NOBEKEZELO Maseko finds herself in a unique situation that no other parent envies.
The sweet news delivered by the Department of Social Welfare that she would finally reunite with her son Awakhiwe Ncube — who was kidnapped on December 4, 2016 in Majoyi Village, Nkayi, when he was just four years old — has left her feeling ambivalent.
She has not been able to readily process the news, as grief, anxiety, frustration and joy are equally battling for space in her mind.
While she feels her long agonising wait is finally over, a part of her is guarded.
She has waited for what seems to be an eternity to see her son again, either dead or alive.
“Six years is a long time. I do not have the perfect words to describe what I have been going through. I yearn to see my son and find closure,” she said while fighting back tears.
“Government officials came last week saying they are finalising the paperwork for me to reunite with him. To be honest, I have since then, been having sleepless nights. I don’t know how to react.”
Maseko last saw Awakhiwe on December 1, 2016 when she paid the minor and her elder brother a visit where they stayed with their paternal grandparents — the Ncube family — in Majoyi.
On that day, he was wearing a brown pair of shorts and a red T-shirt. She vividly remembers her son waving her goodbye as she returned to Inyathi, Matabeleland North, where she resides.
Little did she know that was going to be their last meeting in a very long time. Three days later, he was abducted.
At that time, the minor’s father was serving time at Khami Prison for stock theft while the mother was working as a storekeeper.
On the fateful day, the Ncube family left the two minors at home in the company of their 76-year-old grandfather while they went to the fields. Upon their return, around mid-morning, the minor was missing. At first, they all assumed he had gone to play with his friends.
But, later on, they realised he was not with his friends. In fact, the friends had not seen him that day. A subsequent spirited search for the minor was fruitless.
“When I got the message that my son had disappeared, I felt a chill down my spine. I panicked and was equally confused, sweating profusely as my heart throbbed. I immediately rushed there,” said Maseko.
When the search was conducted, a fellow villager told them he had spotted him at a nearby stream.
However, they only managed to identify his footprints along the path.
Curiously, the pattern suggested Awakhiwe could have been running.
After the search party failed to locate him, the family made a report at Nkayi Police Station. And as hours turned into days, hope that they could ever find him began to fade.
But, after a fortnight, pictures of the minor began circulating on social media.
Apparently he had been located at Namanga Border Post, which links Kenya and Tanzania, and is more than 3 000 kilometres from Nkayi.
It is believed that a fretful Awakhiwe, who was trafficked alongside three other minors, cried and asked for his mother in Ndebele, which automatically raised the suspicion of border authorities.
During the journey, the three other minors were drugged.
Investigations led to the arrest of Margaret Magero and David Omentho on child trafficking charges. The four minors were taken to an orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya.
Assurances that the minor would be immediately reunited with his family did not materialise.
“I received the social media post from a neighbour who had identified him. The picture broke my heart, although part of me was grateful that he was alive,” recounts Maseko.
“I never thought I would have to wait for this long to reunite with him. Days have turned to weeks, months and years now. I have made several follow-ups with the police, but nothing was materialising.
“We all know the child is in Nairobi, but each time I have been getting all sorts of excuses with regards to efforts to bring him back home. This is frustrating. I just hope that news of my son’s return is a reality this time around.”
In 2017, the investigating officer facilitated a call between Maseko and the minor through the woman who was in charge of the orphanage.
“I felt heartbroken and helpless,” she said.
“I called him Aki, the name he used back at home, and he responded ‘mama’. That is the only other time I have talked to him since he was abducted.”
The bizarre kidnapping case has ripped the woman’s family apart. She was forced to take back her eldest son by her in-laws.
“I remarried in 2018 and now I stay with my eldest son here. I am also expecting another child,” she said.
“My relationship with the Ncube’s is now sour, they kept forcing me to return my eldest son. When the father was released from jail, he also came here demanding to have him back. This prompted me to approach the courts for legal recourse.”
Julius Ncube, the minor’s grandfather, is a troubled man. He is still traumatised by the incident that led to his grandson’s disappearance. He is also looking forward to Awakhiwe’s return, as he feels it will help mend the broken relationship with his former daughter-in-law.
“This has been eating me over the years. I am distressed! At times I spend the whole day staring at the gate, hoping to see him walk in one day,” said the grandfather in a cracked voice.
“I do not want to die without mending relations with my former daughter-in-law; I owe her . . . I also long to see my elder grandson . . .”
Takeson Ncube, Aki’s father, is equally disturbed.
“When I left for prison my son was still very young. Returning home to such news broke my heart, but now that there is hope, I look forward to seeing him again,” he said.
“It is going to be difficult establishing a relationship, but he is my son, I will have to do whatever it takes.”
Maseko’s fear is that her son may not be able to recognise and bond with her due to years spent apart.
Similarly, the mother lost her child’s pictures after she misplaced her cellphone.
“It will be a gradual process to create a bond with him again. As a mother, I will have to be patient and careful of how I handle the situation. But, if there are organisations that can assist me, I will be happy,” she said.
“. . . We are going to slaughter a goat as part of celebrations when he finally arrives back home.”
Her prayer is that her son returns in good physical and mental health.
Psychologists agree that a child who goes through traumatic experiences like child abuse and trafficking, among others, later exhibit high levels of aggressive behaviour.
Dr Nisbert Mangoro, who works with various rehabilitation centres, said the minor will need to undergo evaluation and counselling sessions.
“Obviously, he went through a lot of trauma and that comes with negative effects that need to be dealt with. It can take time, but he will heal,” he said.
“The family also needs therapy because the way they interact with him will also determine his healing too.”
Maseko’s new husband, Sifiso Mlalazi, is willing to assist.
“I know what this means to her. I have seen her down moments and would not want her to go through that again. I will stand by her and the children,” said Mlalazi.
Child trafficking is a problem globally, with statistics revealing that in December 2019, authorities intercepted at least 200 undocumented children who were on their way to South Africa.
Between January and March 2020, 26 cases of kidnapping and unlawful detention were recorded in Zimbabwe.
At least 1,2 million children are trafficked every year across the globe.