It Takes A Lot To Survive (Part 1): My personal struggle with poverty and shame

By Nomali Cele (@PeachesMoony)

In this first of a three part instalment, Nomali Cele shares the story of how she is surviving since her mother’s passing five years ago. Of it she says, “It is a story about being poor and alone and shit. It is also about being shamed. It is about survival and respectability. It is about being unemployed, not having money and anxieties about being late on rent. It is about the experience of having to parent her mother’s child since she was eighteen without any help. For a while it was also about ‘transactional relationship’ shaming.”

When I was twenty years old, a woman I’d met in the previous few minutes sat on my bed and smiled fondly at me. She didn’t ask me to repeat my name as most people here tend to do but I didn’t get the feeling that she’d absorbed it either. She hugged my side a few times as she spoke about how she was happy to meet me and present the food hamper that now took up most of the small patch of floor in the room I rent. The smile stayed on her face as she insisted on two photographs.

The flash of her digital camera caught me off guard and I found myself offering to turn it off and take a picture of her and the food on my bed, in my tiny room, instead. Anything to get them to leave. She insisted I sit next to the fresh produce and wingless pads and canned food for another picture. I obliged. The smile expanded when she started talking about how she thought it brilliant that I needed this once-off gesture.

What would have happened if I had been wired better for social interactions and people in general? What would have happened if I had set out to meet and find lovers? What if my people skills were so good that my ideal men (at least four years older sexy beasts who didn’t have my problems) weren’t just tumblr reblogs and bus ride fantasies?

The answer was blatant: The woman on my bed and I would never have met. Because if I had a partner and it got out that we probably had sex on a regular basis I wouldn’t be a worthy orphan then. Then my sister and I wouldn’t be a child-headed household who lived in a tiny backroom but a den of “those girls who’ve become ungovernable since the demise of their mother. If only she could see them now”. But there wasn’t a car waiting for me out on the streets on any occasion and the first boy I chose to have sex with had a life as rubbish and mine. We fucked and watched Gossip Girl and I went back to the shack my sister and I lived in at the time.

The shack had been my mother’s. In March of 2010, I paid a group of men to move it to a different backyard that a friend of my mother’s had negotiated for us. The men did a shoddy job. Several nights I had to get out of bed because the rain leaked directly on my side. I would manoeuvre the blankets and bunch them up on my sister’s side, place a plastic tub to collect the water and sit on a bench and watch TV. I still cannot sleep through a rainy night. When it rained heavily, water would pass from the back of the structure and out the door. One day, long after the roof was fixed, I sat with an old friend from high school, my sister and her friend, and we watched rain water pools pass through our home. We all sat on the island of our bed with our feet elevated.

Three years after our mother’s death and my sister and I were still here. Sure, we’d struggled and lived a frustrating life, but we had made it even when my uncle sporadically sent us half of the R300 child support grant he’d applied for in my sister’s name after our mother died between 2010 and 2011. And the women’s present in our space on that day in 2012 said we were worthy. The woman seated next to me on my bed in the tiny room I rent had brought others with her – most of whom I’ve known since I first moved here at the beginning of Y2K.

The woman on my bed was the only one I didn’t know; some of the others were among the people who peeled potatoes for my mother’s funeral. One of them was the sister of the woman who told my sister and I that our mother had passed away. The unknown woman’s smile grew brighter as she gave me a speech I’ve heard a disproportionate number of times, compared to people asking how we were actually living, in the last five years. The speech is always a variation of how wonderful it is that I have not “turned to men.”

I began writing this in May of 2014, a little under a month before the five-year anniversary of my mother’s death when I was 17 years old. It is part-feelings and part-something I’ve wanted to say since I first began noticing a pattern of people thinking me brave – not because I did not fall apart when my mother died, but because I’ve lived in near-squalor since. The lauding is always in the nods and empty promises that all will be all right one day, promises that none can truly be sure of but what they are sure of, is the brilliance of my way of life.

But I had to stop trying to group my feelings into this piece because June was approaching and I knew the sadness that was coming with it. When the month rolls around each year, it’s as if a hazy cloud buys up the real estate north of my life and stays there until summer, the most faithful patronus I have ever known – second only to tumblr pictures of black girls – comes around and melts the cloud away.

By the day, 25 June 2014, I would leave my second job because the anxiety and tiredness were at their peak. In 2013, I quit my first ever job in May because I couldn’t quite deal with life. And in 2012, I thought all my feelings were out to get me but then thought it was just the birth control I was on plotting to drive me over the edge. I’ve come to term this time in my life “Forever June”.

When I picked this up again, it was last October and I wrote about a paragraph in the sun. It had been four months since June and my sister and I had been barely eating since August. I didn’t have a cent to my name, let alone rent money. That has been the fabric of my life in the last five years: starts and stops.


Nomali Cele (b. 1992) is a struggling writer-witch-person casting spells in Soweto. She wants to write real and made up stories about black girls. She is not the one. Invoke her here and here @peachesmoony

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