Peter Bills: 'If I am dead, there will be people singing the same song'

The view from South Africa where Peter Bills meets Nocawe Mankayi

Thursday 28 August 2008 10:35 BST

She keeps a gun in her office, a 3.8 automatic and she's ready to use it. One day, thieves came to her office to rob her visitors and she drove them out, at gunpoint. Here truly is a woman with a mission.

At all times, she keeps a wary look out wherever she goes. But in her heart, Nocawe Mankayi keeps a place for compassion, for the caring of others and their needs.

Nocawe's line of work does not make her popular with the criminals. She answered one phone call at 4 in the morning to be told 'We know where you stay. This is what we are going to do – we will burn your house, burn your children.'

And she replied calmly, almost matter-of-factly "Are you finished Because even if I am dead, there will be people singing the same song 'Stop abusing our children'. So even if you kill me, there will be lots more people saying that."

The courage and bravery of this humble woman stuns me. In the rundown, poverty stricken areas of Khayelitsha township where we meet, Nocawe goes about her simple, everyday task. Essentially, it is a mercy of mission, a rescue service for young children from some of the most unimaginable horrors any society can know.

It began in 1998, but the incident that triggered this organisation occurred a year or two earlier. The six year-old daughter of a police sergeant, Mpengezi, came home, crying and bleeding. Her father asked her what had happened and she told him. "The man who used to come next door to do painting….he did this." She had been raped.

The police officer searched for the man, found him and took him to the police station where he was held. The officer went home but, stricken with grief, drove back to the station. With a gun. He shot the suspect dead in the cells. Subsequently, he received a 9 year prison term.

Nocawe takes up the story. "We couldn't just turn a blind eye to this and say it wouldn't happen to our children. So what could we do ?"

But what would she have done in similar circumstances ? "I used to say, if it was my child who was raped, I would have done the same as the policeman." In the end, after he had served a short time in prison, the policeman was released and repatriated back into his own community. Normally, that would not have been possible but people understood."

But the campaign to keep Mpengezi out of jail had fired a general awareness of the problems in the township. A Scottish woman, Hazel Black, whose background was in teaching and child psychology, became aware of the child abuse problem in Khayelitsha through the Mpengezi case and others.

A series of meetings was held and it was decided to set up a community project to stop child rape. Nocawe was elected as community representative and Black was asked if her community would help them do it. They have worked together since 1997, Nocawe working with the community and the children and Black acting as project director and providing the back up services and skills that weren't available in Khayelitsaha.

In all, there were seven women who became the driving force of the Nonceba Family Counselling Centre. Like the others, Nocawe went for training but the problems seemed insurmountable. They were allocated just a single room by SHAWCO (a students group from the University of Cape Town) but there was no money and little idea how to structure an organisation and take it forward.

"It felt like I was in a tunnel. But I had faith there would be light one day because the thing was by now in my genes, I just wanted to do something. I am illiterate, with no money; I am just an ordinary woman from the community. But I wanted to do something to help."

In truth, it has changed her life, fuelled by a simple mantra. 'If you are not well educated, don't kill yourself but skill yourself'. She followed that to its ultimate destiny, attending various trainings to learn the rudiments of such a job and the nature of the care required.

Changing mindsets was key, especially concerning the bogus belief that those with HIV/Aids would be cured if they had sex with a virgin. "We had to teach people that if they slept with a child it was a crime, not a cure. But we are winning that battle because we have told so many people the truth. We say, 'Guys, it is in your blood; how could it just vanish if you sleep with a child' ?

Learning how best to care for abused children was the saddest, the most mentally disturbing part of her work. At times, this mother of four wept inner tears herself whilst attempting to comfort sobbing children, brutalised in a brutal world. "Sometimes, when I talk about these things, tears will just come.

"I remember one child was just 5 years old. She was raped and abused so badly, she couldn't use her back side anymore. She had to have a bag for use for the rest of her life."

Initially, the facilities the organisation could offer were pitiful. "We were given one room, there was just one chair for the visitor. So our clients used to wait outside, even if it was raining."

But they cajoled, urged, pleaded with and persuaded others to help, to become involved. Once, in Khayelitsha, a 6-month old baby was raped. She was called, asked to help, and with the approval of the baby's parents, took the crying infant to her own home for care. It was why she always pursued the dream of a proper centre where she and others could care professionally and properly for abused youngsters, perhaps for up to three or four months.

