As an ordinary person, one of the most upsetting sights to see is children in this situation: “… Mfundo and Nompilo settled in their ‘home’ under the Jan Smuts highway bridge. Home was a concrete slab, encircled by a patch of littered soil. The bridge served as the roof but there was no bed, no heater, no parents. Just them.”
As you pass by, questions race through your mind: How on earth do children end up like this? How do they survive daily? What hope is there to save them, change their situation? Why don’t the government, charities, people, do something?!
Mfundo and Nompilo is fiction, but it takes us into the lives of children at the worst end of the poverty divide in our country. Its bad enough being poor, but to be young, parentless and homeless! That is so very wrong. It should not happen in any country that cares about its people, but it does happen, in many, many places, worldwide. Our Constitution says that all South African children have the right to a safe home, a clean environment, to food, to health care and to an education. Yet, sadly, there are children living like Mfundo and Nompilo in every main urban area.* The story shows us how this happens, and how tricky it is to rescue these children, or for them to rescue themselves.
So how do children as young as 10 and 11, like these two, end up on the streets, begging and stealing? We learn that Nompilo has drug and alcohol addicted parents who ‘sold her for a bottle of booze’. She would be dead if Mfundo hadn’t found her, and is actually better off without them. Meanwhile, his own father ended up in jail, and his loving mother died young. This left him with an abusive, alcoholic uncle, who refused to let him go to school and constantly told him, “Real men work. Jy is niks. Fokol!” No wonder he ran away.
But why aren’t the children in a care home or orphanage? Surely they would love to be safe there? It’s not so easy. Runaway children like this, understandably, become very, very distrustful of all adults. They are afraid that if a social worker takes them in, they may be sent ‘home’ or further abused. They lie low and keep to themselves, running from the ‘authorities’. Many become addicted to sniffing glue, and other drugs, and so are trapped on the streets. And, as the story shows, they are continually treated by most adults with suspicion and contempt. This only makes them more frightened, then tougher, and more determined to keep to themselves.
This is shown in how Mfundo reacts to the sight of any police or security guards. He doesn’t even like going to ‘the suburbs’ where he and Nompilo can easily be noticed. Where even a domestic worker treats the kids as non-human: “Hamaban’ doti,” she scolded as she spat phlegm on the ground. “Go away, rubbish.”
Isn’t it a relief when the nice old man gives them water and food and kind words? But notice how suspicious Mfundo is of the man when he goes into the house: “Ey, I’m not waiting for the police to come pick me up here in front of this old liar’s gates. I’m leaving,” he threatened.
Mfundo’s attitude to people is summed up in this sentence: “From that day, besides Nompilo, Mfundo vowed to trust himself alone.”
Some street children do go to orphanages, but some run away. That’s because they have become used to doing exactly as they like on the streets and cannot bear any authority figures. That is why ‘drop in centres’ are set up in the big cities like Cape Town and Durban, where the children can at least wash and sleep safely.
But the story also shows how important it is that a caring society keeps trying to home these children, make them accept routines and school, and contribute positively to society. That’s because it is dangerous out there, and the children become a danger to others. If they stay on the streets, they become more and more involved in crime, gangs, drugs, the sex trade and violence. For example, the two befriend another kid, who immediately steals from them. When you literally have nothing, to you there is no such thing as ‘honesty’ or ‘respect for elders’, as in ‘normal’ families. Then, Mfundo yells at and draws his knife on the creepy man who eyes out Nompilo. And we don’t even really blame Mfundo when he stabs the school security guard in the hand. This is survival! Normal rules of society do not operate on the streets. But it is easy to end up dead, very young.
At the heart of the story though, is love and hope. We believe that the pair will carry each other through to something better. They show us that even people in terrible situations experience the human emotions we all crave: love, companionship, hope, and trust. Look what Nompilo says: ‘“But at least we still have each other – Mfundo and Nompilo.” She held him tighter trying to get warm.’
However, before change can happen, the two have a dramatic fight over Nompilo learning to read, and nearly lose each other. We learn that Nompilo has not become as stuck in ‘basic survival mode’ as Mfundo. She has a lively, curious mind. She doesn’t just accept how things are: “Why couldn’t we be normal like all the other children?” she asked. And she has a dream, a dream that she makes reality, despite everything. She is learning to read, by listening in to a classroom. It is a first step to getting off the streets.
The climax of the story comes when Nompilo reveals her secret about reading, and it triggers a terrible, painful memory for Mfundo. On her deathbed, his mother had begged him to carry on at school. His uncle refused him that, killed hope of education in him. Now he is defensive, saying it is a waste of time; survival is all that matters. Look what he says:
“So, for hours every day, this is what you get up to Nompilo?” Mfundo said accusingly. And what about our survival?” He took a deep breath. “Listen, don’t waste any more valuable time here.”
“It’s not a waste,” Nompilo said as she broke a twig from a bush. She made shapes with it on the ground.’
When she shows him his written name, “Mfundo stared at the ground and his eyes filled with tears. He stared at the writing as if he had stumbled upon lost treasure. He had never learned to read but he could recognise his name.”
Being able to write their names gives them an identity; makes them more human. But Mfundo shuts down his real, unbearable emotions again. He again brings up anger, and mocks her dreams:
‘Mfundo felt his blood surge. He walked up to her and screamed: “Dammit! You are not like those children, can’t you see? You only have poverty and me. Me and …”
She won’t back down, tells him he does not own her. In frustration and rage, and powerlessness to make life better for her, he attacks the person he loves, almost kills her.
Hurt, shocked, despairing, Nompilo reveals her truth: if this life cannot change, if there is no hope, she wants to die.
“I want you to kill me,” she said with venom. Mfundo was petrified. He stared blankly at her. “Do you hear me? Or I am going to kill myself,” she said again.
She then retreats into herself, refuses to eat, shuts out Mfundo. He has to dig deep inside, bring out the best of him, and lower his guard. He apologises, and admits that she is right to want more. It is a gentle and lovely moment when he finally asks her to teach him to read too, and tells her that he loves her.
“I, I care for you. A lot. You are the only family I have. I would do anything for you. I mean it.” … ‘“I love you, Nompilo,” he finally said and faded off to sleep. With one-eye opened and his blade ever ready between his fingers, he tugged himself closer to her.’
By the end of the story, when Mfundo is out of jail and finds Nompilo listening in at the classroom again, we’re happy to know that the desperate, but hopeful, children are edging closer to re-joining normal society. They’ll have to be brave, learn to trust the right adults, and at last ask for, and fully accept, help. Remember, it is their right to have a safe home, an education.
These sites give information about street children and organisations that help them in various places:
Cape Town: https://homestead.org.za/