TEN-year-old Damaries Gumede looked up to Cristina Michel as an older sister and fondly called her "Sis Lele".
Despite their age difference the two would spend hours together, with 25-year-old Michel treating the little girl to outings and beauty treats.
"Lele doted on Damaries. She would braid her hair and buy her gifts," said Damaries's older sister Julia.
The family's relationship with Michel however took a frightening turn when she vanished with the little girl nearly a month ago. She failed to return her to her home in Rondebult, Ekurhuleni, last month.
Damaries's father Patrick Gumede said yesterday his family saw his youngest daughter for the last time on January 22. He said he feared Michel had smuggled his child into Mozambique.
Julia told Sowetan: "Lele had arranged with my mother to pick up Damaries from her workplace in Primrose, Germiston, that Friday afternoon so she could plait her hair."
She said Michel had promised to take her home later that evening.
"My mother and grandmother started panicking when they had not heard from Lele by 8pm. They called her cellphone a number of times but it would go to voice mail," Julia said.
Damaries was reported missing at the Rondebult police station the next day.
The case was transferred to the Primrose police station.
Gumede said Michel's family in Mozambique confirmed she had arrived there with a girl fitting Damaries's description - but later denied it.
He said his wife Johanna had travelled to Maputo in search of their daughter.
"Her disappearance has been hard on our family, but we are hopeful that we will find her alive."
Local and Mozambican police are now investigating the little girl's disappearance.
Captain Themba Vezi of the Primrose police station said Michel would be charged with kidnapping.
The family met Mozambican consulate officials in Rosebank yesterday - who were supplied with photographs of the missing child and her alleged abductor.