Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Border Between Them

Oshoek is a community just kilometres from the Swaziland border of South Africa. Some of the people living in Oshoek have come across the border into South Africa looking for a better life for themselves and their children. Some cross legally, some just walk across without papers or identification. Last week, our family of four met a family that had done just that. We were on our second day of home visits with the care workers from Oshoek’s Home Based Care. One of the homes we went to was that of a woman with whom care workers were well acquainted. Nomsa* had been living in Oshoek for the past three years, having crossed the border illegally with her three children. Her eldest son was 10 at the time, her younger children just 6 and 3. She came after her husband and most of his relatives passed away, leaving them with little family support and very little hope for an education or a future for the children. An acquaintance in Swaziland had a house to rent out in Oshoek, so this mother and her children made their way across the border and began a new life in South Africa. Unfortunately, the new life did not prove much easier than what they had left behind them. The mother, though employed, earned barely enough to feed the children regularly. The children, enrolled in school, were getting an education but without identification papers there would be no official records of their efforts. The house they had come to was hardly a shelter, with two small rooms, barely big enough to turn around in. The one room, used as a kitchen, contained a small shelf with water pails below it, and a small wood stove. Once the door was opened, the wood stove was blocked. It was dark and the windows were small and cracked. There was no electricity in the home. The second room contained everything the small family owned: clothing, bedding, etc. The family seemed to use it as a storage room and not for sleeping. I could understand why, the door to the outside of the house hung loosely on its hinges and would give way with very little force. The mother explained that often people came by the house in the night, banging on the door and yelling. She told us that she and the children sleep in what was probably meant to be a garage at one point, the only space with four solid cement walls, a roof, and most importantly a door that could be chained shut and padlocked once they were inside. While we chatted, we sat out in the yard on a collection of wooden benches and stumps to accommodate us. The house was not set back far from the main road leading to the border of Swaziland and it was often too loud to speak with large logging trucks and other big vehicles flying by. Though life for the first few years had been difficult, Nomsa clung to the hope that this move was providing her children with an education and a chance to improve their lives. Several times in those first few years, care workers would visit and find her so sick and unresponsive that they would believe her to be taking her last breaths. They watched as her children took care of themselves and her, as best they could. When she was sick, they didn’t have food to eat. The care workers would do what they could to keep the family afloat while she recovered. Last September, things went from difficult to unthinkable. Nomsa’s son, Tanda, was playing near the border when he was apprehended by the border patrol. While it’s unclear whether he was asked for proof of identification or he just confessed to having crossed illegally, Tanda was deported immediately and put in jail for two days. He was thirteen. For two days, his mother did not know what had happened to him. She didn’t dare call the authorities for she knew that she was in the country illegally. She had no resources to call around for help or to drive around looking for him. After two days, she finally received word that Tanda had been in jail and that he had been set free but was now stuck on the Swaziland side of the border, while she and her younger children were unable to cross from the South African side. After limited communications and the aid of care workers and relatives, Tanda and his mother found a relative on the Swaziland side that would take him in. From there, over the next few months, Tanda found a job working for a cattleman herding. He was being paid almost R300 a month, under $40, and given a meal a day. Occasionally, Tanda will cross the border illegally, risking imprisonment at the age of 14, to visit his mother and siblings. Nomsa begs him to come home but he is unwilling, telling her that he is making money and being fed daily, which is more than South Africa can offer him. Now, Nomsa is in a position where she needs to make a decision. She must choose whether to stay in South Africa without her eldest son or to move back to Swaziland where she will surely be unable to find work and pay for her children to go to school. As she speaks about it, I am very aware of the presence of my own children, sitting beside me. Aidan, at 13, is the same age as Tanda when he went missing. I can hardly look at him without tears coming to my eyes at the thought of being separated from him. I feel guilty hearing Nomsa’s story and having the company of my son while she wrestles with the separation from hers. Her choices are unimaginable. Neither brings much hope or relief. For now, the choice is hers to make. Unfortunately, they may be out of her hands soon enough. The acquaintance who owned the house recently passed away. She’s heard rumours that his family want to tear down the house and build their own, leaving her homeless. The care workers sit with her and listen to her fears and challenges. Watching their faces, I can see that they too are torn for her to have to make decisions such as these. They do their best to encourage her and give her support, praying with her and just being available to her and her children. There are no easy answers to the questions of this family’s life and wellbeing. The next morning, we drive past Nomsa’s home on our way out of Oshoek. I see her shaking out a mat in the half hinged doorway and her two youngest children, setting out for school. I turn my head to watch them as the car picks up speed on the way out of town, and I glimpse Aidan in the seat behind me and I think of Tanda, walking behind a herd of cattle, forced to be a man on the other side of the border that separates him from his family.

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