Thu, 21 Nov 2019

Cape Town - She's fought and conquered her fair share of life's battles. But judging by the big smile and positive attitude that greets us, it's hard to tell Nokuthula Yonke comes from such a tough upbringing.

The 18-year-old is as upbeat as a chart-topping pop song - full of life and bursting with energy.

"I've used where I come from and what I had to deal with as a reason to move forward in life and get where I want to be," she tells us when we meet with her at Eros School in Athlone, Cape Town.

"The situation you find yourself in is no excuse for not wanting to build a better life."

It's the last day of the second school term and while most kids are excited about the upcoming holidays, there's no rest for Nokuthula, or Nonny as she's affectionately called. The teen will spend the next few weeks hard at work, training for the 2019 World Para Athletics Junior Championships in Nottwil, Switzerland.

Nonny has been selected to represent South Africa in javelin and discus.

"It can get tough because I have to juggle my schoolwork and training, but I've got so used to it I manage quite easily," she says.

Nonny started attending Eros, a special education school, last year.

When she was just a year-and-a-half old, Nonny was badly burnt when a kettle of boiling water fell on her right leg.

"I was living with my father's sister in Nyanga in a shack when it happened in 2003," she explains.

"She'd go to work and leave me with her kids. They were around the ages of 11 and 12. I was basically unsupervised."

Nonny says on that day she'd crawled to the kitchen and tugged on the kettle, resulting in its piping hot water cascading down on her leg.

Her aunt didn't immediately take her to the doctor, opting to treat the wound at home. But after a few weeks the wound became infected and she was forced to take Nonny to the clinic.

Nonny was sent to the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital before being transferred to Maitland Cottage Hospital.

There, doctors established her leg had to be amputated but feared it would be too high-risk as she was so young.

"But they couldn't wait any longer because of the infection. My immune system was deteriorating rapidly, and they had no choice but to amputate my leg."

Nonny spent the next four years at Maitland Cottage Hospital. Doctors decided she shouldn't return to her parents because they were too young to care for her. She was then moved to St Joseph's Home for Chronically Ill Children, where she stayed until 2012. Social workers returned her to the care of her parents, who'd then been living in Delft, a township in Cape Town.

"It was so difficult because my parents were strangers to me. I couldn't even call them Mom or Dad," she says.

"Their lifestyle, the conditions they lived in ... it just wasn't nice. The house had broken windows so rain and wind would come in. It was freezing cold."

Due to the poor living conditions, Nonny suffered two bacterial infections and landed up in hospital.

When she started Grade 8 at Astra School in Montevideo, Nonny says she saw it as an opportunity to start over.

"I tried to close that chapter of my life. For me it was like a new beginning because that year my life in sport started. I never thought I'd see myself play sport!"

Her late friend Anna Nyamaphfeni introduced her to basketball. Anna tried persuading Nonny to take up the sport, but the teen wasn't having any of it.

"I said, 'No, man, this isn't for me. I don't even have a clue of what is happening here'," she remembers, laughing.

Anna invited Nonny to one of her practice sessions, to which she reluctantly agreed to go. Nonny started playing around with the ball and caught the attention of coach Ralph Williams.

"A few of my baskets went in. Coach was shocked. He said he definitely wanted me to play."

Nonny decided to give it a go.

At the same time, one of her teachers introduced her to athletics. And Nonny met her coach, Zain Lamara from Bellville Athletics Club, in 2017.

In her first year of athletics, she broke three South African records in the U-20 division of javelin, discus and shotput.

She continued breaking records each year until she was asked to represent South Africa in javelin and discus in Switzerland this year.

"I was so shocked," the teen, who has a prosthetic right leg, says excitedly. "Especially since the selections came one after the other."

Nonny was also selected as part of South Africa's U-25 basketball team in Fiba's Women's Basketball World Cup this year. She recently returned home after two weeks in Thailand, where the competition took place.

Although the team placed seventh out of the eight teams that participated, Nonny is certain that when they return in four years' time, they'll fare better.

For now her attention is directed at the upcoming athletics championships.

"Coach Lamara and I are training every day of the week," she says. "We were supposed to start sooner but it was raining and the special wheelchair I play in can't be used in the rain."

Nonny needs to raise R45 000 in order to go to Switzerland in July, something she's working hard at doing. But it's tough.

"We don't have any funding yet. The teachers have tried sending around a donation list but we know it won't reach R45 000 in time."

Last year the teen was legally adopted by Leonie Cook, the mother of her best friend, Lee-Chandre.

"She gives me motherly love, something I never experienced before. I feel blessed. It's not every child that gets this opportunity," Nonny says.

While she's still young, she plans on pursuing a career in sport but eventually wants to study law, something that was inspired by Anna.

"She was a foreigner with big dreams. But as we all know, foreigners don't always have the opportunity to move forward in life in South Africa. I want to fight for them for equal opportunities."

Despite the challenges she still faces, one thing Nonny can't afford to do is lose heart.

"I know there's a better future out there for me. I just have to strive towards it."

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