One woman shares the touching tale of becoming a single parent to her siblings at just 17
'My mother taught me that, no matter how hard life was, the most important thing was love and it was enough to give me the courage to make a future for me and my sisters even after she was gone.'
Love is everything. (Image: Wandie Mesatywa/Human Factor) (Supplied)
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From the Human Factor: The moments we become parents: Personal stories of love, fear and hope.


Whenever I heard the word 'resilience', it would make me think of those little plants pushing through concrete – you know, those unexpected shoots of life bringing joy in even the most hostile of places.

But, not once, did I ever stop to think about HOW they came to be there – what made them thrive when others failed to take root?

Then I was approached by DGMT to write this essay and resilience was all I could think about – what it means, where it comes from, did I have it?

Having overcome some challenging circumstances in my life, I was fairly confident I could call myself resilient; trying to work out how and why we come to be resilient was a whole other story.

To help me on my way, my writing mentor for this article, Sue Segar, introduced me to the term 'ordinary magic', which I liked straight away.

'I had to stop being a child'

As a photographer, my passion is to capture everyday moments of magic all around us. But I had never really stopped to consider the 'ordinary magic' in my own life and how it made me who I am today. 

Not until now... 

When I was 14 years old, I had to stop being a child. What could prepare me for that day? Nothing. Yet, somehow, deep within me, I was prepared – whether I felt like it at the time or not. 

Resilience is one of those words we use a lot these days, but can't always quite define. It is sometimes confused with grit, but the two actually mean different things.

Preparing for this essay, I discover that grit is a concept made popular by the researcher Angela Duckworth; it refers to having the perseverance and passion (or drive) to keep working towardsachieving a goal over time.

Resilience, according to social scientist Ann Masten, is "the capacity to adapt under difficult circumstances".

I also discover that resilience is not something you're born with – it is not something that is part of your character or who you are. Says Masten: "I don't think of resilience as inborn, because every single capability that we have and every resource that we have is always a product of our interactions with the environment."

"I like to say that the resilience of a child is distributed. It's notjust in the child. It's distributed in their relationships with the many other people who make up their world." - Ann Masten

This gets me thinking about the types of interactions and relationships that distribute resilience. Had I had them? Was I offering them? What is powerful enough to help us develop our ability to bounce back from adversity time and again? 

The 'ordinary magic' powering resilience

In Masten's book, she notes that results of many resilience studies from across the world are remarkably consistent in their findings: while some children and young people appear to beat the odds because of extraordinary talents, luck or resources, most who make it have very basic yet fundamental human resources and protective factors in their lives that help them to develop normal human adaptive processes.

Ultimately, says Masten, what most protects our development is our relationships with able and caring adults in our families and communities. It is these relationships that help us to think, learn and solve problems; that help us to develop our self-regulation skills, self-confidence and motivation to succeed; as well as our faith, hope and belief that life has meaning.

This is what Masten refers to as the 'ordinary magic' that powers resilience – processes and ingredients so ordinary that we take them for granted, but take them away, and the centre folds as the magic fades away. 

A solid foundation  

More than half of the people living in South Africa are poor, and almost 13 million children live in households that don't have money for basic nutrition and other essential items like clothing.

Under these very challenging circumstances, knowing that resilience can be nurtured in children – helping even the poorest children to enter a path towards success in life, breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty – is very powerful.  

My own formative years were spent in simple circumstances living with my mother at our grandparents' house in Qumbu in the Eastern Cape. My grandfather, Edmund, was a farmer who had sheep, cattle and chickens.

He also had a small shop where he sold basic things to people in the neighbourhood.

My mother, Nonkanyiso, helped him there. On the weekends, we spent a lot of time together in the shop, where she taught me the basic skills of running a store. In the evenings, my mother would cook supper, and we'd sit and eat together around the fire.

Afterwards, my grandmother would tell us tales from her childhood. Mama would tell us stories about her life at high school. Sometimes we'd cook the newly harvested mielies on the fire.

My grandfather would listen to the radio, but we couldn't listen for too long as he didn't want to waste the batteries (we didn't have electricity at home). Every evening, Mama and I would sing hymns from the Wesleyan hymn book, and my two younger sisters, Yonela and Inga, would sing along.

Sometimes Inga, my last-born sister, would come home from school with a new song – and she'd sing it for our mother, then we'd all sing it together. These are the memories I cherish. We were so close.

It was a happy home, warm with what I imagine to be the sparks of the 'ordinary magic' Masten speaks of and filled with people who made sure the flames in me burned bright.  

A healthy brain, a hopeful heart 

DGMT crystallises the resilience factors further, saying that for children to thrive, they need a loving parent/caregiver and another caring adult in their lives as well as connections to opportunities at key moments in their development – even if these are small, humble opportunities. 

Before he retired to start farming and open his shop, my grandfather was a teacher. We spent a lot of time together, often in the garden where he taught me how to take care of his sheep and the other animals.

He loved reading and made sure I grew up to love reading, too. He would buy the newspapers every day and tell me what was happening around the world. That was magical for me. 

I see now that my grandfather was forging these connections to opportunities for me to succeed and develop my talents from very early on. Desperate to start kindergarten when I was still attending a preschool in a nearby village, he arranged with a principal he knew for me to start 'big' school early.

If my grandfather instilled in me my love of books and learning, it was my mother who ignited in me the capacity to hope, dream and believe I was worthy of bigger and better things to come.  

