“Ngifisa sengathi zonke izingane zingahlala zijabulile, zivikelekile futhi zithola ukudla ngasosonke isikhathi.”
Ntombi wags her tail in welcome from the grassy patch where she is snoozing in the sun. She won’t come when we call her though, keeping her distance. “I’ve just washed her blankets and she knows that when that happens, she is next!” laughs Thoko Miya in explanation.
Othandweni in Bruntville is home to eight teenagers, a small boy, a wonderful mother and a red dog who doesn’t like baths. Chickens come across to scrabble and neighbours pop in often too, so it is obviously a friendly place filled with love. The goats tethered in the empty plot opposite look like they would like to join in too, if only they could.
While working in the laundry at Michaelhouse, Thoko Miya would often pray for orphans and abandoned children. She talked to her priest about her prayers and he suggested that she should take care of some orphans. Having lived in the lovely Balgowan village of Zenzane for most of her life, she was very apprehensive about leaving. It was here she had raised her three boys and felt at home. Then he woman who was looking after orphans in Bruntville, Mooi River had to leave and Thoko was asked to take her place. That was eight years ago. A few years later, her son gave her Ntombi as a puppy, knowing how much she loved dogs and thinking it would be good for security. Thoko believes that being responsible for an animal has a positive impact on the children and enjoys observing their loving side when they play with Ntombi.
“These teenagers are difficult sometimes” she says, “it is hard to discipline them and I worry so much.” When she first came to Othandweni there were just three small children, but more have arrived over the years, and they have all grown older, of course. The two boys (17 and 18 years old) and the girls aged from 11 to 18 call her ‘Ma’ now. “Sometimes they are cheeky and just call me ‘Aunty’ which makes me cry.”
She rises early while it is still quiet to pray and then sips a cup of tea while she makes everyone a nutritious lunch box for school. Routine is important in the running of a small house filled with lots of people. After raising three children of her own, she has plenty of experience. Some days Thoko goes into town to stock up on supplies. Other mornings, she bakes (especially if someone is celebrating a birthday), works in the vegetable garden or visits her neighbours. When everyone arrives home they polish their shoes and do their homework.
Dwalisile Khanyile is home early from school today and greets Ma Thoko cheerily before offering to make her a cup of tea. She chats away about what she loves about living at Othandweni – “This is a nice family and I have so many sisters here. We chat together or go into town on Saturday to meet with our friends. On Sundays we all go to Church together too.” Dwalisile has lived here for many years with two of her siblings. “We were so scared and worried when the other lady left and Ma Thoko came, but she is our mother now. She is so kind and open – we can talk to her about anything. I love her too much. She always calls to check if I am ok if I stay afterschool to play basketball and forget to tell her.”
Thoko loves gardening, having learnt from her mother. “When we were young we didn’t buy any fresh food, only flour and mielie meal, sugar and salt. Everything else we grew for ourselves.” The back garden at Othandweni has become a vegetable garden, with spinach and mustard greens thriving. While Thoko tries hard to set a good example, it is a challenge to get the children to help in the garden. “I’d like to keep some chickens too, but we don’t have space.” she adds. With assistance from N3Tc and other organisations, Otandweni now has two houses, almost opposite each other. Soon they will be able to foster a few more children, but Thoko worries about stretching her funds even further. Already, she uses her own money for toiletries, pocket money and other little extras. “The bigger they grow the more expensive these children become. I wish all children could be safe and loved, go to school and not be hungry.”
Although Thoko enjoys cooking, she has taught all the children to prepare meals and everyone takes turns. Her preferred food is imifino (greens) which the kids are not wild about, although they do love her chicken curry and rice. After supper, everyone watches their favourite TV programme Generations before heading to bed.
There are plenty of soft toys to cuddle and comfortable cushions to ensure everyone sleeps well and has sweet dreams. Dwalisile dreams about becoming a Social Worker when she leaves school. “I am here in this wonderful home because of the helpful social workers, so I think it would be a good idea for me to help others.” she says, adding “I will always come back to visit my mother.”
Alwande sits on the grass with his Grandmother, petting the dog, which they clearly adore. Dwalisile, who also loves animals, giggles – “We took Ntombi to the dog training classes in Bruntville, but she didn’t like the other dogs and fought with them, so we haven’t tried again.” What Ntombi likes is afternoon strolls along the road, sleeping in the sun and being stroked by the children. Why would she want to learn to heel and stay when life is so good at home with this very special family?