– March 19 2018
“Stepping into my parents’ shoes”
When Enzi’s mother died, she had to assume the role of a parent and head of household for her younger siblings – despite her young age. She had to find the means to feed the family, support their education and keep the family together. These responsibilities have changed her future and her outlook on life.
Every morning, 23-year-old Enzi wakes up determined to overcome the challenges of the day. She wishes her parents were still alive, so she would not have to bear the burden of raising her two younger siblings, Nekesa*, 17, and her brother Lusala*, 15.
“I lost my dad when I was eight, and so my mother was my anchor,” says Enzi as she sweeps the dirt floor of their one-roomed thatched house. “My mother was sickly, but still she worked hard to provide for us. She would do any kind of casual job to ensure that we went to school and had enough food to eat. She also applied for a grant and even sold some of our livestock and farm inputs. She was always resilient despite the many hardships we went through,” she says.
Enzi sat for her national primary school exams in 2009 and scored good marks. Though she was admitted to the boarding school of her dreams to continue her education, her mother could not afford to pay the tuition. So Enzi went to a local day school near home. Despite the hardships at home, Enzi excelled in her final high school exams in 2014, and encouraged by her mother’s resolve to educate them. She also motivated her younger siblings to work hard.
“At times, I would go to school in a tattered uniform and without school materials, but I always worked extra hard and emerged as the best in class,” says Lusala. “I wanted to please mum.”
Sadly, in 2015, their mother died.
“This was the beginning of our desperation. The few resources we had acquired were used up during the funeral. For example, our maize reservoir was emptied, and the only cow we depended on for milk was slaughtered to feed the guests. We were left with nothing,” Enzi says in a whisper as tears well-up in her eyes.
Some relatives promised to support the three children – but days and weeks later, no one came.
“I felt so lonely and rejected. I also wondered how I would fill the void left by my mother,” explains Enzi.
With guidance and counselling from the church, Enzi began to feel better. As unprepared as she was, she took up the role as head of the family. Just two years before, Enzi was only thinking about school, her friends and the future she wanted for herself – but everything had changed. She had to forget her dreams and quickly become a parent.
“Finding a source of income to feed my brother and sister was my priority,” she says. “I did several odd jobs to secure at least one meal a day. To begin with, I cultivated people’s farms. This job was strenuous, and I would always have persistent back and joint pain. Besides, the job was seasonal, making the income unreliable,” says Enzi.
Her next job, as an attendant at a money transfer shop, only lasted a few months. Consequently, she took up a training position at a local beauty salon.
“After I had perfected my skills, the salon owner employed me, and due to increased responsibility and challenges at home, I decided to use my 2,000 Shillings (20 USD) savings to start a small business, selling shoes to clients who came to the salon,” explains Enzi.
Her brother Lusala meanwhile has found ways to supplement Enzi’s income.
“I work during school holidays, burning charcoal and crushing stones in a quarry,” he says. “This way I can raise some money for my school fees.”
“It’s never been easy taking care of my siblings. I have to work extra hard to keep the family together,” says Enzi as she holds her three- month-old son. “It’s even more challenging for me at the moment, because I have a new-born baby who keeps me from going to work,” says Enzi.
To improve the situation in this child-headed household, the family recently joined the SOS family strengthening programme. The family will receive education support through payment of school fees and acquisition of school materials for Nekesa and Lusala, who are in secondary school. Enzi will be trained in entrepreneurship, she will receive start-up funds to boost her shoe business and farm inputs so she can grow crops on their piece of land that will sustain her family.
“I have learnt that to be a mother is to be selfless. I hide my sadness and frustration, just so I can give my brother and sister a near-normal life. I have not only lost friendships, I have also lost my identity as a sister to my siblings. I’m now a mother figure to them. My greatest fear is that our relatives may decide to forcibly take our land and our house, leaving us in the cold. I’m also afraid that should I get married, my brother and sister will be left alone.”
*Names changed for privacy protection
Find out more about our work in Kenya