I met the smiling young girl at GuGu’s school, a free school consisting of 14 boys and girls in the Mangwaneni Squatter Camp. Tanele (whom I nicknamed “Tanele-Bell”) soon became one of my favorite children as I saw the dire need she had to be loved. At 12 years old, she had quite the edge and would even bully some of her other classmates. But her missing-front-tooth grin was contagious, as was her laugh.
My heart broke for this young girl since she came from a rough family life. She lived in the squatter camp (which consisted of cement-block huts) with her step-mom and their family. She was often beat by her mom and her older brother, too. In fact, one day while my team and I were helping teach at GuGu’s school, we heard screams and crying from the squatter camp. A few teammates came running out to see a man hitting and kicking Tanele before she was able to get up to run away. We didn’t know it at the time, but apparently, it was not a rare occurrence.
During my two months with Tanele that summer, I formed a great relationship with her, loving her as if she were my own flesh and blood child. When it was time to go, she wouldn’t let go. I vividly remember the last day at Mangwaneni when we had to say our final goodbyes. Tanele is not one to show much emotion, but she stayed clutched to me and buried her tears in my t-shirt. It was heart-breaking to leave her, but a year later I was given the opportunity to see her again.
In September 2009, I traveled back to Swaziland with my teammates Haley and Ryan. When we returned to Mangwaneni, I was devastated to find out that Tanele had disappeared. It took a lot of coaxing, but I finally got information out of Treasure, one of the teachers. At 13 years old, Tanele had run away to sell herself into prostitution. To her, it was the best option she had. She didn’t have money to attend a real school, and she had run away from home to avoid being beaten, so she couldn’t go to GuGu’s free school anymore. She had no way of getting food or money, so she chose prostitution.
Treasure told me that I would never see Tanele again, and it killed me. But I didn’t want to believe it. Later that day, Haley, Ryan, and I walked into town with some of the kids, Johannes, Pununu, and Iyanda. On the way into town, I was talking with Johannes, a 14 year old boy who the other kids claimed would become a pastor. “Johannes, we need to pray for Tanele,” I told him, “and that I can see her again to help her.” He nodded, “Yebo,” which means “yes.” Literally five minutes later, a white truck drove by with a group of older men and a young girl in the back. The young girl called out to Iyanda, which is what made me turn my head to look. The young girl was none other than Tanele herself! I called out to her and she did a double-take, confused at my completely unexpected appearance. Upon recognizing me, she leapt out of the moving vehicle and ran across traffic into my arms. It was one of the greatest days of my life. I was holding a miracle!
Though the afternoon was full of joy as we spent time with Tanele, it was also very hard for me to realize that because I was leaving in a few days there was nothing I could really do to help her. It was difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that it was her choice to sell herself into prostitution and it still is her choice to leave it, but at the time, she didn’t want to. Through the limited amount of English she knew, I asked her questions about her life, and though she tried to lie about the prostitution, she eventually told me about it. At one point, I didn’t know if she understood what I was trying to tell her about it all, but at the end, when she was about to leave, I said, “Tanele, do they hurt you? I just don’t want you to get hurt.” When I said this, she turned around with tears in her eyes and melted into my arms. She didn’t say a word, but her tears said enough. I tried to ask her not to go back, but she just shook her head. I told her I would come back for her in a year, and that’s one of my goals this September—to find Tanele and other girls like her, and give them opportunities for a life outside of prostitution.
The last I saw of Tanele was when Haley and I walked her back to the bus rank, where she claimed she was going to take a kombi (van) to her sister’s house (which we knew was a lie). We had given her money for the kombi, but when we got to the bus rank, she stopped us with the warning, “You can’t go any farther,” and then took my hand and slipped the money back into it. I refused to take the money back and told her she needed it; with great hesitation, she put it back into her pocket. Though she told us to stop, I saw that down the hill up ahead was the blasted white truck with the older men in the back, waiting for her and watching us the whole time. We exchanged final hugs and goodbyes. I felt sick to my stomach as I watched her head down the hill. H
aley and I turned to make our way back through the busy bus rank to beat it home before dark (it’s far too dangerous to be women out at night). Sensing my agitation and feeling some of her own, Haley grabbed my hand and said, “Don’t look back; don’t look back.” It was a good thing to hear to counter the urge inside me to go charging down the hill towards the truck and punch all the men in their faces, yelling, “How could you do this to a 13 year old?!”
“Don’t look back, Kate!” I was told. But the truth is, I have been looking back ever since.