essentially. We sold cardboard, tin cans and reject sweets and made cheap alcohol from pineapples," Bulelwa said. "On Fridays, we’d go out on the streets. We slept underneath a skateboarding ramp there. On a Tuesday we’d go back to the squatter camp."

The reason the children sought the streets at weekends was simple. "Over the weekend there was a lot of drinking, and then we suffered verbal, physical and sexual abuse from neighbours," Bulelwa explained.

"We moved like that, back and forth. There were people on the street living under plastic bags and in small boxes like dog kennels. Other kids from the squatter camp joined us. We became like a family unit and looked out for one another."

Bulelwa was determined to keep Nosiphiwe away from their stepfather, who had started sexually molesting her. She has no idea how old she was when she shepherded her little band onto the streets in 1993, but estimated she was around nine.

"Things had just got too bad at home. My stepfather would beat us for mentioning our father’s name. He beat my mom too." Bulelwa had also been sexually assaulted by men in the camp by the time she made her desperate decision.

"Life on the streets wasn’t really better than on the dump, but there was more chance of finding food," she said.

"At night when the restaurants closed we would wait to grab the food they threw away. We also begged for money and then we either bought food or benzine or thinners to sniff.

"It made me see strange things, like snakes coming out of the sea, but I wasn’t scared. It sent me into a world of my own, and helped block out the past. It took away my hunger and made me bolder."

Bulelwa and her siblings were headed down a one-way road. Malnourished and substance addicted, they were bound to contract disease and die young. A fellow street child, an older youth, had been observing the little band, and intervened.

"Muntsu, as we called him, took us to a street children’s shelter close to town. He knocked on the door and left us there," she remembered.

At first the children thought they were in paradise. They were given nourishing food, warm blankets and new clothes. But the shelter was mismanaged and the food supply began to diminish. Their caregivers, too, showed little sympathy for their charges.

"As more kids came, the house mothers started to show us less warmth. When I did something wrong they would say ‘No wonder you were on the streets’. There was a total lack of understanding. Then they began to hit us. My sister was beaten because she was hungry and stole some food. It reminded me of my past."

Bulelwa left the shelter in 1998, having completed Standard 7. Although she was forced to return to the squalor of the dump, there was another guardian angel waiting in the wings.

Sister Pam van der Westhuizen, a coloured nurse, ran a soup kitchen at the dump, and took a motherly interest in Bulelwa and a group of her friends.

She would invite them home on a Sunday, where they would get a good bath, be given fresh clothes and settle down to a good meal after attending church. Her faith in Bulelwa’s potential was poured liberally onto the child’s parched spirit.

"She didn’t do what she did for any ulterior motive. She was simply a good woman," said Bulelwa. "After that, Nosipho Ntontela, who worked with children on the streets of East London, became my ‘mom’."

Bulelwa went to live with the social worker, eventually moving with her to Durban, where Nosipho became involved with an outreach programme for street kids. Today she is the office administrator for Umthombo, and the two women are as close as mother and daughter.

Scars run deep

In terms of her biological mother, Bulelwa still grapples with feelings of pain and anger. "When I was six months pregnant with my first child, in 2004, I went back to the dump to visit my mother.

"It was difficult, because I don’t have any sort of relationship with her. I have gone back since, so that the boys can have a sense of where they come from. When my mother is drunk she shouts and calls them her ‘mlungu grandchildren’. It makes me so angry and frustrated."

Bulelwa recently learned that her childhood saviour, Muntsu, had died of TB. "He couldn’t get off the streets, although he saved us. He had internalised the lifestyle," she said. "Most of the children who were my friends have died or have Aids."

Bulelwa’s younger sister, Nosiphiwe, lives in the squatter camp and has a baby. Her brother, Bulelani, is serving a 12-year jail term for being an accessory to murder.

Her mother and stepfather are still together, but she has finally been reunited with her own father, thanks to the intervention of an older brother who relocated to Cape Town when she was a child.

"My mother always maintained my father was dead, and she had no family, but I have met her relatives, and they embraced T
om and me and the children with the greatest excitement," Bulelwa said animatedly.

"It was a bit like the return of the prodigal daughter. My father cried when he heard what we had endured on the streets. We just clicked when we first met, and now I have a great relationship with him."

On a recent visit to East London, Sister Pam presented her former protégée with an album documenting, in letters and photographs, the years during which she cared for the motley little band of children from the nearby squatter camp. It is one of Bulelwa’s most treasured possessions.

Reflecting on her fractured childhood, Bulelwa shows surprisingly little rancour, yet her pain is evident. "Growing up, I didn’t get the love, support or attention that a child should receive.

"Instead, I was subjected to violence and other forms of abuse. No-one was interested in knowing what forced us out onto the street. We were seen as a nuisance

"We had to make our own little families to feel safe. The love and support within the group is so important. You are terribly frightened until you become part of the group."

The brave woman fears she will always be torn between her past and her present reality.

"There’s a chapter I can never close properly. That dump is part of who I am. Having my kids opened a new chapter, but the past is still unresolved."

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