In the early hours of morning and when dusk falls there is one consistent sound that can be heard echoing through my homestead. “BONEGIELE!” It is the sound heard, like a door bell, when someone enters our front gate. It is the name shouted from the house when dinner is being made, or when dinner is being cleaned up. When washing needs to be done, or the yard swept. It is the first name I learned on my Tikhuba homestead because it is said more than any other name- more than any other siswati word I hear.
When I first arrived at this house 9 months ago, I was confused by this child that seemed to carry the burden of the entire household. I would play Uno with Hacheema and Bulunda while Bongeliele sat nearby with a mountain of laundry. My house would be filled with neighborhood children watching movies, while Bongeliele ducked in and out tending to dinner on the fire. I often wondered why she seemed to have so many chores, while the other kids spent their days playing, but I had never heard her complain.
Bongeliele is 16 years old and is in form 4 (11th grade). She is my Make’s “grandchild”, which really means her niece. Bonegiele’s family lives in the next town over, but can not afford to pay for her school fees, which is about 3,000 rand every 3rd month, so my Make has taken her in. Make pays for her education, and in return Bongeliele helps around the homestead. I have often wondered if she feels jealous of my little brother and sister for their opportunities at better schools, and their lack of chores in comparison. My siblings, and even extended family, don’t see much hope for her- they call her slow, and stupid and are constantly putting her down (SD is not much for positive reenforcement sometimes) But Bongeliele is nothing but grateful for the opportunity to learn and repay Make for her generosity.
It has taken me a while to warm up to her, mostly because she always seems to be working. However, lately we have found ourselves in each other company more and more. Hacheema is living in Siteki to attend school, and Bulunda is now in Zambia. It’s just Bongeliele and me. I still don’t get the opportunity to chat with her for long, so a few weeks ago I decided we would start a book to write letters to each other. This would be a place where she could write about her feelings, troubles, dreams etc, and ask me questions without being self conscious.
I received the book back for the first time today with 10 pages neatly scrawled out. She talks about the problems her country is facing with teenage pregnancy and what she can do to help. She also talks about HIV and the high death rate among young people. She wants to get tested herself and has asked me to go with. I was a little flabbergasted at the depth of her letters, and her insight into the problems around her.
I am so excited about this small little project. Bongeliele is a smart, driven, hard working young girl, and I think this book will be a good way to encourage her to be an example to her peers and empower her to overcome the many obstacles in her life. I think this will also be good for me. I so often wish for projects where I can see change happening– I can already see a change in Bongeliele I may not be building wells, or starting clinics but I hope, through this book, I can offer some kind of inspiration to my little Cinderella.
She also wrote a letter to my family, as follows:
Dear Zethu’s family,
Hi! Zethu’s family how are you, I hope you are fine like I am and your daughter, Zethu. I write the letter to greet you, and describe our homestead.
Here at home we enjoy living with Zethu and we also like her. Zethu here at home, she is very helpful to me, because she teaches me a lot of vocabulary and their meaning.
I wish to visit you one day. Thank you for the Christmas present that you gave us last year, they were very beautiful and we enjoy them. Thank you very much. I also like to thank you for the wools that you gave me, they were very beautiful. Now I have already made a beautiful hat with it.
Here in our homestead we use to fetch fire wood to make fire in order for us to cook. Sometimes we teach her how to cook on fire. Now she knows how to cook some Swazi food.
I hope when she is back, she will cook for you Swazi food and I hope you will enjoy it. It is very delicious.
Yours sincerely, her Swazi sister,