'Love means everything' 

Even though I was only about 14 at the time, my mother encouraged me to move to Khayelitsha to stay with an aunt – she felt there were more opportunities for me there than in the Eastern Cape.

Although her own dreams had been dashed when, after many years of saving to pay for my father to study engineering, he married someone else, my mother always got up and dealt with what life threw her; she always made it clear that she loved us.  

When my mother died later that year, it was a terrible shock. I remember getting the phone call from my uncle on a Friday saying she was in hospital. By Sunday, she had passed away. Maybe she knew she was sick before she sent me to Cape Town, but she never said anything.

Her death meant that I was thrown into the role of mothering Yonela and Inga, who were just ten and six years old at the time. Even though they moved to Queenstown to live with one of our aunts, there was no question that I would step up to the task of parenting them – which meant providing them with emotional support until I finished high school. 

I kept remembering my mother's attitude to life: whatever happens, you stay strong, and you keep looking after the kids. She taught us to push, and that love means everything. I loved my sisters so much that there wasn't any other option.

My mother taught me that, no matter how hard life was, the most important thing was love. The thought of her loving me was enough to give me the courage to make a future for me and my sisters even after she was gone.  

Believing through the hard times  

At age 17, I matriculated from Manyano High School in Khayelitsha. This is also where I met two teachers – Miss Neku and Miss Mbuku – who recognised my pain after losing my mother and reached out to me. They both, at different times, took the time to console me and find out how I was.

It's amazing the magic a kind word or gesture can create – knowing you are not alone, that someone cares enough to spend the time to find out why you are hurting and how they can support you. Straight after matric, I took whatever jobs I could in Cape Town to support my sisters and pay for their clothes, school fees and other needs.

I worked as a cashier at a garage in Salt River for a few months and then got a job as an assistant through a cousin of mine who had an events company. In 2011, I started working as a cashier at Woolworths in Claremont.  In 2012, both sisters came to live with me in Langa.

It certainly wasn't easy living with two teenage girls in an unfamiliar city, with a job that paid about R1 000 a month. I was 23 at the time. I briefed my sisters' teachers about our situation to ensure they approached my sisters with sensitivity.

I also joined the School Governing Body of Yonela's school, Langa High. I wanted to know what was going on at the school through any means that I could. I wanted to make sure that she got a good education.  

Sue asks me one day what gave me the self-confidence and courage to do all this?

And it strikes me that during all those hours spent talking to my mother about my hopes and dreams, and all those years watching her struggle without my dad but carrying on; I started believing the idea that things can be fixed; that if you try hard enough and long enough, you can change things, make things happen.

I read somewhere that "the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice" - the way my mom treated me back then not only shaped who I grew up to be but also shaped how I have come to treat others.  

The girls understood our situation and knew it would take hard work to get through the difficult times. We had regular conversations about how we would live together, what we expected of each other, and what each of us could do to ensure a better future.

They knew they'd have to work twice as hard at school and ensure they got good grades. We worked as a team and held onto our dreams. When we struggled to make ends meet, I reminded myself of our mother's love – and the home-cooked meals she prepared out of nothing during hard times.

It helped me sleep when I wondered where the next meal would come from.  

The power of strong, supportive relationships 

I read and re-read Ann Masten's lines that critical to building resilience in children are "caregivers and family that are looking out for you. A human brain in good working order. A human brain that has learned through interactions and training with a lot of people who care".

Writing this essay, I realise that these types of meaningful relationships and interactions with people who care and connect us to opportunities build on one another, reinforcing our resilience as we grow.  

Nomfundo Tafeni, for instance, became a great friend of mine while I was at Woolworths. She would tell me again and again that I should hold onto the little things and that everything would work out in the end. It was around this period that I decided I really wanted to become a photographer – largely inspired by the fact that I had so few pictures of my mother.

I wanted to create memories for the people in my life. Whilst at Woolworths, I also got to know Seema Allie, who worked as a photographer for the company. I shadowed her, and she showed me the basic techniques. Little did she know what a magical impact her ordinary act of kindness would have on my life.  

In 2014, I enrolled at the Ruth Prowse School of Art for my diploma in photography. I had discovered my passion and career calling as a photographer – and I haven't looked back.

I have worked as a lecturer, gallery assistant and as a freelance documentary photographer. My dream is to open the Eastern Cape's first art school that's focused on digital art. I have big goals for my sisters and I. We may no longer be sitting around that fire in Qumba, but that fire – the love, hope and motivation from our childhood – still burns bright in us.

Yonela, who has a diploma and a BTech in Retail Management under her belt, has been working as an assistant buyer at Woolworth's head office in Cape Town for two years now. Inga completed her matric last year and hopes to become a chef.

The African proverb says one woman's child is also another's child. Through simply loving my siblings, I have inspired many other children.  

On Mother's Day this year, I smiled at a message I received from my sister's friend Lungiswa. It read: "Happy Mother's Day Sis Wandie. You're worthy to be called one. You have nurtured the girls so well and so effortlessly. Even though you did not carry them in your womb, you carried them on your shoulders. Thank you! We are watching in admiration."

It's good to know that people are watching – that I am seen. It makes me strong… resilient. 

This article forms part of DGMT’s Human Factor publication. Issue 2 explores the power of parents as their children's first educators and their right to continue to champion their children’s education throughout schooling.  Read it online or request a printed copy at dgmt.co.za/the-human-factor  

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