Today Elvis Mahlanya, a strapping 22-year-old, is rather known as a passionate social change-maker, than an orphan. The product of the close relationships Hands at Work volunteers forged with him, Elvis shares his story below as only he can tell it.
No one can tell this, only me. I am Elvis, the eldest son of the late Sinah Mahlanya who was basically a single parent. She passed away in 2004 when I was just 15-years-old. In her absence I had to take over responsibility for my younger brother, Africa, who was just 13 and my sister Tebogo who was just 6 years old. I had to make sure that I could address their needs all by myself. Everything from fetching water down by the river and providing food for us became my responsibility. Most of the time I had to ask help from my family members or friends. I remember being scolded and shouted at by my own uncle as I tried to advocate for my brother who needed school shoes. His were torn in such a way that he could not wear them. Some days he just went to school barefoot.
It was painful for me because I had nothing to offer my siblings other than speaking on behalf of their needs. I used to sometimes think I should drop out of school and go to work to provide for my siblings, but I was under-aged and could not. I used to cry a lot because I failed to meet my siblings’ needs, especially when we would go to bed hungry.
When my mother passed away my siblings and I got involved in a project right away in Masoyi called the Masoyi Home-Based Care. It took a few months before we got assistance from the care workers because they needed to make assessments. (Hands at Work grew out of the successful model of support and development implemented through the Masoyi Home-Based Care project outside of White River.) Masoyi Home-Based Care runs a pre-school and creche for toddlers. They provide love and care for the very young and it allows older siblings, like me, to remain in school. I met people from Hands at Work through Masoyi and I was part and parcel of the project’s events and programmes. I was one of the key leaders in the youth program that was initiated by Levy Mwenda from Zambia. He is one of the good people I’ve met in my life. He nurtured me through spiritual life and developed my reasoning capacity.
I remember earlier when the youth programme [Forward Education] was in the initial stages, we were doing nothing but just talking to one another, sharing our challenges and our future in general. I remember one day Levy said to me, "Don’t worry about today, worry about tomorrow... Don’t be like a rat that runs around in a basin looking for a space to get out but not looking up where there is a space. There is a future here." Those words have stuck in my mind for years now. Through my participation in the youth programme, I was fortunate enough to be one of those who are chosen to go [graduate] the Forward Education programme, class of 2008. It was a six-month bridging programme designed to strengthen us to make the step to successful university studies. Kristal and Darryl [long-term volunteers with Hands at Work] were my mentors at the Forward Education programme. They empowered me with creative thinking skills, independent work habits, strong written communication skills, exposed and open minds, and a strong character. They were such a blessing to me and my life in general. “No problem” was a life statement in our class initiated by Darryl. We were coached to value life as it and not worry at all because God is with us.
Forward Education helped me to see life with an eagle eye. I thought I was nothing and was going nowhere since my mother had passed on. Forward Education raised my expectations, it took me straight to the university, it payed my registration, my transportation, my meal, my accommodation and so on. As I am writing now, I am doing my third year in of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Youth in Development, which is more less Social Work. Apparently my studies are being funded by the Department of Social Development in Mpumalanga. Tuition, accommodation, food and books are being funded by the department and Hands at Work takes care of my house utensils, toiletries... Even food, transport, academic tour, my health and any financial issues that might crop up.
Due to my good relationship with my mentor, Levy, I had an opportunity to visit Oshoek [a very poor area in northeastern South Africa near the border with Swaziland where Hands at Work has recently started working] as part of my practical education or exposure on what I’m learning here. Life in Oshoek is tough, trust me. One can smell poverty from a distance. The environment is dry, no green trees, bare soil and poor soil for crops plantation. The people of Oshoek are very poor. 92% of their houses are built with mud and they are in a dismal form. Schools are far away from where people live. They share drinking water with cattle and goats. They have to walk for a mile to fetch water. We visited a couple of households headed by children. I met a young boy, just 15. He looks after the house and his young sister. He wore torn clothes. I just had a flash back, remembering the toughest time in my childhood. I had people to shout to for help, as for him it is tough because his family members stays in Swaziland and he doesn’t have an identity document. In this case, he can’t apply for a passport or any benefits from the government. He is just by himself. Nomsa [the Swaziland service centre coordinator] and her crew are trying their level best to meet the children’s needs. The only need they can address is motivating children. They just motivate them to remain in school and focus on their studies, but they’ve got nothing tangible to offer. Children are suffering in Oshoel, hunger is literally killing them. The children are at high risk of participating in criminal activities, such as prostitution and theft as there is a border nearby. I also predict a high rate of teenage pregnancy if an intervention is not implemented on time.
My background and present situation proves that I am an example of leadership development. I see myself in a centre for rural development and poverty eradication in South Africa. With my experience working with people from different walks of life, combined with my observation that there is a strong need for a person like me to participate in developing or empowering others, this is where I believe I will be used. With the degree that I am going to hold within a year from now, I am going to have access to all the governmental institutions, advocating my people’s needs. I am an instrument for change in South Africa with the help of the Lord, my Almighty.