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A poor African woman's journey to home and security

COLUMN ONE

After years of working in South Africa, Samkeliso Moyo, once a girl with no shoes, is on her way to Zimbabwe and her children, carrying her savings and a dream.

June 26, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Samkeliso Moyo's hard-earned savings from her work as a domestic worker in South Africa enabled her to fulfill her dream of owning a home in her native Zimbabwe.
Samkeliso Moyo's hard-earned savings from her work as a domestic… (Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles…)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It was more money than she had ever dreamed of, stuffed into stockings and concealed under her clothes like a python around her waist.

On the bus trip back to Zimbabwe, her homeland, Samkeliso Moyo was terrified that her secret money would be discovered or stolen, and she'd lose everything.

Born into the poorest family in her village, she grew up hungry, with no shoes and one thin cotton dress. She never once got a Christmas present. She ran away from exploitation and abuse at 11, and got her first job at 13, earning a few dollars a month. Eight years later, she made the journey to what for her was a land of opportunity: South Africa.

For years, she had worked there as a maid six days a week, built up a small trading business on evenings and weekends, rented out half of her room to a boarder, scrimped on phone calls to her children, whom she had sent to live in Zimbabwe. And somehow, she had squirreled away a miraculous $6,700.

The 32-year-old dreamed of buying something big, something that would make a difference to her children. She would never have to sleep in a park again. Or go to bed hungry. Or beg relatives and strangers for help. Would she?

That money was going to change everything. It would be her ticket to the middle class — if only she could get home with it.

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All over Africa, people like Moyo are making their way out of poverty. A report last year by the African Development Bank said the continent's middle class had tripled in the last 30 years, encompassing one-third of the total population, or 313 million people.

Make no mistake, millions still live in dire poverty, accounting for about a quarter of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, where just 100,000 people hold 80% of the wealth, according to the report. And the bank's definition of "lower middle class" (anyone earning $4 to $10 a day) and "upper middle class" (anyone earning $10 to $20 a day) underscores how different they are from their Western counterparts.

But the growing middle class has a massive transformative effect on Africa and fuels future growth. As people buy things they need beyond sustenance — clothing, phones, motorcycles, improved housing — they create jobs. By paying school fees, they provide their children with the education to find better jobs and consolidate the family gains.

The report found that "growth of the middle class is associated with better governance, economic growth and poverty reduction. It appears that as people gain middle-class status, they are likely to use their greater economic clout to demand more accountable governments."

For most of those 313 million Africans, the grinding haul out of poverty is a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

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Moyo grew up in Tsholotsho, a dry, hungry village in southern Zimbabwe, in a family so poor that her mother and granny sent her at age 9 to stay with a relative who could pay her school fees. Her father was not involved with the family.

There was no breakfast, no lunch and school was a blur of sleepy hunger. Her relatives made her do many hours of chores, fetching water and pounding dried corn with a stick. A predatory neighbor saw her helplessness and raped her.

She yearned for her granny and home. Yes, her family almost always went to bed hungry and had to beg from neighbors, carefully approaching one house one night, another the next and another the night after. But her grandmother always sang and cuddled the children, comforting them with hope that one day they'd have all the food they wanted.

"My granny said, 'One day, it's going to be fine. One day, you are going to be No. 1.' "

So one night, Moyo ran away and back to her granny, her feet bare, wearing a thin cotton dress and carrying a plastic bag with her few belongings.

"It was dark. I was scared. I didn't know what would come and grab me or eat me," she said. "I walked the whole night. When I got home to my place, I screamed, this wailing scream. I don't know where it came from. I just let my bag fall down."

Two years later, she left home to work for a few dollars a month in Bulawayo in southern Zimbabwe. And at 21, she left Zimbabwe to look for work in Johannesburg.

After she arrived, she struggled to get a job and a place to live. Once, she slept in a park all night. Moyo's aunt, a domestic worker, helped her find work as a maid for a well-off white family. She had no idea how to use a vacuum cleaner or fold a shirt.

"Those first few months were hard."

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