South Africa’s Western Cape has one of the world’s highest numbers of child burn victims. The stories that follow the victims and their families are heartbreaking and often affect the most destitute and vulnerable of society. Teen mother Candice Bhuku* shares her story with us. #VoicesOfYouth#YChallenge #30StoriesIn30Days WeCan24
Born in Cape Town, 19-year-old Candice spent her first years living in a family house owned by her grandfather and was raised mostly by her aunt. Her mother was active in her life but did not live with them because she stayed close to her place of employment to save money.
“I saw my aunt as my mom. She would be the one who would get me ready for school, make me supper and spend more time with me. My mother would be in my life too, but it was different. When I was five my grandfather passed away, leaving the house to all his children. My mother moved into the house and I would see her more often, but she wouldn’t stay for too long because of her job at a train company.”
Because their bond had grown closer, Candice’s mom decided that she wanted to spend more time with her.
“For a few years, I would go back and forth between my aunt in Khayelitsha and my mom in Kuils River. I would need to change schools all the time, I felt like I didn’t have much of a choice. I went where I was told to go, I had attended three primary schools by the time I was 7.”
When Candice turned 9 her life welcomed some stability.
“My mother got engaged and a work transfer to Johannesburg. She moved there with her fiancé and a year later I followed. When I arrived in Joburg everything was sorted for me. I had a school where I could start Grade 4. It was very different to the schools I had been to in Cape Town. It was an Afrikaans school, and there weren’t many black students. We had extra murals and I started playing tennis. We would wear check skirts, called kilts and orange golf t-shirts. I was at the school for three years and it was a really good time in my life, not just school wise but also family. Our family welcomed my two younger sisters and we were happy.”
Unfortunately, Candice says that her life changed again when her mom and stepfather separated. “He was a really good father to me, I remember he gave me R300 on my birthday and took me to the mall where I could spend the money on me. He would always help me with homework and ask how I’m doing. I was very sad when we had to move, I didn’t want to leave my school or my friends.”
Before she started Grade 7, Candice, her mom and her two sisters moved back to the family house in Cape Town.
“Coming back to Cape Town was not easy, I had to look for a school and the only one we could find was in Walmer Estate, 40kms away from Khayelitsha. I would take school transport and have to wake up at 04:00, we would be fetched at 05:00 to get to school by 08:00.”
During this time, Candice’s father, who she had had no relationship with, approached her mother about meeting his daughter. “I had seen him once before at a taxi rank. I remember looking at him and having this feeling that he might be my father because we looked so much alike. Meeting him when I was 13 was awkward – we went to the Waterfront. I could speak Xhosa, but not as fluently as him, so we didn’t speak that much. He sat in front and I sat at the back of the taxi. I didn’t know what to say to him. We spoke about school and he said that he will always be there for me financially and that he would like to get to know me. It felt good to hear that.
“I saw him again a few times and a year later he asked my mom if I could stay with him. I was kind of excited about being the only child in the house, but sad about leaving my mom and sisters behind. I thought it was his way of saying that he wants me, so I went. Staying there didn’t last too long because we struggled to talk to each other. I also felt like I was being used, I would need to do a lot of housework and it affected my school work.
“I spoke to him about wanting to move back and he said that he would open up a bank account and give me money every month. So, halfway through Grade 9 I moved back with my mom.
“I felt guilty about the way things ended with my father and that all male figures in my life disappear. I began hanging around with some girls in my neighbourhood. They would talk about their boyfriends and the stuff they did, things like having sex and drinking. I wasn’t interested in boys but they told me that I must have a boyfriend. They said I should give a chance to a boy that lived in my street and he wanted to date me since I was 13.
“I gave him a chance, but it was all really innocent. We would meet in the side-roads and just hug each other. We had an open conversation about sex and I told him that I wanted to wait. I wasn’t ready, my fear of pregnancy and diseases were real. He would ask me for a whole two years before I gave in. I don’t have an exact reason, but my friends would tell me about their sexual experiences and it made me very curious. I got to the point where I wanted to try it out.”