Her involvement, even with four young children of her own, became absolute. She was on call 24/7 and her duties not only consisted sometimes of her offering simply a warm, loving bosom to hug, a shoulder to cry on, but accompanying child abuse victims to the local court, to provide courage and strength to those facing their attackers.

They would knock on her door, at all hours of the day and night. Or there would be a whispered telephone call….'Come quickly, a child is crying next door. There has been trouble'. In all weathers, at all times of the day and night, she turned out, on foot, because the organisation still has no vehicle to help make her life easier and spread the blanket of hope that so many people clearly still need.

One day, alerted by calls, she went to a home, a simple shack in the township. There, amid the mud, the dirt and degradation, a grandmother was washing her granddaughter with a hosepipe; she was six years old, naked and had been raped. Most recently, she was called to help an 11 year-old girl, raped by an old man with HIV as her own mother, who was staying with him, lay terminally ill.

She has seen greater horrors than we can imagine, confronted the grossly warped moralities of human beings and their base motives in such a way as to invoke despair in the more faint hearted. But this is no lightweight lady, no fair weather friend.

"This all happens because of poverty. These guys are roaming around, doing nothing. And because of poverty, children are hungry. These men offer them money for sweets and then they sleep with the child."

What drives her on, why does she do this ?

Her own mother was unmarried and one day, her grandmother from her father's side told her what had happened to her. She was six years old when her grandmother took her from her mother. She had many children to look after and Nocawe was neglected. There was a problem on her neck but her mother did not take her to the doctor. Instead, she put a white bandage around her neck, for four days. When it was removed, she was told she would bear the scars for the rest of her life.

So she grew up with her grandmother, determined that others would not share similar miseries like her own. "My mother might not have known that this was an abuse but I knew that it was. Not sexual abuse, but negligence. Yet still abuse. I believe it has driven me to do this thing."

And this seed of an idea, this humblest of notions, has achieved the most inspiring of denouements. Now in their 10th year as an organisation, they will open a new, multi purpose centre next month, a building that cost Rand 5.8 million and has risen, almost phoenix-like, from the ashes of despair. There will be accommodation for distressed children, an indoor play area, an outdoor centre, rooms for officials and 24 hour staff. In this bleak, dusty landscape on the edge of the Khayelitsha township, this building is like a beacon of hope, a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. "This building grew up just from a bad thing that happened in my community" she says. For that, she acknowledges the immense contribution of organisations like The Samaritans, the Jewish Women's Organisation and The Rotary Club as well as commercial sponsors such as Vodacom and Old Mutual.

When they began building, thieves stole the window frames, the doors and anything transportable. Undaunted, Nocawe tracked them down through her contacts and retrieved most of the items. Her will is unbending, her determination endless, both of which should be attributed to her own religious beliefs. "God chooses certain people to do special things" she says, without a hint of self promotion.

"You can't do something if you don't have a passion inside you. But you also need a sense of humour, a love and a respect for parenting. I never lose faith. Small children are taken, drugged and everything; people are spiteful and sometimes they kill each other. All these things are happening but they are all in the Bible."

The Good Samaritan ? Nocawe smiles. "I am very proud of my community to do this thing because even if I died tomorrow, I will sleep peacefully in my grave knowing that in Khayelitsha we have got a place for abused children. But every township in South Africa needs this sort of thing."

Have there not been times in these ten years when Nocawe felt she couldn't go on ? Were there not moments when she felt compelled to walk away, her heart breaking at the cruelties and injustices of it all ?

"Yes" she says quietly, "there were times like that. Two years ago, I was called at 4.30am and a person said, 'There is a problem at this particular house'. So I woke up, called the police and we arrived at a scene where we saw a naked 16 year-old girl who had been gang raped.

"I am sure the perpetrators left her because they thought she was dead. Blood was all over the place. We phoned for an ambulance but were told there was none available. The police were there, but they said they could not take this child. So I said to the police leader, 'I will be responsible. Let's take this child in the back of the van'. We went to the hospital.

"She was four months pregnant but she was destroyed inside because they had tried to kill her. The child inside her died but the girl survived and she is a beautiful girl today. She recovered mentally and she is a very nice young girl. She couldn't go to school again because other children laughed at her after what had happened. But what is good is, she didn't die because when I stood in that room that night, I was sure she was going to die."

Suffer the little children to come unto me?

* If you wish to help, the Nonceba Centre can be contacted at or phone the centre on 021 364 0135.

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