The words ‘it doesn’t matter how many times you fall, what matters is how many times you get up’ is not just another saying. At only fourteen, Given Tshifhiwa Mukwevho (33) found himself behind bars but he freed his mind with a pen and paper.
“I was raised by a single mother. She was away most of the time fending for me and my three young siblings. So I was on my own most times, and I could do as I wished with my life. I just found myself thrown into the wider world without any proper parental guidance; I was a small fish in the bottomless sea gasping for a breath of fresh air,” recollects Given, who’s from Madombidzha village in Limpopo.
“I quit school after passing standard four. A year or so before, I had taken to the then locally popular habit of walking to town (some 11km off) to do shoplifting. After some time, together with my like-minded peers, when we got to town we started breaking into shops and stealing monies and other valuables which we could sell for cash.”
Given went from living the life to wanting to take his own life.
“Prison life forms part of a painful experience. There are fights and stabbings and poison killings. I survived those by the grace of God. The spirit of suicide was the most troublesome demon enfolding me most times when I was in jail. I was surely facing a lengthy jail term, without any mutual or family support from the outside world on my first seven or so years,” he adds that he was sentenced to almost 22 years and served eleven years.
Sometimes when it’s raining you’ve got to look for a rainbow, and when it’s dark for stars – Given did precisely that.
“The most important lesson which my prison experience taught me is: Work harder for everything that you need in life – never take short ways! I see nothing good about being in prison. You might say, ‘Look, you came out a writer.’ And I will frankly answer, that’s not the case. I would rather walk the street dirty and hungry than doing something which might land me in prison.”
Given admits books kept him sane in prison, and that eventually gave birth to his stories.
“Around 2001, I wrote a letter to the now-defunct PACE magazine and, as letter of the month, won a gold Tempo watch. A prison warder who was responsible for mail collection stole it. I tried to complain but it didn’t work. However, the fact that my name was in print spurred me on to start taking my writing talent seriously. I penned short stories and showed them around to inmates who equally encouraged me to write more.
“On the day I was released from prison, I signed my first contract, for A Traumatic Revenge (Timbila Publishing, 2011). It’s a collection of eleven short stories which tackles issues of xenophobia, prostitution, living on the streets, displacement, joblessness and more.
My second book was The Violent Gestures of Life (UKZN Press, 2014). Although it is a work of fiction, it was partially based on my personal experiences as a delinquent in a reformatory school.”
Proving true his Tshivenda name ‘Tshifhiwa’, which loosely translates to ‘someone endowed with talent’, Given has accolades to show for his work.
“In 2014, my Tshivenḓa manuscript, Ṅwananga Nandi! got 2nd prize in the Maskew Miller Literature Awards. During the award ceremony held at Artscape in Cape Town, I told the awards host and fellow writers that I would take first prize in the coming year. Indeed, I scooped 1st prize of the same annual awards in 2015, with a children’s book, Mveledzo na Zwigevhenga.”
As someone who’s published pieces for FunDza, and now co-writes this series of Inspiring Tomorrow articles, Given credits FunDza for his success.
“During the award ceremony and on social media, I thanked FunDza, most particularly Ros, who keenly mentored me in writing in my previous stories for FunDza. Had it not been for FunDza’s involvement in my writing career, I don’t think I would have won this prestigious award.”
“[Also,] people buy my books. They invite me to speak on and about books at a fee. My books are also, or primarily relevant to social workers and anybody who loves lost youngsters and wishes them to turn their lives around for good and for the betterment of our country.
“I have learnt to forgive my parents for not being there in my life when I needed them most. They pray for me; they encourage and motivate me. They celebrate me as a writer. They are happy now that I am outside the prison, and that I have been leading a positive lifestyle since my release on 11 November 2010.”
Given wants the youth to free their minds and not let their heads imprison their thoughts.
“Live your life and stop blaming the next person for your fallout, pain and failure to achieve. Even when you feel like you are going through much pain because your parents have failed you, forget about them – they’ve a life of their own. Just get up, dust yourself off and walk your journey or else you’ll remain bitter for the rest of your life,” he concludes.
Tell us: What is it that you learnt from Given?