Paralysed teenager bitten by rats while sleeping

14-year-old Palesa Kwayiba, who uses a wheelchair, puts a brave face on the daily struggle of living in an informal settlement

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Photo of a girl in a wheelchair
Palesa Kwayiba says she would loveto get a working wheelchair and live in a house with her mother. Photo: Mary-Anne Gontsana

Palesa has no feeling in her lower body and has lost the use of her legs. She was born healthy and able-bodied, but at three weeks she fell ill and was placed in Red Cross Children’s Hospital. She was then diagnosed with a spinal defect.

Her mother, Zandile Kwayiba, says she has been doing everything in her power to provide for her daughter and her two younger children, but she struggles to work as she needs to nurse Palesa. She depends on social grants.

“There were days when I had to go from house to house around here asking for food because I did not have money to feed my children. Palesa’s father left when he found about Palesa’s condition and I have not heard or seen him since,” says Kwayiba.
“My biggest challenge at the moment is her school transport and wheelchair. She goes to school full time, but lately she has been missing classes because of unreliable transport.” 

Palesa’s wheelchair, borrowed from the Tembalethu Special School in Gugulethu which she attends, has seen better days. The rubber on the wheels is perished, the foam stuffing emerges from bust seams, and the backrest is broken.

Tembalethu provides a taxi for children with special needs. Kwayiba pays R250 a month for the transport service, but the taxi does not go into Barcelona informal settlement where the family has been living for 13 years.

“When it rains we cannot go all the way to the road to wait for it,” says Kwayiba.
The Kwayiba shack is a few minutes walk up a hill between other shacks, easily accessible by car. But the wheelchair struggles on the sandy road as it is uneven and wet from leaking taps nearby and worse when it rains. Kwayiba struggles to push Palesa to the pick up point in NY108, about 500 metres away, because of the condition of the ground and the wheelchair itself.
Palesa had a better wheelchair, supplied by Red Cross Children’s Hospital, but it was stolen while her mother was lifting her into a taxi to go to school.

Another wheelchair was donated to the family during the election campaign earlier this year, but Palesa could not use it because it was far too big for her. Her arms couldn’t even reach the wheels and it had no proper back support for her spine.

There are no toilets near the family’s shack and they have to use their neighbour’s toilet.

Rodents are also a problem in the shacks. “I have to make sure that I sleep with the light on and constantly check on Palesa,” says Kwayiba, “because she can’t feel when she is being bitten by rats or mice.”
Despite all these hardships, Palesa is a vibrant and bubbly 14-year-old, who appreciates everything her mother has done and is doing for her.
“My wish is for us to get a proper house and for me to get a wheelchair,” says Palesa. She says she is distressed at being late for school. “Sometimes I don’t even go to school because the transport does not fetch me.”
We have received many queries from readers asking how they can help. If you wish you can make a donation to Zandile Kwayiba: Capitec Bank, account number 1477918742.

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TOPICS:  Disability Rights

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

Compliments to the GroundUp team for much of your work, however, this is now the second article in recent weeks where you've used disablist/ableist language (seemingly unwittingly) in a headline or standfirst. Is this the "high-quality, ethical journalism" you value?

Can you explain why you use the phrase "wheelchair-bound" to describe a person who uses a wheelchair. Is Palesa bound to her wheelchair?

Additionally, in Thembela Ntongana's article from 14 October 2016, who do you mean by"the disabled"? Would you say "the blacks" to describe black people?

For all your good intentions in publishing such pieces, what are the knock-on effects of continuing to use misleading (and offensive to many people) language?

Should you be interested, one of many overviews on such language choices can be read here:

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