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Nomzamo smiles, a lot, and laughs, genuinely… how hard could her childhood have been? Wouldn’t she have lost her smile if her past had been that hard? I am excited to meet with her but don’t expect a deep story. She’s only 16… (you are absolutely right, I will eat my words, badly. How could I have been so ignorant?)

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So here we are, at Ikageng’s Office grounds, having a casual chat as we are getting to know each other a little.

First I learn that she lives with her parents – in itself not really worth mentioning, generally. However, I am speaking with a beneficiary of Ikageng’s programme which cares for orphans and other vulnerable children – so I am getting a bit more curious.

[I would like to take a moment to explain that Nomzamo has given her consent for me to share her story and her photographs. As well as all the other people involved in this project, she not only agreed but insisted on having her story told and shared.]

She explains that both her parents are alcoholics, without steady jobs, and that, when she was younger, she nearly got raped. She tried to share her traumatic experience with her parents but they didn’t believe her. Nobody believed her. She had to try and work through all this by herself which was extremely hard. She stood all alone, misunderstood by her own parents.

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By now I am glued to this girl’s lips, apologise silently to her for having had doubts about her right to be in the programme, and I just want to hug her. But I force myself to keep quiet, try to carry on making notes without breaking eye-contact and looking insensitive – and I just keep listening…

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She has a sister and lives with 6 other children, not her siblings but kids in need of a roof over their heads and a home. Her family has nothing yet they can still offer others a roof over their head. She loves people, loves spending time with people. She is passionate about developing others. She says: “I have learned that I am not living for myself but also for others. After what I have been through I love spending time discussing problems with other girls. It brings up ideas and, as a group, we try and find solutions to challenges we are facing.”

In 2000 her aunt, who had been giving financial support to the family, passed away. To simply put food on the table or to pay for stationary needed at school became an impossible task for the family.

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A month before I meet Nomzamo, her best friend who lived with her, passed away. “She would have loved to be part of this project.”

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One morning she just didn’t wake up anymore…

Her next comment hits me in the pit of my stomach, like someone is trying to do a Heimlich Maneuver on me. She says:

“You know Nathalie, Life is not about having everything you want, but how you live with what you got!”

I need a moment for this to sink in – I was not prepared to deal with such big words on what seemed to be just another Saturday morning. As my brain is starting to get a grip on the information it had just received I start feeling about as small as a gnome, shrinking by the second just like Alice in Wonderland after eating from the wrong side of the mushroom (and am starting to wonder what it was exactly that had put me in a bad mood that morning just before I left my pretty, little, safe house and hopped into my pretty, little safe car… (it eludes me).)

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Mom Carol (or Malo as the kids so affectionately call her which I think is such a beautiful word, even though it really only means “mother” but I love the way it sounds when they say it) means the world to Nomzamo. “If it hadn’t been for her, I have no idea who I should have turned to share my pain and try to understand all the things that did not make sense in my life. Mom Carol can listen; she is a wonderful woman and an inspiration.

Finally I had found a place and people to share my stories with – I found a place where I felt like I belonged and mattered! I learned to love myself for who I am and stopped looking for love in the wrong places.”

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Pain is not there to make us suffer or give up but to encourage us to do more!

At the end of our chat I am ready to hug every single person who I cross paths with, still on Ikageng grounds until many hours later far away from Ikageng, Soweto and all the people involved in the project. I am happy, ecstatic and sad all at the same time but most of all I am humbled and grateful. I end up thanking Nomzamo for giving me her time and sharing her wisdom with me. I am not sure she really knows what I am talking about but I am dead serious.

I know it’s an old song… but then again is it really? We take so much for granted, all the time. I am starting to understand what it means to live a privileged life. And how it must feel when you don’t.

Before I leave I have to go and see Mom Carol to, yes, give her a big hug, then to share in just a little of what I had just experienced and also to make sure she knows just how unbelievably important her work is. People in organisations and places like Mom Carol are soldiers, warriors against all odds who give their life and soul to what they do, because – they just have to. They have been called to try and help others. And that’s all that matters to them.

Carol, my respect for you, your work and all your children grows every day.

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