The challenge of raising teens in AIDS-ravaged South Africa
Thabang Thimbela's foster parents struggle to guide him and his foster sister Bulelwa through the temptations of adolescence.
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Their biggest concern now is wisely guiding their oldest foster children. They know Thabang has a girlfriend. They worry that Bulelwa may get sidetracked by the same temptations that have brought down many.Skip to next paragraph
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Pontsho hopes he's a better parent than his parents were. "Our parents weren't good enough to tell us everything. So some of the things we've had to find ourselves," he says.
"The only thing that worries us is AIDS, because at least at this stage, we can't cure it. That's the problem. Even if we don't tell our kids about this thing, it's there, and it's destroying us."
Olga says she talks to both of her older children about sex, and encourages Bulelwa, especially, to continue with her education, because "if she is going to get pregnant at 14, it's not going to be good, because to be a mother, you're supposed to look after your kids."
Bulelwa is easy to talk with, Olga adds, because she's honest. But Thabang is harder, because he's a boy and he usually just answers "yes" and "no," she says. How can she get him to think more clearly about his future, if he simply won't talk, she wonders. Recently, Olga lost her temper with Thabang, when he denied persistent rumors that he has a girlfriend.
"Thabang, he is a difficult guy," says Pontsho. "Even if I'm trying, to [be friends with him], he always avoiding me."
Olga knows the cost of an early pregnancy. Even though she dropped out of school early, and never learned to read, she knows the opportunities that can come from an education.
"I want those children to be a success," says Olga. "I know Bulelwa, maybe soon she going to have a boyfriend.
"I said to Bulelwa, [When] you open your heart to someone else, you must talk to me, because you are going to get disappointed sometimes," Olga says. "You [are] going to be happy sometimes. You find the right one sometimes, and sometimes you find the wrong one.... [When] you get someone, you tell me, and I'll show you this is wrong, this is right. I've been there before ."
At his girlfriend's house, Thabang hangs out and giggles and holds the baby girl of his girlfriend, Lebo.
The baby's name is "Happy," and while the young mother, Lebo, is clearly smitten with her baby, she's not so taken with the baby's father, or with the majority of the men she meets.
Of Thabang, she says, "he is not a criminal, he don't like beating girls. He's a cool guy." Of the baby's father, she says, "Eish, he's not here. I don't like him. It was a mistake." And of her own father, she says, "my father is um, eish, [he's] a difficult person, but my mother likes him."
Lebo says she won't get married to Thabang, and won't have sex with him either, until he finishes school. She herself would like to finish school and go into engineering. But at 17 years old, in seventh grade, with a 2-month-old baby, the odds are stacked against her.
Thabang has less ambition for school. He'd like to set up a stall in the township and sell vegetables and apples.
It's clear why Thabang keeps coming back here. He unwinds around Lebo, becomes more confident, more responsible and caring. Lebo gives him a chance to be a man, and perhaps a good husband and father.
"The way she is, is beauty," he says. Thabang's English is broken. It's the product of a township education, and like many South Africans, Thabang mixes up the pronouns "he" and "she," because his own native Tswana language doesn't make such distinctions. "When I talk with [her], [she] understand, [she] don't treat me [bad]. [She] understand and listen."
Thabang knows he has to tell his foster parents about Lebo, and he hopes that they will not shout at him, because they will see his love for her.
"I want to tell them," he says. When the time comes, "they don't shout [at] me because they will love me, and so I will love the girl and take care of us."