It Was an Africa Day

 (From Alanna Schwartz’s blog, Living Spree)

It began with exhaustion. After panic over an English essay that lasted late into the post-it noting, character analysing night last night, I was tired. We started the day early because Dad and us kids were going to go on our first home visit with the health care team.

We drove to the Seed and hung out there until it was time for the home visit. We were going to visit the family who just lost a mother, a member of the HIV support group at the SOH, and I could tell that this was going to be a tough morning. Since the big Buckey [pickup truck] was not available because of a break down earlier this morning, we crammed the four of us plus Buli, Zama, Jabu and Ethel into the tiny Avanza soon to be joined by half a dozen hefty bags of vegetables. It was cramped, but it was fun. Buli entertained us with a round of “We Are Family” soon to be followed by Jabu’s rendition of “Happy Day” which was a million times better than the Whoopie Goldberg version in one of those Sister Act Movies.

We got word that the Buckey was free and we drove back to the Seed to pick it up. I was excited because it meant we would get to ride in the back with no seat belts! Riding in a car with no seat belts gives me a rush ‘cause I rarely do it… I figure it’s better than getting into stealing or hard drugs. Anyways, we’re going to switch cars, and Jabu, a fully grown woman in a skirt, climbs into the back, squats on a tire and says, “I wanna play with the kids! Get in here!” That woman is my hero. We got in and the novelty of riding in the back left us after 10 minutes on a bumpy dirt road. My discomfort is soon forgotten by talking to Jabu. She told us about what the Health Team does on a daily basis, and my hands were itching for my notebook I left in my purse at the Seed, her words were so wise. Basically, the ladies on the Health Team have one of the most amazing jobs in the world. There is so much lack of education in terms of HIV/AIDS information, from the government, from witch doctors and from word of mouth. One of the most heart breaking things I’ve heard is the myth that intercourse with a virgin will cure you of AIDS. So many children are abused that way… Jabu got involved with this kind of education when she was visiting a man from her church who had AIDS and his family was afraid to touch him. She hugged him and 6 months later she had a job at the Centre. Amazing.

She also told us about this particular situation we were walking into. A HIV positive support group member with three children died quickly from a bout with pneumonia, and even though she took her ARVs diligently, she was still too weak to overcome the sickness. She lived with her brother, but their relationship was not strong and he doesn’t want to take the children, and neither does the woman’s aunt. I was interested and nervous for what I would see in the next few minutes. We finally stopped and got out with the vegetables and food hamper, and to my amazement Zama balanced the box of tomatoes on her head as she walked down this rocky dirt path. Like I said, it was an Africa day.

We walked through a ladies yard, where chickens roamed free and the dog house was made out of tarps and plastic bags. Down-hill we saw the house, made out of mud and sheltered with a tin roof, the house number was spray painted on the front of it. The neighbours poked their heads out of their doors, as they watched us enter the house. I passed my bag of potatoes to Zama and stood at the door, not sure whether or not all eight of us plus the family could fit in this two room home. Buli waved me next to her and I entered the hut, taking it all in, but feeling like I was intruding. There was a candle lit on the floor, and a gogo (gramma) sat on the ground with a blanket around her legs, while another walked in and sat on a chair. The roof was made of tin, and I counted the holes in it on my fingers until I ran out of them. The mud walls were covered by sheets as a form of insulation, and the ground was covered by tarp-like plastic and cardboard. Immediately the Health Team began to sing. I hummed along the best I could and watched another family member of unknown relation to the deceased come in to listen. Zama sang through her weeping, and it was beautiful, the love and compassion these ladies have is remarkable. After the singing, the team each took turns in praying in their beautiful Zulu language, I only caught a few words that I recognized, “He will never leave us or forsake us”, “amen”, “faithful”. The gogo on the ground (who turned out to be the woman’s aunt) cried and then Dad closed in prayer. I’m glad I wasn’t called upon to pray, because, quite frankly, what would I say? I have trouble knowing what to say to people in Canada who lose someone they love in a non-tragic way, so how could I ever think up something here?

The ladies talked to the family in Zulu some more and as they did, a handsome young boy, maybe 8 years old came in and hugged his knees against his chest on the ground. He was the oldest of the children left behind. The youngest was 3 months old, and since they all came from different fathers, their care by a daddy isn’t a possibility. The government doesn’t have any plans in place for orphaned children like foster care, so nobody knows what will happen to these children. I can’t even imagine. The visit ended and we walked out of the home and saw another left behind child, this one maybe 2 years at the very most, and we made our way back to the car. I had heavy boots for the family, and the children, but also for my selfishness. Everything that I have ever cried over or worried about seemed not worthy; I have a loving family, good friends, and easy access to health care and education. I’ll go to college, and I’ll live comfortably until I die.

