Sometimes the grown ups in our lives mess up big time and create deep-seated wounds that take years to heal from. Phoebe experienced a series of events that marred her childhood and ultimately led to separation from her loved ones and being forced into child labour. This is her story in her own words:
I am an African woman born on 16 February 1987 in a rural village around Limpopo, South Africa. I am from a Pedi tribe. I spent most of my life in Limpopo residing with my grandmother and aunts from birth to 6 years old, then [with] my parents for two years.
My father passed on during my short stay with him. I have very [few] and vivid memories of him because he was not a family man. And my mother was a domestic worker who came home to her nine children in the evening. As siblings, life was rather poor and simple, but we kept each other. Those were my happy days. My motto is “There is a solution to everything.” I know this from my math teaching background.
A traumatic childhood
My childhood was never normal for the most part. I was playful like any other girl, but my routine would change when my neighbour took an advantage to satisfy himself [with] a little 4-year-old girl. I became fearful to go on the street and I would run away in silence whenever he came to the house. You see, I was a quiet girl. That was just the beginning of it. A family brother would help himself [to] me each night when we were sleeping.
I would have nightmares and suffer in silence. During this period, I only knew my mother’s younger sisters, grandmothers and my uncle who occasionally visited. But I couldn’t speak to any of them. My nightmares continued well into my preschool days. And I have no idea how they came to end. It just stopped.
Then I started school at the age of 6, encountering lots of bullying because again, I was very quiet. I resorted to books and I [would] do well and that became the only language I understood.
The nightmares came back when I was told that my father was taken by a wolf. That was the metaphor elders would use to tell the children [about] the death of a person. I believed it.
I was only shocked to see a coffin the following Saturday and again, I suffered in silence. It just made sense by that time. I didn’t really know him that well. I couldn’t cry. I only recalled his abusive nights when he came home drunk.
Everything passed and life was back to normal. It was around September 1995. And December of the following year would mark another episode of my life.
Separated from family
An old woman known to be my father’s sister would come and claim me without my mother’s concern, so she says. That was during December school holidays and we left to her house 80 km away. I was 9 going [on] 10.
It is an old tradition that a girl child marries a cousin or [someone] from a royal clan]. As I was from one, they [would] marry you off to an older man in another royal clan. There were many women who were married into families or royal clan including my paternal grandmother, sisters, and many people I know. So, I was kept at my father’s sister’s house for a good eight years.
At first, it was welcoming. It was just my aunt, my cousin’s child and I. But things just turned [out] bitter. I was the only child by then and I had no idea how and why.
It all started when I was 10 years old. I was not allowed to visit my family at first, and they were not coming to visit me either. I experienced lots of child labour such as fetching water and wood, cleaning, cooking and I was not allowed to play, but I went to school. I was kept under these conditions for about four years, until I was a teenager. All my childhood was painful and almost non-existent.
When I became a teenager, I started to rebel and do as I pleased. At some point, I did not care whether she killed me or not. I was definitely not going to become what she thought. But the abuse persisted and I rebelled even further.
Eventually, I was left to stay alone for the most part. She could go away for months. I guess my aunt couldn’t take it anymore, but at least it gave me freedom. Freedom from abuse, both physical and verbal, now that I was starting to talk. I would bring friends to the house now.
During my stay there, I had visited my family in about three or more occasions, especially during my teenage years.
My days were full of depression. I would sit by the gate, with my hand on my cheek, watching everybody who passed by the road or anything visible. I was helpless and days just went by. I just kept going with the chores, sometimes willingly and sometimes to please.
Enough is enough…
It was in November 2005. I woke up, packed my clothes and went to write my last exam paper. On my return, I told my aunt that I [was returning] to my mother’s house and she [refused] as usual, but I had the money. So, I left. I do not remember my journey that much, but I arrived home safely.
It did not feel like home at all. I had no relationship with my mother and siblings, and I faced the hardest rejection of my life. Some didn’t know me and others didn’t have memory of me. The more I tried to fit in and become close, the more I was rejected. I dived into a greater depression. I would sleep all day long, not eating, talking or playing.
I confronted my aunt only a year ago (2019). I never really thought I would ask her, but her son consistently would say “you should have been my wife” and there is this constant belief around my family and my in-laws that she raised me so she is entitled to my success.
It was an emotional confrontation and she denied that she was raising me for herself. But I did not care as such, I was just glad that she knows what my position is in this whole matter. Also, that while I decided to marry within her extended family, she must just accept it.
The healing journey…
I [have] grown to be a person with a strong character and a lover of truth. I do not like to be ordered around. Either you are going to speak and treat me in a certain way, or there is no relation between us.
I feel lots of gaps in my emotions and I struggle to bridge them. I see a person for who they are and become confrontational about it. It’s so unattractive and as such, I do not have many people around my circle. I have grown to be so independent that mostly, I’m not able to receive love and help.
I am starting to become aware of what went down. It is a slow recovery especially [because] I have to divide my attention [between] my kids, marriage and self-development. I have confronted my mother about the neglect, my family about sexual abuse and most people who caused me pain.
Physically I was diagnosed with a heart condition. It has been two years now, and I have a pacemaker. No other chronic disorder [is] visible except eating uncontrollably during emotional breakdowns and when I’m tired.
I’m starting to isolate again, but this time I believe I need time to face the experience for what it is and heal. I tried therapy, and I guess it made me talk even deeper and I would do it again, and the focus should be me as a person.
Life has limited options when someone is in control of your life, but once you free yourself ,you are limitless.
My advice to other women who have experienced something similar is: You are likely to throw in the towel if you have a system of negative beliefs. Engage in positive conversations and be honest.
Vimbai E. is a writer, journalist, ghostwriter and the founder of The Weight She Carries. With hundreds of articles publishing online, in print and for broadcast, her love of language and storytelling shines through every piece of writing that bears her name.