The unbreakable bond between a determined domestic worker and her employer fuelled her New York Marathon dream. – By Lisa Abdellah
It was New Year’s Eve when ultra-marathon runner Veronica Mtetwa received a phone call relaying the devastating news that her mother, Smomo Nxumalo, had been hit by a stray bullet in her hometown of Pongola.
While it’s a miracle she survived the incident at all, she is now completely blind.
Mtetwa, a 34-year-old domestic worker, had been saving a portion of her wages to pay for a trip to America to run the New York Marathon. But there’s an unbreakable bond between mother and daughter; there was never any doubt in Mtetwa’s mind that she would use the money to help her mother instead.
Their relationship is one of unconditional love and support – which we should expect, but don’t always see. Before Nxumalo’s accident, she even took care of Mtetwa’s three children – sons Nhlakanipho (16) and Bandile (14), and daughter Londeka (8).
“My mom is everything to me. She’s the only one I have left. I felt sad when she had to go to hospital so that doctors could clean the wound,” Mtetwa says. “I hired a carer for her while she was recovering.”
Mtetwa’s employer of 11 years, Jody Cameron, understood she needed to go home for a while to help her mother adjust to her new life without sight.
Though Cameron and her sister hadn’t exactly had it easy being raised by a single parent, she’s the first to admit their life in Ballito was never as challenging as Mtetwa’s in a rural township. Even so, an unlikely friendship has formed between these two women that has nothing to do with where they came from, and everything to do with family.
Both of them have motherhood and a close relationship with their parents in common. And during the time Mtetwa has worked for Cameron, she’s become an integral part of the family. She has become like a sister to Cameron, and looks after her daughters as though they are her own.
So Cameron launched a crowd-funding campaign on Facebook called ‘Dreaming of New York’ – on 14 February, Mtetwa’s birthday – and within two months, managed to raise the funds Mtetwa needed to travel to the US and participate in the iconic marathon.
“It was simple: Veronica has looked after our family for many years, and we wanted to return the favour,” says Cameron.
THE RUNNING BUG
Mtetwa’d had limited access to sports at school; she’d never run a day in her life when she watched Bongmusa Mthembu win the Comrades in 2014, followed by thousands of other participants, pouring into the stadium.
“I saw myself crossing that finish line,” she says. “I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
Mtetwa began by running two kilometres, and increased her distance gradually. She joined Dolphin Coast Striders, and soon she was running 10km to get to the start of the club’s 4km time trial, then running 10km to get back home afterwards.
Mtetwa arrived late at her qualifying race, the 2015 Maritzburg Marathon, due to an unreliable taxi service. Because the race had already started, her time wouldn’t count. She ran it anyway, purely to prove to herself that she could do it.
But it meant that in order to qualify for Comrades, she would have to run another marathon the following weekend: the Durban City Marathon. The Camerons, who had every faith in her, bought her some running shoes.
She finished that 2015 Comrades in 11:30, and then the 2016 Comrades in 10:15. But finishing the 2017 Comrades was not to be: Mtetwa’s legs gave in with 17km to go, and she collapsed.
“It was the worst cramp I’ve ever experienced,” recalls Mtetwa. “Tablets didn’t work. I had a back massage, the medics tried ice, and I had all the help necessary on the side of the road; but the cramps persisted.”
More bad news came on the Monday: Mtetwa’s father, Gulushe, had passed away the day before. She regretted that she hadn’t spent as much time with him as she’d have liked during his final years.
Mtetwa had heard of celebrity running couple Phindi Gule and Kevin Burley, who were running 30km every day for 30 days, totalling 900km along a stretch of the KwaZulu-Natal coastline. She joined them for one leg of their challenge, helping to raise money for Liv Village, an organisation that helps orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa.
Mtetwa’s dream of participating in the New York Marathon came from a desire to continue her charitable efforts. This time, she wanted to raise money for the children at Summerhill House, an organisation that also helps orphaned and abandoned children.
“Over many chats and plenty of coffee, ‘Dreaming of New York’ was born,” says Cameron. “In December 2016, Veronica gave me a portion of her bonus, and asked me to keep it aside so that she could start saving. It was probably going to take her forever; but that didn’t scare her one bit.”
Determined, Mtetwa ensured she prepared well. She ate oats or eggs on toast for breakfast, and a bowl of pasta for supper. Prodigal Khumalo, who came eighth at Comrades in 2017, was enlisted as her running coach.
And then Mtetwa’s mother was hit by that bullet.
It broke Cameron’s heart to see Mtetwa in so much pain when she heard the news; and the medical costs meant the end of Mtetwa’s New York dream. This prompted Cameron to start her crowd-funding campaign, to enable Mtetwa to run the New York Marathon after all.
Neither of the women believed it would happen so quickly. Almost 100 people donated money – many, complete strangers. A South African woman living in New York even donated her entry to Mtetwa.
Accommodation was booked, Mtetwa received a fully-sponsored running kit, and Cameron planned to fly to America with her on 5 November.
Six weeks before her race, Mtetwa suffered a stress fracture. She wasn’t even sure how it had happened.
“It was scary to think I’d done all of that hard work, and there were all those people who had supported me, and there was a real possibility I wouldn’t finish,” says Mtetwa.
Her injury changed everything. It meant she couldn’t go for a specific time, but that didn’t stop her from finishing the race.
“I wanted the medal so much. So I kept moving, even though I was in pain,” she recalls. “I thought about all the people who had helped me, and I thought, ‘I need to finish this!’”
Mtetwa didn’t give up, and she’s proud of that; and so is Cameron. Mtetwa is humble, grounded and has good values. It’s sad, says Cameron, that nowadays you seldom meet people who possess those qualities – the world has become such a fickle place.
So when you see someone who is in need of opportunity, help them. You don’t know what it might mean for them – and for you. In Cameron’s case, it meant an unbreakable bond she’s formed with an