*Told by Mentor Mother Programme Manager Nomzamo Matodlana

Community Health Worker (CHW) Babalwa had been feeling very frustrated with Sinazo, a drug-addicted mother, for quite some time. The mother had chased Babalwa away from her home several times, but Babalwa found it hard to leave the 5-year-old girl, the 3-year-old boy and the 7-month-old baby with their mother. The neighbours kept asking Babalwa to go back and finally she and her supervisor, Khanyisa, visited. They found the children alone, playing with a gas tank and hungry. The older one always had her youngest brother on her back. From conversations with this brave little girl, Babalwa learned that their mother often leaves the children alone, even at night. She also forces them to go begging for food and then eats it herself.

On this day, the mother was not there. Previously when social workers had been called, they had found Sinazo at home, which made it difficult to take the children away. Today, the landlord (who is the boyfriend’s aunt) said she was fed up and wanted to kick her out. The social worker was called once more to come and remove the children, but she did not have transport. By the time transport was organised, Sinazo had returned home.

The social worker asked Sinazo to pack her things and asked where she was from. Sinazo was from Kraaifontein and so the journey began to find her relatives. The procedure that social workers follow is to try and find a home for children with blood relatives before placing them in a safety home. Moreover, all the safety homes in the area were full and it would be very difficult to get the children placed.

Sinazo directed us to a house full of young people and one drunk old lady. They said this was not her home, they did not know her family but knew they lived in another area. The people were happy to see Sinazo (they knew her through her boyfriend who used to live next door) and she begged us to leave her at that house, but we refused and asked her to take us to her real family.

While we were driving, the 5-year-old excitedly pointed out a house with a green hedge. It was her paternal grandmother’s home. The grandmother wept when she saw her grandchild. She was very happy and kept asking “Why Sinazo? Why?” Since birth, this child had been raised by her father’s family, which Sinazo had agreed to. However, after a weekend visit, Sinazo simply didn’t return the girl to the father’s family. The child was 3 at the time and the family were deeply concerned as they suspected that Sinazo’s boyfriend was sexually abusing her. The social worker promised to call the organisation that had originally placed the girl in the care of the father’s family.

The process of legally adopting the child would take too long and would place the child in a temporary safe home. To avoid this long process, and the strain that it would put on this little child who would have to live with strangers, the family agreed to keep the girl. Sinazo was not allowed to take her away ever again, but she was welcome to visit her daughter at the house.

Despite Sinazo’s protests, we were directed to her uncle’s house. The family told us the uncle was heart-broken by her disappearance and felt especially bad because she is his sister’s child. His house was big, fully furnished with a quad bike and Bantam van parked outside. On entering the house, the two lounge pieces, clean tiling and piles of groceries on the floor lay in stark contrast to the dingy, dark and dirty shack where we found Sinazo living. The family was shocked to find out that Sinazo had two more children – when she left she only had one child. According to the aunt, Sinazo had been taken to Kimberly after her parents passed, and she was sent to live with relatives who did not have children of their own. While the couple, who are said to be God-fearing Christians, loved Sinazo, she was not coping with the structure and rules they had set out.

Sinazo went to her uncle for the holidays but did not want to return to Kimberly. She soon found a job at a supermarket and was doing well. Her aunt found what she calls a lollipop in Sinazo’s bag (this is the pipe used to smoke tik, which resembles a lollipop with a bulb-like sphere at the end of it). Sinazo soon lost her job and her uncle, thinking of her future, gave her money to apply for her ID. But Sinazo took the money and never came back, until she was returned by the CHWs. Sinazo was crying with gratitude when she was left at her uncle’s home.

Babalwa and Khanyisa had acted out of inimba (a Xhosa word for maternal instinct) that runs deeper than any training. Their humility, resilience, and commitment to Sinazo’s children is proof of the reservoir of humility which exists around the country in the profession of a community health worker.