MAVELA, South Africa — Her grandmother was an alcoholic and her mother was a prostitute, strangled by a client. The child of another of her mother's customers, Nicolene Marx grew up in a poor Durban neighborhood with scant hope of escaping.
Then two years ago, the letter came. She had been granted a scholarship to study law at a university in Durban. She had the chance few poor South Africans get — to flip her destiny.
But her education ended after "one stupid night" that left her pregnant at 18. She gave birth the week of her exams last year, failed, dropped out and her scholarship was taken away.
Now, at 20, instead of studying in the university library and writing law assignments, this bright and perceptive woman spends her time dashing around a clothing factory floor as an errand girl in a blur of exhaustion, earning less than $10 a day to take home to her 14-month-old daughter.
"I look back and say, 'You gave up your life. You had it on a silver platter. You really put yourself in a situation where you have no future.'
"That night, I never gave myself the opportunity to think about the consequences. It really breaks me sometimes, that I am responsible, I did it on my own. I was really, really irresponsible to such a point that I look at my daughter and I see my degree."
But she hasn't lost hope for a better future. She called her child Thembeka, or Faith.
Tens of thousands of South African girls drop out of the education system annually because of pregnancy and most never return. In 2009, more than 45,000 schoolgirls became pregnant, including 109 third-graders, according to a report released two months ago by the Department of Basic Education.
The rate of pregnancies for teens 15 to 19 in South Africa in 2009 was 73 per 1,000, according to the report, one of the highest rates among developing countries (as South Africa, increasingly, is seen by humanitarian agencies). The rate compares with 26 per 1,000 in Britain and 41.5 in the U.S. The problem is even more acute here in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, which has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in South Africa, leading to high dropout rates among girls.
That has serious implications for a country with high poverty and unemployment, a failing education system that has betrayed the aspirations of the post-apartheid generation, and a disastrous shortage of skilled people that threatens economic progress.
For each year a pregnant teen remains out of school, her chances of returning diminish sharply, experts say.
"Practically, they don't go back to school," said Farshid Meidany of the South African arm of Maryland-based aid organization Medical Care Development International. The organization runs projects in South Africa on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, child survival and maternal health, including one here in Mavela, outside Durban, for AIDS orphans, teen mothers and others.
"How can you go back? First of all, there's discrimination by teachers and colleagues," Meidany said. "And there's the work. They become premature adults."
Marx, as petite and poised as a ballerina, with huge, almond-shaped eyes, nurses her baby on her lap as she tells the story of her life with disarming self-perception.
She seems wise beyond her years, yet looks small and frail when she walks into the factory to a job she hates. When young men in the street call flirtatiously, she half-turns, half-smiles, then turns away from them, steels her expression and walks up to the factory gate.
Marx's childhood was so harsh, her chances of a better life were perhaps never very great. When her mother, a fair-skinned woman of mixed race, saw the baby for the first time, she was horrified that the darker-skinned child was obviously the progeny of an Indian client, not her boyfriend. She nearly left her at the hospital.
"She said I was such an ugly baby."
Marx rarely saw her mother, but when she did, her mother often was with a new "dad": her latest boyfriend.
"She did what she had to do," Marx said. "She saw no other way out. She was happy to be able to provide. She'd say, 'I'm selling myself for you.'
"At school, you'd hear people say, 'My mom is a teacher,' 'My mom is a nurse,' 'My mom is a social worker.' I'd say, 'My mom is a prostitute.'"
When Marx stumbled in the playground and her skinned knee bled, children fled, screaming, "Don't go near her, she has AIDS!" (She didn't.)
She was an outsider, not just because she was a prostitute's child, but also because she never quite belonged racially.
"I didn't look like them. So you don't fit in. Trying to fit in to the society is very difficult," she said. "People say, 'You're not African, you're Indian.' … I just write it off. I don't consider myself Indian or colored or anything. At heart I'm pure African."
Marx was 10 when her mother was killed. Her grandmother, who died two years later of AIDS complications, offered little supervision.
"They were never there, or if they were there, I was neglected. It was a dysfunctional family at the time, because everybody wanted to live their life without having any responsibility."
After her grandmother's death, a great-aunt, whom she calls Mom, raised her more strictly. But she still skipped school, stole cigarettes and beer, and gained acceptance by hanging around with the tough, popular crowd at school, bullying other students and harassing teachers.
"When you had a boyfriend, you were cool. People would get a boyfriend, lose their virginity and come to us, 'Look, I'm cool now.' And I'd say, 'Yes you are, you're one of us now.'
"It really boils down to how a person grows up and where a person grows up. If you look around this community, there are many children who have children. There are many teenage moms. We all go around the same circles. Just a few get the opportunity to go to university and say, 'Let me go get a career and that job I have dreamed of.'"
When Marx arrives home after a deadening day at the factory, she tries to be cheerful, for her daughter's sake.
"It's very belittling," she said, comparing her job with the university life. "I do feel that I don't belong there, but maybe I am there for a reason, because I am learning to be disciplined."
The child's father, a fellow student who dropped out to join his father's commuter transport business, advised her to have an abortion. He provides little support.
"I go to work and I have my frustrations. When I come home, I have to put on a smile. You can't go to a baby with a sore heart. I love her to bits. I cherish her. She's the only close relative I have."
The day she gave birth, Marx was supposed to be taking an exam.
"It was like balancing it up: What's worth more? Your exam? Or your daughter's life?"
Marx would have to repay about $1,500 in fees for the year she failed in order to gain readmission to university. She is determined to save up and return to get her law degree, once Thembeka is old enough.
"It's like she's doing me a favor.... It's like she's saying, 'Don't worry, Mommy, I'm growing fast. Soon you can leave me in a creche. By the time she's 5 or 6, maybe I'll have a degree."
She thinks of her daughter's name.
"With her came hope, and with her came faith, even though there was disappointment. But I accepted her.
"I was like, 'Have faith, Nicolene. Have faith, for your little girl.'"