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HARARE – While they are young, confident, smart and full of life their situation today remotely reflects the challenges they had to endure growing up.

Talking to Samantha Mandiriri, 24, from Seke, in Chitungwiza, and June Munyongani, 22, from Mucheke in Masvingo, you would never imagine the two are both graduates of child-headed families who never had the chance to enjoy parental love and support.

“We never had it easy growing up but we believe one’s past must never determine their future. While other kids had the luxury of taking their daily requirements and challenges to their parents, we had to quickly adjust into child-parents with the demanding responsibilities of taking care of our younger siblings. Truth be told, being head of the family at such an age is the worst nightmare one can ever endure. Life is still a challenge but we have faith now.”

The two recently returned from a 10-month Youth Exchange Programme in Norway and they speak of an experience that has helped shape their future in spite of the many challenges they faced growing up.

Their difficult past has somehow influenced their intrinsic desire to change their fortunes and that of their siblings. “We are inspired and we now have hope for the future. What we have experienced has taught us that one must never sit and wait for life to happen but rather make life happen, defining one’s future.”

June lost his father at  three and his mother at 13 while Samantha lost her father at 10 and mother at 11. With the passing on of their parents, life changed.

“I lost my father when I was 3 and unfortunately my mother also passed on when I was 13. While my father’s death was a big blow, it was my mother’s demise that really changed life for me. I was very young and already suffering from social exclusion having grown up with no father to talk of. All of a sudden, I was alone with my young sister who is now 19 and doing her Advanced level in Masvingo,” said June.

With no one to look up to, June had to deal with a lot of responsibilities. At that tender age, his peers were more worried about their studies and how to look trendy and have fun while he had to worry about the meal for day and where to get money for school fees and other necessities. “Growing up in a child headed family alone is not an easy thing but it’s even worse when you are the head of that set up. The future suddenly looked bleak. I sat down to reflect on what was to become of us. It was at that moment that we were then admitted into the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society’s Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) Programme support. We would get monthly food rations, educational as well as psychosocial support.”

June reckons the greater part of his educational needs and related costs were taken care of by the Red Cross.

“The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society became my father and mother and the help we received would help carry us through each passing day.

Their support was complete in that we would also get counselling and go on Psychosocial Support gatherings in Chimanimani with fellows OVCs from around Zimbabwe. That alone helped me realise that I was not alone in that situation and the experience sharing would lessen the burden and help provide solutions to every situation.”

For Samantha, it was even worse since she is a girl child. “Our father left us when we were 10, and a year later, mum also passed on. Being the eldest in the family with a young sister and brother, I automatically became the head of the family. A lot was going on at that stage, I was growing and a lot of changes were taking place but I had no one to talk to. That, coupled with the burden of looking after my siblings, made life a real mess. I would actually dread the dawn of another day,” She said.

“Everything at home became my responsibility from the bills, food, medication for a sick sibling or whatever needed attention. Being a girl, I was also suffering from social pressures. When I was 15, some even suggested that I get married so that I could take care of my siblings. I became very popular in the neighbourhood because I would go to every household looking for menial jobs like housecleaning, washing, ironing or even working in the urban fields.”

Samantha shares experiences when she would be asked for sexual favours in exchange for power and water supply in the house.

“We would fail to pay for power and water and oftentimes when people came to cut supplies into our house they would always try to talk me into sex in exchange for uninterrupted power or water supplies but I am glad I had the fighting spirit and never allowed myself to be abused. It was not easy being young but I am glad God saw me through it.

“Like June, I also became a beneficiary of the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society’s Orphans and Vulnerable Children Programme support in Chitungwiza and we would get the monthly food rations as well educational support. However, the rations would not come at times and it was during such periods that life really became tough. We just had to make do with what was available and of course the piece jobs. This difficult past made me realise that one has to soldier on regardless of challenges.

“Under the Red Cross structures, we had Support Groups for Orphans and I was the OVC Chairperson for Chitungwiza and I would mobilise my peers to meet every Saturday under a tree and share our experiences and motivate each other to fight through our challenges and experiences. The sharing of experiences helped in that we would realise that the problems were not peculiar to us but there were some who were actually worse off.”

Because of their involvement in Red Cross Youth work and volunteering for humanity, Samantha and June were chosen to be part of the volunteer Youth Exchange programme between Zimbabwe Red Cross Society and Norwegian Red Cross.

From August in 2013 to June 2014, the two were in Arkeshus in Norway where their work involved strengthening the capacity of local youth groups, increasing the visibility of Red Cross Youth work, Recruitment and retention of youth volunteers as well as humanitarian advocacy. The Norwegian Red Cross also seconded two youths to Zimbabwe who were also carrying out the same activities.

“Norway was an enriching experience and for people who endured a lot of challenges growing up, we had an opportunity to appreciate that challenges are not a reserve for this part of the world. Humanitarian challenges are a global phenomenon but it calls for committed people who can sacrifice their time and resources to empower the less privileged. We also had an opportunity to make contacts and important networks which we believe will help shape our future.

Samantha is her final year studying for an Accounting degree at Chinhoyi University while June is studying for a Human Resources Degree at Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo. Samantha’s young sister is also studying at Monash University in South Africa under the Presidential Scholarship while the young brother is still pursuing basic education. June’s young sister is also studying for her Advanced levels in Masvingo.

The two encouraged youths in similar circumstances to remain focused and shape their future through hard work and sheer determination.

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