ESWATINI – September 9 2021 No longer trapped: Themba’s story Text and photos by Hlubi Mkhawulo "My three younger sisters and I were hungry, but not for food. We yearned for love, care and a stable family," Themba says. "We moved regularly from one foster home to another. Life had been so hard on us, and there seemed no way of escape. I tried to make my sisters understand that we were alone, and we could only survive if we remained united. When my mother was alive, she did her best to provide for us. Even after my father left and remarried, she remained strong as a mother should for her children. She died in 2013 after complications from a chronic illness, changing our lives forever. The burden was now on me, as the big sister, to take care of everyone. I was 17 years old. My siblings were 15, 12 and nine. At first, we relied on neighbors and church members to provide us with food. We would go to bed hungry some days because no one came to give us anything to eat, and I was afraid of asking again. We started working casual jobs on school holidays and weekends just to make an income to buy what we needed for the week. We lived in a rented house in Nhlangana, a town in southern Eswatini. One day we came home from school and found the padlock on the door changed by the property owner—he had kicked us out of the house. We were homeless. Our church placed the four of us in foster care. Life at the doctor’s house, our first foster home, was okay even though we felt emotionally abused. We were constantly reminded of our situation and that we had lost our real parents. I had to find a way to “shelve” my feelings and pain to deal with my sisters’ grief. The foster family provided shelter and food, and I was responsible for providing toiletries for my sisters. The SOS Children's Villages family strengthening (FS) team then came into the picture, and things seemed to turn around for the better. We received school uniforms, school transport fares, stationery, school fees and cash transfers which really helped us meet our basic needs as girls other than just food. After one year, news came that we had to move to another family; we only hoped this would be a more suitable home for us. Moving from one foster family to another was very difficult, painful and confusing, especially for my siblings. I had to pretend that it was not an issue and that it did not affect me, just so they would be able to bear with it. Living with strangers is not easy. The responsibility of ensuring that we made our foster families happy at all times so they do not kick us out was always heavy on me. The urge to protect my siblings was so strong that I deliberately focused on their well-being, so they could focus on their own education. I performed poorly at school, and my younger sister overtook me and went a class ahead of me. On weekends we attended counseling sessions and psychosocial camps organized by the SOS team, which helped us understand that education was the only opportunity we had to improve our lives. Our stay in the second home lasted three years. The foster family tried to forcefully enlist us into their religion but we refused, so they asked us to leave. We went to my grandmother’s but she did not want us. My father lived in the same compound with his other wife and children, but he also rejected us. We felt alienated and lost. I held back my tears. A pastor from church took us in for eight months and later rented a house for us where we stayed for a year, but due to insecurity, the FS team moved us to a safer location. Fortunately, even as we changed families, we managed to remain in the same school. The SOS team has really inspired us to navigate the obstacles in our lives and fight to remain together as a family. We have so much positivity and motivation that with education, our life and family will be great. My second-born sister is now in her third year of college, and I am in my second. My other sisters are also doing well. My dream is to be a teacher; I believe becoming a teacher will put me in a perfect position to help vulnerable children become stronger and better people, in spite of their circumstances. I am now 25 years old, and I do not feel trapped anymore."