A poor African woman’s journey to home and security

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.


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.


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.”

In 2003, another employer fired her for being pregnant, but then she managed to get a job one day a week as a domestic worker. Then she found another day’s work, then another, until she was working six days a week cleaning houses for different families, earning more than $410 a month. She set herself up as a street trader, selling secondhand clothing that she bought in bales at a warehouse outside Johannesburg, a business she ran after work until late at night and on Sundays. She even employed jobless people to sell for her, and made as much as $200 extra a month.

By African Development Bank standards, she’d made that great leap to the middle class. But her childhood wounds, still raw and angry, left her hungry for more security. After the birth of her son, Ayanda, and then twins, Thendo and Mthendo, she grew afraid that they would be doomed to deprivations like those she had suffered.

So she made a sacrifice that she still questions.

Just over two years ago, she sent her children to live with a nanny in Bulawayo, with its cheaper rents and childcare, to cut her costs in half and get further ahead. But doubt consumed her. Would her children think it meant she didn’t love them?

As a child she had nursed anger toward her mother, who was ill and couldn’t give her food and schooling and who sent her to live with the relative who used her as a servant. She understands now that her mother couldn’t help their poverty, but the anger remains, driving her to better herself so that her children won’t suffer too.

“I don’t want my kids to be hurt, like I was hurt.”

She budgeted $180 a month for her expenses, including just 80 cents a day for food. The rest, she saved, initially keeping it hidden in a box and then, warily, opening a bank account.

At the beginning of 2010, she had less than $200. A year later she’d saved more than $3,600, and by April this year she had $6,700.

She had a plan. She would buy a house.


On the long bus trip home, Moyo restlessly churned over the many catastrophes that could derail the dreams of a black single mother.

She could be attacked and robbed. She could be hurt in an accident, knocked unconscious and hospitalized. She could fall ill or faint.

“And they’ll open your clothes and of course they’ll take it,” she worried.

Just one careless word to a relative, or even her children, could send tsotsis, township gangsters, to kill her for the money. Or she could fall for a scam, be cheated into buying a house that belonged to someone else or paying someone for a fake title deed.

The more she thought about it, the more her dream seemed to recede.

“Sometimes you can work hard for all those years and you can lose the money. I was scared, because I’d heard of people being robbed and killed. The journey was, like, my heart was pumping. I couldn’t even sleep on the bus. I didn’t have any appetite.”

When she finally reached her children in their small rented house, she briefly hugged them, then crept into the bedroom, put the money into a cash box, locked it and hid it under the bed.

In the days that followed, she identified a parcel of land in a good location and went to the government land office to pay. But even as her name was typed into the computer, she couldn’t bring herself to hand over the $1,800 for the 2,150-square-foot patch, parcel No. 18335.

She was still worried that somehow she could be scammed. Perhaps they would let her pay for the land after visiting the municipal council to pay for her sewer connection. There, she could double-check whether the land really had been transferred to her name.

The woman in the land office agreed, so Moyo went to the municipal council.

“I said, ‘I am coming to pay for No. 18335.’ The lady put the number into the computer. She said, ‘For Samkeliso Moyo?’

“I said, ‘That’s my name.’ I had tears of happiness. That thing touched me. Like, I did it. I did it. It was in my name. I was like, my kids can tell themselves, ‘This is my mother’s land.’ ”

She spent the rest of the money on a builder and materials. A few years from now, she hopes to be able to move back home and live in her house, but in the meantime she has headed back to South Africa to earn more money for her children’s education. In the middle of May, she got a call telling her that workers were putting on the roof. Her little four-room house was nearly done.

Somehow, it makes up for the hardships that a barefoot girl with one cotton dress endured.

“I didn’t know that one day, the little kid that suffered was going to find a house.”

As she told her story, Moyo had wept recalling her harsh childhood and the rape.

But now her eyes shone. And she smiled.