WINDHOEK – It is after sunset on a Wednesday and 17-year-old Ndapandula Salomon (not her real name) prepares porridge outside their shack in Havana.
Her nine-year-old sibling Toini (not her real name) and a child from next door are playing while their young brother Simeon (also not his real name), who is just four, sleeps inside their house.
At first sight, everything seems normal and there is no guessing the three children live on their own. Only after zooming into their lives does the raw wound of neglect become evident.
The three children have been living on their own since September last year when their mother unceremoniously packed her bags and left without saying where she was going or when she would return.
Ndapandula was forced to fill her mother’s shoes by parenting Toini, who is in Grade Three and Simeon, who is in pre-school.
“I came from school one day in September last year and I asked the kids where mommy is. They told me that she packed a bag and left but she did not say where she went, so I was wondering ‘how can she leave us the way she left us’,” reminisces Ndapandula, who puts on a brave act while sharing her story.
She tries hard to convince this journalist that all is well and she and her siblings have adapted to their plight. But, her eyes and emotions tell a different story.
She tries to hold back tears and is short of words when sharing their story.
“We are not in contact with my mother at all. But, she is originally from that side of Angola,” she says emotionally while trying hard to hold back tears.
Ndapandula bravely pulls herself together and continues to share her story.
“Last year, I was absent from school for a record 24 days in the school calendar,” she says. By 05h30, Ndapandula has to walk a distance of about seven kilometres to take a bus that would take her to school.
But sometimes she does not go to school because she does not have bus fare.
Ndapandula’s persistent absence from school raised her teachers’ eyebrows raising suspicion that she might be going through a rough patch, she adds. “The teachers started questioning my absenteeism and I confided in one of my teachers about my situation. I take a bus to school so if I have money I go and if I don’t have money then I don’t go. I use N$80 in a week from Monday to Friday,” she relived her tale to New Era.
Fortunately, for Toini and Simeon school is walking distance from their house. “Because I go early to school, I leave them still sleeping and they wake up at 06h00. I don’t know if they go to school late, but I always ask the neighbours and they say that they (Toini and Simeon) don’t go to school late because they go together with the child who lives next door,” she explains.
Toini and Simeon do not take food along and sometimes they have to rely on other children at school for a meal during school breaks.
They rely heavily on their neighbours and Good Samaritans for food.
Currently, they only have maize meal, rice, sugar and oil in their rather spacious kitchen. Once that is finished, they again have to wait on the goodwill of Good Samaritans.
“Toini and Simeon don’t usually go with food to school. But, now there is rice so I cook that for them to take to school. When I’m in school, the last period I always think of what am I going to cook for the children to eat when I get home,” she said.
She helps Toini with her homework. “The small one struggles with counting and the big one is good but she struggles a bit with reading,” Ndapandula says.
From time to time, Ndapandula’s siblings ask her when their mother would return.
“I don’t know what to tell them when they ask me that so I just say ‘I don’t know’,” she says.
Asked if she and her siblings contacted any family member to notify them of their plight, Ndapandula says: “We don’t even know our grandmother and grandfather. The only person who helps us is a friend of my father who sometimes brings us money.”
The Grade 9 learner is also quick to add that her mother has relatives in Windhoek but “they don’t come here how can we go there if they don’t come and see how we live”. She has also not seen their absentee father in years.
“I just heard that he went to work that side of Aminuis (Omaheke Region). But, I have not seen him in a very long time,” she says.
Ndapandula’s mother, who made a living from selling kapana, was not exactly a woman of sober habits, as she consumed alcohol uncontrollably, Ndapandula recalls.
“If (when) she is drunk she used to argue with us and tell us not to waste food because our father is not here to help us,” an emotional Ndapandula adds.
Nevertheless, they felt the pinch of their mother’s absence the most in January, she adds. “In January, it was really hard because we just used to have maize meal and when we cooked porridge we would go to the neighbours to ask for sugar,” she adds.
Asked about their safety, she said, “In the beginning I used to be very scared but not anymore. We have very good neighbours.
“Since my marks are a bit down (low) I want to become a teacher or a police officer. I’m good in Maths, Life Science, History. It’s only Physics and Computers that I really don’t understand,” she says, when asked what she aspires to become once she completes her studies.
Clinical psychologist, Dr Shaun Whittaker yesterday said children heading households have “tremendous challenges”.
This is mainly because the older sibling has to take up the role of parenting even if they are not emotionally ready for the challenge, said Whittaker.
The fact that Ndapandula is unemployed and has to feed her two siblings is an added enormous burden, Whittaker explained.
“A 17- year-old should not be responsible for taking care of minors, as she is not emotional ready for that. It’s a great concern that we have this situation,” further elucidated the clinical psychologist.
Feeling a sense of abandonment and fear is inevitable considering societal evils such as crime, according to Whittaker.
“I wonder how often they go to bed hungry and cold. You can imagine their fear at night. It must be harrowing,” Whittaker continued.
Furthermore, Whittaker said people do not often realise the negative consequences of alcohol consumption. Alcohol abuse has a role to play in such circumstances, Whittaker said, adding that debates on the negative use of alcohol should be encouraged in the country to create awareness.
He says there should be decent social support systems in the country to help children who find themselves in similar situations.
“We need to have homes where they could be placed and properly cared for. I mean, we are talking about the basic rights of children,” Whittaker stressed.
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare learnt of the three children’s plight through New Era, but they had not responded to questions posed by this newspaper by the time of going to print.
* New Era has used pseudonyms to protect the children’s identities, as they are minors.