We stopped at a clinic and the high school on our way back to the Seed. The high schoolers are in the middle of their finals, and the grade twelves are doing their Matric Exams which are worth 75% of their final mark for the year. We are so lucky… 50% seems like a joke to them. If you have a bad day on the day of your final, you’re done.

We got back to the center, picked up mum and went to Woolworth’s to buy lunch, 5 ready-made sandwiches, 5 drinks, two bags of chips and two bags of liquorice all-sorts for my father (gross). It rang in at 246 rand and we made our way back to the center to eat our lunch. When we went to the staff room the Health Team was talking to a boy we’d seen on the playground a couple times, he always looks sad and we’ve taken to giving him a little extra lovin’ and smiles. We asked Ethel what she knew about the boy, and we found out some stuff that made my heart feel like it was in my chest, stomach and throat all at the same time. He technically lives with his aunt and his baby cousin, but sometimes his aunt leaves for weeks on end to live with her boyfriend and get a little extra money from him. They expect the lady to be gone for a long while come Christmas season. While she’s gone the boy either stays by himself or with neighbours who will take him in. He’s 9-years-old at best. Without the help from her boyfriend, the lady makes 250 rand a month. The boy has a lot of sores on his head, and has trouble making friends and getting along with other kids. It was only after we let this soak in that I realized and voiced aloud “250 rand… That’s how much lunch cost.” Hmm. My boots became heavier and I needed to shake it off with some playtime.

We went outside hoping it wouldn’t rain for the 14th day in a row. I pushed kids on the swings and started a half-hearted game of touch (tag). As I was running from a kid I didn’t notice a patch of mud and slipped cartoon style onto my back with my legs up in the air. I laughed it off as I do most times that I fall and felt the wet mud caked onto my shorts soak through to my skin. I’m sure it looked super comical, but it didn’t really help lighten the mood of my day. After walking around awkwardly in dirty pants and mud on the back of my legs, we left early to give Ethel a ride halfway home.

As we were waiting for dad to finish packing up, Ethel wiped off my muddy butt with a towel; the mother in her couldn’t help herself. It would have been awkward, but in a weird way it seemed natural, she’s such a motherly figure… After my rear stopped flaking mud and we were getting into the car, one of my friends Sanelisiwe came up to me and said “Have you remembered my promise?” I took her face in my hands and said, “I’ll bring it to you at the Christmas party as a treat, okay?” You see, yesterday I made a rookie mistake; I wanted to give a gift to a kid. It doesn’t sound bad, but it’s complicated. Yesterday Sanesiliwe grabbed my hand and was admiring my bracelets,

“Can I have one?” she asked, “Please, please, please??”

“I don’t want to give one to you if I can’t give one to everybody!” I told her, she has a sister and I wouldn’t want there to be any sort of awkward favouritism. I should have just left it at that, but then I remembered the gift of a rope bracelet my friend Jorge gave me before I left, telling me to give it to a special kid. I saw a future leader in Sanasiliwe, and I liked her a lot, so I told her “You know what, I do have a bracelet I can give you.” Her persistent asking caused me to promise that I would bring it to her. Now I have the burden of finding a discreet way to give her a gift without hurting anyone… It’s a weird thing we’ve had to deal with a lot so far, actually. I dunno. It’s an Africa thing for an Africa day. Not super important of life changing, but something on my mind.

Ethel didn’t want us to drive her all the way to her house, but we cut down her walk a tremendous amount. The taxis don’t go all the way into her neighbourhood, because despite her being black, she lives in a primarily white neighbourhood and they don’t like the taxis in their area. The taxis stop at least 2 km from where we dropped her off and she told us that she sometimes walks it. We were amazed at that, and she told us “The Centre touches me too much for me to worry about how I get there. The children, they touch me. It is so important.” And it’s true, it is. The staff at the SOH, and especially the health care team, do so much on a daily basis! It’s not something they flaunt at staff meetings, they don’t scream out “Two people are now educated about HIV and three accepted the Lord!” even though they have the right to do so. It’s just a part of their job. This amazing stuff that would have made last year’s camp director shout for joy and send an e-mail to the board. It’s just their life, and it’s beautiful and sad and inspiring.

We dropped Ethel off, went back to our apartment where I changed my pants, and were off to the mall to shop for games supplies for the Christmas Party next week. I thought about the things I saw today and let them soak in. It made me sad in a way that made me nauseous and made me want to literally puke up the dinner half of the kids on this continent didn’t get tonight. I have so much, and so much will be different and changed when I get home. There is so much stuff in my life, so many material things and so many first world problems that don’t matter. All of a sudden, so much doesn’t matter. It began to pour as we left the mall and I thought about the holes in tin roofs, and boys by themselves, and houses made out of mud.