At 12 years, I wanted to die. So I made a plan of how I was going to commit suicide.
Acid, I thought. I’ll drink lots of acid. It seemed like the easiest and most logical way. I tried the first time and failed. Determined, I tried again.
You might be thinking, why would a child want to take their own life?
My name is Moeketsi Lehlaha. Let me tell you my story.
I was born in 1982 in one of the townships in the Vaal Triangle in Gauteng Province. The Vaal is an unusual place to grow up – sometimes magical, sometimes impossible. The area has a history of violence and even today. Someone once described the violent uprisings in the 1980s that happened here as a ‘smouldering human rage’. In my community, women face higher unemployment rates, sexual violence, and domestic violence. Men also have trouble getting jobs and this leads to negative stigma and alcohol abuse. Many young girls are likely to be sexually abused or fall pregnant. The boys encounter death and gangsterism in the traditional initiation process, and not everyone completes schooling. But the Vaal also has a wealth of talent, especially in soccer and music. Our festivals and tournaments are known to bring our people together.
When I was seven years old, my mother left my father because he beat her often and couldn’t provide well for the family. My life of suffering began shortly after my parents divorced. We’d often didn’t have food, and can still remember the pangs of hunger I felt walking some 20 kilometres to school. My situation worsened during the winters. I had to wake up at 4 a.m. to prepare and leave for school while other children in the neighbourhood were still sleeping. I must have been a very brave boy because I wasn’t afraid to walk alone so early in the morning. By the time I reached puberty I was a wreck. Life was hard and I didn’t see the point of living. Was I born to be the ambassador of poverty? Was I being punished for the sins of my parents? Was I not conceived out of love? These questions in my head depressed me.
A kind neighbour saved me the two times I attempted suicide. I lay on the hospital bed, alive. I was furious! I can’t even kill myself right, I thought. Why didn’t God free me from my misery? I blamed and hated my father for our poverty and for mother leaving. Vusi, the patient who occupied the bed next to mine, introduced me to his preacher friend who immediately recognised my situation.
“There isn’t time for blame or wallowing in self-pity. Focus on what God wants you to be or do.” Vusi gave me a copy of the Bible.
I glared at him. Money would be more useful than a Bible, I thought.
“God has a big purpose with your life. Read Psalms 23.”
I must admit I found his unflinching determination to get through to me admirable. I read the Psalms: The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want…Where was this shepherd when I was starving, hurting and afraid?
Letting bygones be bygones
I dropped out of school despite my good performance in Grade 11 and hoped to find a job. A family friend introduced me to the YMCA where I again met with Vusi. Vusi was doing traditional dancing, drama, gumboot dancing and poetry. I chose to do drama. Through acting, I could express my feelings without telling the story of my life to anybody. I even won a performance award! I taught gumboot dancing through community organisations and joined a group of young people to volunteer at the policing forum in Everton. In 2010, I joined an NGO called Emthonjeni and worked as a security patroller, earning a R 1000 a month stipend. I excelled at my job and was awarded a certificate for the best outstanding performer. My life was starting to change for the better. I loved working with children, and so the people at Emthonjeni taught me social work. After work, I would teach and help children with homework. We worked with people who had various social problems. When my contract with the NGO ended in December 2011, I decided it was time to move on despite their offer to stay.
How Letsema saved me
In 2013, I was desperately looking for a job when I was introduced to Letsema
by my friend, Magogo. Letsema was a group of people who came together to find their own solutions to the runaway gender-based violence in the Vaal. At first, I was reluctant to stay in a ‘boring meeting’ where young and old people played with markers, crayons, books, flip charts, and danced a strange Chinese dance called Tai Chi. I was about to leave the space when I heard the words ‘gender equality’. For me, the concept of gender equality was foreign. As a man, I believed I was the head of my family and the sole decision-maker. These people were trying to invade our traditions, morals and values! But thanks to Magogo being persuasive, I attended the second session, ‘open space’ meeting at Saul Tsotetsi Sports Centre. 300 people – elderly women and men and young people – attended and told sad stories of suffering because they were bound by customary law. Six activity groups were formed at that meeting, with the goal of ending gender-based violence in the Vaal. The groups were; vegetable garden (which Magogo and I formed), initiation group, alcohol and drugs group, core group, sports group and dialogue group.
The groups are doing well. Members come into a safe space to discuss common issues and to find appropriate solutions. Poverty and unemployment contribute to the incidences of violence in my community. Our vegetable group comprised of 22 members is a platform for advocacy and growing our own food. We’ve recruited a church group and people in the local taverns to support the gender-based violence initiative.
I feel at home in Letsema. I am free to express my feelings without being judged, discriminated against or undermined. We work together – coaches, facilitators and action groups – to achieve the common goal of bringing 0% GBV in the Vaal. Because of Letsema, I see things differently. I have more compassion for vulnerable members of the community and I am making a change through planting vegetables that’ll feed hungry people. I am helping people who are LGBTI to overcome their fear and come out of the closet, as well as reporting any violence and crime to the authorities. Our greatest enemy is being afraid to speak up.
My behaviour and mindset of have changed. I know that gender inequality isn’t the best option for us. Letsema helped me to care about our problems. Through the initiative, I am now a leader and making a contribution in the efforts to end GBV in my community.
*This story is extracted from Our hearts are joined: Writings from Letsema