One wouldn’t think that a 20-year old University student from the United States would find much in common with a 56-year old Zionist church leader from Swaziland. But when you listen to someone’s story, there’s usually something that helps you connect. Lyndall Stephenson, who has been volunteering at Heartlines, knows what it is like to move to a new country and city alone, and how intimidating this can be, especially as a woman. Listening to Cebsile Abigail Khumalo’s story, who shared at a What’s Your Story? workshop with members of the Zionist Church in Zondi in Soweto, Lyndall says, “Cebsile’s story was touching to me in many ways”.
Here’s more of Cebsile’s story, through Lyndall’s eyes.
Cebsile has been with the Zionist Church for seven years, but originally grew up Catholic. She was born in Swaziland, 1963 to a single mother, the sixth of eight children. “I started my grade 1 in 1970, and during primary school life was not so easy because I am from a very underprivileged home. We ate pap every day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I did not know my father, but I heard that he had passed on.”
Despite her monetary limitations growing up, Cebsile managed to complete her matric in 1981 with the dream of becoming a teacher. However, she was not able to get into a university until five years later. Even though it was a primary school training college, on qualifying Cebsile had to again put her dreams of being a primary school teacher on hold, as there were no available primary school teaching positions, so she started teaching in high school.
After that, she worked for the United Nations (UN) for five years teaching refugees in a refugee camp. During this time, she got married, however this was not a happy marriage. “That was a very painful one because it was very abusive. He never beat me, but God never blessed me with any kids.”
Cebsile explained how her husband was emotionally abusive towards her, saying “he used to bring home pictures of the kids that he had outside of our marriage and say, look they look just like me.” Eventually, she divorced him, as he stopped coming home and was staying with other women.
Even though Cebsile wasn’t able to have children, she did not have a childless home. With all her brothers and sisters, she became a second mother to many of their children. “All of these kids I had on my shoulders. Even that guy that I married had kids outside, and I took them in. One of them is a teacher, another is studying home economics.”
After her divorce, she decided to continue with her education, and went to a college associated with Wits University to get her BEd Honours. In 2010, she decided to come to Johannesburg and look for a job.
“I love the small ones. But I started out teaching Maths, English, and Life Orientation to grade 5, 6, and 7.” One day, Cebsile was finally given the chance to teach primary school children. As fate would have it, one of the ladies teaching grade 1 became ill, and Cebsile asked the school to giver the opportunity to take over her classes.
In 2017, Cebsile’s mother passed away at the age of 93. This was a hard moment for Cebsile as she had a very close relationship with her mother, even though they lived far apart. She reflected on her mother and her memories of her, saying “my mother was a very sweet lady. A sad thing growing up was going to sleep with no food. She was a domestic worker, and every month she would collect the left over bread from the house she was working at and send it home for us kids. Bread was like meat to us, because we never used to have bread. It was just a home of nothing.”
Cebsile said that one of the most important things she cherished about her mom was her wishing her good luck in Johannesburg, “we would sit together and talk, and I said I’m going to Joburg, and she said, good luck my child, I wish you good luck. And that’s what I believe opened doors for me.”
There was light in this time of sadness for Cebsile and she found love again. “One day he said, I want to go to church with you. I said, ‘You are so old where is your wife?’ He said they had been separated four years, and I told him I was also divorced. Then we started dating. Unlike before, everything was full of love. Now we are planning on getting married.”
What I found inspiring about Cebsile’s story was the patience and perseverance she had in order to finish her degree, and finally be teaching the age group that she wanted, but especially the fact that she opened her home not only to her siblings’ children, but also to the children of her unfaithful husband, and loved and cared for them as if they were her own. This takes immense love and generosity, and I only hope to be able to show the same kind of love and generosity in my own life as well – Lyndall.