“Jika Joe is home to me. This is where my heart is. I found love and a family in the community of Jika Joe.”
These are the words Nobuhle Bhengu (25) uttered as she fed her 17-month-old son, Luthando Bhengu, a banana.
Bhengu laughed as he reached out to grab The Witness reporter’s hand, and added that he has been loving and overly trusting of strangers since the day he was born.
Bhengu moved to Pietermaritzburg from Hammarsdale in 2010 after enduring a tough childhood. In 2011, she relocated to the community of Jika Joe and hasn’t looked back.
She grew up with an emotionally abusive mother who neglected her and her siblings. Her late maternal grandmother, “MaNgcobo”, took them in and raised them despite her own challenges and poor environment.
“We didn’t have identity documents, so we did not get any grant money. We were always being kicked out of any shelter we found. My siblings and I did not go to school; I have never seen the inside of a classroom. All we had was each other,” said Bhengu with a quiver in her voice.
When her grandmother died in 2005 after being ill for a while, Bhengu’s aunts took her and her siblings in.
That’s when she moved to Hammarsdale. She was 10 years old. Bhengu’s mother reappeared in 2007 and demanded that her children be returned to her.
“I was excited to know that my mother wanted to raise us. I was hopeful,” said Bhengu.
Her aunts agreed to let them go with their mother, and so they left. Bhengu said all was well, and they managed to find someone to help them get their birth certificates.
“At the final stages of sorting out our identification, my mother abandoned us again.
“She just disappeared and never came back,” said Bhengu.
She was too young to raise her siblings on her own, so they were taken in by social workers. Bhengu and her older brother went back to live with their aunts in Hammarsdale.
Bhengu said she was never comfortable living there. She said she felt like she was intruding in their space; like a nuisance. That’s why she decided to pack her belongings and move to Pietermaritzburg.
“I came here to try to build a life of my own. I still visit them every now and then, but Pietermaritzburg is my home now.”
Bhengu lives with her baby Luthando and a good friend of hers who lost her home in the fires that occurred last year.
While folding her laundry, Bhengu told the story of how she landed in hospital four months ago.
“We were arguing. The row got heated, and that’s when he began to physically assault me. That man landed me in hospital for a month.
“As we speak, I have steel pins in my arms. I can no longer do basic things like washing, all thanks to him,” said Bhengu.
Bhengu continued softly, recalling that when she was in hospital, nobody from her Hammarsdale family went to visit her.
However, her friends from Jika Joe always visited her, took her food and looked after her son until she had recovered. She said that when she was discharged, they were the ones who sorted out her documents and fetched her from the hospital.
“They are no longer just my friends. They are my sisters,” said Bhengu.
When asked about her biological siblings, Bhengu shrugged and showed little interest in them, with the exception of her older brother. She said that to her knowledge, she has five siblings.
“Apparently one died, and there’s another who was with my mother in Durban but has since been abandoned by her. Then there are my youngest siblings — my twin sisters. I have no idea where they are now,” said Bhengu.
When asked about her mother, Bhengu said: “I haven’t seen that woman since she disappeared in 2008. Some people have told me that she is dead, while others say she was spotted in Johannesburg. Lord knows how she got there.” She rolled her eyes at the thought.
After a short silence, she carried on talking about her mother; saying that she stressed her grandmother so much. “When MaNgcobo died, things fell apart and my whole life changed.”
Once she had calmed down, Bhengu gave the reporter a shy smile and continued sharing details about her life.
“I am a sex worker. I make a living by hustling at night. I do this to sustain myself, and to give my son a chance at life.”
She went on to share that she has been doing this work since she moved to Pietermaritzburg.
She said that because she is not educated and has no formal skills, she had nothing to offer and this was all that she knew.
When she is at work at night, her son is looked after by her Jika Joe neighbours.
“I spend time with Luthando during the day. I make the most out of every moment I have with him because he motivates me to try to do better, and to be a better person.”
On the topic of safety at Jika Joe, Bhengu said: “I am a woman. I am a sex worker. I don’t live with any man, only my baby boy. I am naturally an easy target for abuse and mistreatment.”
She shrugged and added that considering the conditions she lives in, she could never confidently say that she feels safe as anything can happen in an informal settlement.
She described how worried she gets whenever there are heavy rains because her home floods, which is dangerous for her baby boy.
“Worst-case scenario? I won’t be home one night and have left him with someone else. I fear that he could fall out of the bed and land in the pool of water that gathers in our home and drown.
“This thought goes through my mind every single time I am away from him and it is raining.” said Bhengu.
She added that she would never allow her child to be outside on his own because of how unsafe it is.
She told of several incidents where children have been electrocuted by fallen electricity cables in the informal settlement.
“I don’t want Luthando to be a victim of such tragedies,” said Bhengu.
As The Witness concluded its time with Bhengu, she said that since her previous relationship, she has met somebody new who is kind, caring and loves her son as if he is his own.
She beamed as she said that he does everything he can to help her, such as cooking and even doing her laundry.
“He understands me, and he respects me. He doesn’t even mind me being a sex worker because he knows that it is just a way to make a living.
“He knows the struggle of unemployment; therefore, he doesn’t judge my life choices. He found me doing this work, and still took me as I am.
“That man loves me,” said Bhengu.