Candice fell pregnant, because, as she says, the condom burst. “I started experiencing funny stuff like movement in my stomach. I would wonder if I was pregnant but then tell myself don’t be silly I am not, because I didn’t want to deal with it. The thought of having to raise and provide for a child was scary. Where would I get money from? How would I care for a baby? I was still at school and learning was very important to me. I had the goal of studying after I finished matric.
“At school there were girls who were pregnant and I didn’t look like them so I thought I wasn’t pregnant. But then I stopped getting my periods. I spoke to my friends and they motivated me to go for a test. Shortly after I did. At the clinic they asked me when last I slept with my boyfriend. I was alone in the room but my friend was outside. At that point I didn’t have any feelings. I just wanted to know the facts. They told me I was pregnant and I felt nauseous. But it was all very quick. The next thing they told me was that I must go to the day hospital and book an appointment.
At that point Candice decided not to tell her family because she was too scared. “The following Monday I went to Khoyesa clinic. They tested me for HIV, STI and began to feel around my tummy. They told me I was seven months pregnant. I was in denial about what was happening inside me.”
Candice went into a labour during her Grade 11 final exams on the 14th of November. “On the Thursday morning I woke up with pains towards my lower back. They weren’t that bad … just felt like period pains and I thought they would pass. I was focusing on my exams so much that I didn’t really worry about it. I went to school, and while writing my paper, I felt like the pains were getting worse, I was very uncomfortable in class, but I was going to complete my exam. As I walked out of school my friend said that I must get a bus because I wasn’t looking that good.
“The bus stop was about 100 metres from my school. My friend held my bag… she kept telling me that I must walk faster or else we going to miss the bus. I got home, immediately put on my night dress and got into bed hoping to feel better, but the pain got worse. My mom was out, so I called her on the phone and began crying. She arrived in less than 20 minutes, felt I needed to go to the hospital and stressed out because we had no car. She called a friend who took us to the clinic.
“At the clinic, they took me to a bed to lie down. I saw what looked like a sosatie stick (long pointed stick often used for making kebabs) they then broke my waters with the stick. I was just looking at the ceiling; I was scared to open my legs. The nurse got there and opened my legs. When another nurse got there she took my blood pressure and then told her colleague to call an ambulance because both mine and baby’s life were in danger. The midwife then came and explained that I couldn’t give birth in the clinic as my blood pressure was too high.
“The ambulance came shortly after and the drive took forever. I remember feeling confused about what was happening. When we arrived at the day hospital the doctor came to me and said that my baby’s life was in danger and he placed a belt around my waste. The belt was very tight and I kept moving it with my hands, but they told me that it had to be on to hear the baby’s heartbeat. This lasted through the night. Around four in the morning, I could feel something underneath me and I felt like I needed to go to the toilet. The nurses told me that whatever I must do I must do in the bed. As I was getting ready the baby just came out. I just fell asleep after that.
“When I woke up they told me that he needed to be fed. They brought him to me, it was the first time I realised that he was my son. I was just looking at him. He had tiny hands, tiny feet and a big tummy. I placed him on the inside of my hospital gown and he fell asleep.”
Candice was in hospital for two days and was then sent home as they were both healthy. “We got home and the family were so happy to have us with them. In Xhosa tradition, we believe that when you visit a new-born you must bring Sunlight bar soap and new clothes for the baby as a cleansing ritual. Many people were doing that, everyone was rejoicing. My mother cried and called him her son.
“We named my son Aluve (he shall feel the love of his mother) Onika (God gives us everything including blessings). He was a peaceful baby that hardly cried, not even when he was born.”
“I was happy to be home with my baby, but I kept on thinking about the exam that I needed to write on Monday at school. I couldn’t miss it; it was part of my finals. I came home from the hospital on Saturday and wrote the Maths paper on Monday. I felt strongly that having a baby should not be an excuse to fail.
“I continued with my exams, my mom would stay at home and look after him. My mom bought bottles for him and I would express milk so that my mother would feed him. He had times when he woke up during the evening, so I would study around his sleeping schedule. I passed Grade 11 with reasonable marks and looked forward to my Grade 12 year.”
At 11 months, Aluve suffered a terrible accident. “We lived in a small two-bedroom house, so I used to bath Aluve in the room. We did not have hot water from the tap, so I needed to boil water each time. I was getting his bath ready like I normally did. Aluve was laying down on the bed and I was preparing his bath next to him. I went to the kitchen, that was very close, to fetch some boiling water so that the water is nice and warm for him. After putting the hot water in the bath I went to fetch the cold water.
“As I turned around with the cold water, Aluve got excited and leant onto the bath reaching for me. He tilted the bath over himself – bringing the water all the way down his back.
“It all happened in a few seconds. He screamed and I was shocked, I wanted to pick him up but didn’t know how – I did not want to hurt him. I managed to do it and I asked a neighbour to take us to the hospital. At the hospital they told us that it wasn’t so bad – just surface burns – so they put on dressings. They told us to go to the nearest clinic the following Monday where they would change his dressings.
“Following the hospital visit, Aluve would moan at night – not cry – but just groan. He was making all sorts of sounds. My mom and I took turns holding and comforting him all night. At the hospital they told us not to put anything on top of him because it would affect the burns, so he would continually push his small face against my body for comfort. Towards the early hours of the morning, we both finally fell asleep. I woke up feeling startled, something told me to get up. I checked on my baby but he wasn’t making any sounds. I lifted his arm carefully, I lifted his leg, I called his name but there was no response. I screamed to my mom that I can’t wake him up. My sister called the ambulance, I remember we called the number many times before eventually getting through.
“While we were waiting I kept trying to wake my baby – he was still warm so I had hoped he would be alive. I also called my spiritual mother who came to the house. She told us that he is still alive… that we should pray. Our neighbour, who is a nurse, came over and said that he had passed away but we continued to pray. When the ambulance arrived they checked on him and also declared him deceased.
“I felt empty, numb and guilty because I had not protected him as I should. I was in shock and the police arrived to take a statement but they never spoke to anyone.
“During the following days, we were visited by a prosecutor. He wanted to investigate the case to ascertain if there was negligence at play. The findings and Aluve’s post-mortem were not conclusive and the case was closed.
“I wish we knew what caused his death – his burns were not third-degree and the ladies at the hospital had said that it would heal. We were doing everything we needed to do, it is still so confusing.
“After his funeral, I went through a very bad time, I didn’t want to be alive. I wanted to kill myself because I thought I didn’t deserve to live. I spoke to my spiritual leader about how I was feeling and she helped me through it. We read the Bible together day after day and it helped me see meaning in my loss and in my life.
“With time, I came to terms with the situation and went back to school. I managed to pass Matric, even though I still miss him each day and mourn for him.”
Today, Candice is a second-year university student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology where she is studying a National Diploma in Management.
Following the ups and downs of her life, Candice is philosophical. “My grieving period almost broke me, I thought I couldn’t continue living after my loss. It was only when I stopped trying to logically understand what had happened and who was at fault that I managed to carry on living. Accepting what life gives you, without questioning it too much, is the key to inner peace and sanity.”
* Candice is not her real name. Based on possible judgement towards her, we have opted to keep her identity secret.
Salesian Life Choices is an enterprise working towards human profit. We give youth in the Cape Flats (Cape Town) CHOICES, not charity. We promote dignity, not dependency. Youth is 37% of South Africa’s population, but they are 100% of its future. Salesian invest in youth to make choices that can change themselves, their communities and the world. This is not our tagline … this is our promise. Their mission is to tackle inequality. People are born into the world as assets, it is the way we treat them, that make them a liability. At Salesian Life Choices, they dare to imagine the world as it could be. A world where we see beyond differences and we connect with each other as equals. A world of abundance – for all humans and the planet. For More information on what they do please visit our website: www.lifechoices.co.za