We’re still in South Africa’s Kwa-Zulu Natal province, I’m leaving Lidgetton with Aubrey, headed back to Pietermaritzburg. We pass rolling hills—three layers of them. The land is green and lush, wooded like the English Midlands. I have arrived here during the two weeks when the jacaranda trees are in full bloom, so this wild purple accentuates the meadows, parking lots and roadsides like exclamation points at the end of every line.
Aubrey explains the cost of schooling in the new South Africa. White schools in this area are really model C schools, and they cost 2,000 rand (€220) per year, as compared to black schools, which cost 50 rand (€6) per year. Private schools can cost as much as 130,000 rand (€14,450) per year.
As we drive I ask Aubrey about his own background. He talks about a farm that had been in his family, but was appropriated in the sixties.
We return to the community, or township, I visited yesterday. As we turn into the bare hills, the wind picks up. A sea of flat, one-story, two-room homes stretch before us. The dirt roads are the same reddish orange I’ve wiped off my shoes in Kenya and Tanzania. In this part of the community, houses have been painted a dull orange. We drive past streets where men sit outside listening to blaring music, and drinking beer out of the bottle. I see corrugated iron walls with glass windows. We pass a chair along the roadside. A woman hangs up washing and has three tubs at her feet. A rooster crosses in front of our truck. A beer bottle stands in an empty yard. On the corner is the Tuck Shop, the place to get whatever you need. A dog sleeps on a scrap of carpet thrown outside. I raise my eyes to the hills and see a ridge bristling with eucalyptus trees.
Aubrey takes me to meet Mrs. Mlotshwa, who will translate for us. When he introduces us, I reach for her hand and say, “Hello, I’m Anne.” She replies with a smile and squeezes my hand, “And I am Nelisiwe.” She is of “traditional build,” as the Scottish author of Botswanan detective stories would say. A big, beautiful, shining smile of an African woman. There is only room for two people in the cab of the truck, so Aubrey spreads a blanket in the covered back of the truck, and Nellie brings a pillow to sit upon. Her home has half a roof on it. She’s on the end of a road, in a corner lot. She has a great view of the hills in the distance, and the cattle covering them, but it seems isolated somehow, and I wonder if it’s safe for her.
In the cab, Aubrey explains that Nellie is HIV+, but would be willing to talk with me about her sickness. This is unusual, since such a huge stigma hangs above the illness that I was warned before arriving that I shouldn’t ask people directly about their status. Aubrey says both Nellie and her husband went for testing. She became pregnant and lost a baby at birth earlier that year. “That must have been devastating,” I say. He replies that she was most devastated when she found out she was pregnant, after knowing she was HIV+. HIV mothers give birth to HIV babies.
The truck stops in front of one home that looks like so many that line the dirt roads crisscrossing the community’s hills: plastered walls, one-bedroom, corrugated iron roof, bare, hard earth in the yard.
There are more homes Aubrey wants to show me, more children and more aids patients. This is only my second day here, but I have already learned to dread these home visits. The smells, the looks of anguish, the pain, and death all around like the smell of rotting fish, my own helplessness and inability to connect in any way with the people we meet. I feel like I ask empty questions and leave with empty answers.
In this home the gogo greets us with a toothless smile. She wears a ski cap on her head. “God gives us strength and joy,” she says in answer to my question of how she copes. She cares for her grandchildren, one of whom is dying on a mattress on the floor, covered with a blanket. I ask how old she is—20 years. What is her name? Mandy. I stare at the fridge in the corner, trying to keep my eyes away from the open sores and bony shapes sticking out of Mandy. I hear the TV and radios of neighbors in the background.
Her little sisters slip their hands into mine. Their names are Kwanele, which means “in love,” and Thandolwetu, which means “our love.” She is on ARVs and feeling better now. They ask me to pray for Mandy. So I kneel down beside the mattress and Aubrey joins me. I place my hand on her back and feel the rise and fall of each breath she takes. I pray for her healing. I pray for her and her family to be protected from evil and from harm. I pray for an end to the pain.
This is a hard thing for me to do. These people’s faith seems so much deeper than mine.
In the truck again, zigzagging our way across the community, I ask Aubrey about the bereavement training he gives to children. He explains how ACAT trains volunteers in groups of five from within the community, who then go back and teach others, while using what they’ve learned. Nellie is one such volunteer. She has a certain number of child-headed households she looks in on regularly, as well as ministering to the sick and feeding the destitute. Child bereavement counseling is part of how she ministers in the community. We pick up Nellie’s sister Thembi, who is also an ACAT-trained volunteer in the community. The sisters look a lot alike, and Aubrey teases them about how their maiden name means “elephant.” This doesn’t strike me as terribly tactful, but it gets the two women laughing so hard, they have difficulty getting into the back of the truck together.
Our next stop is to visit a little girl Aubrey has known for a couple of years. “She didn’t look very happy the last time I saw her and I’m afraid she’s being abused,” he says. I look at him driving the truck and don’t have any words to respond with. We pull up in front of a house with a half-log bench out front. Two men sit on it. When we get out, a third man carrying a white stick taps his way past me. I assume he is blind and start to open the gate. I think about offering him an elbow. But he shuffles past me and knows right when to sidestep a pothole and step over the ditch.
I look at the cattle and goats wandering between the shacks. My heart and mind are still turning over the term: “Child bereavement counseling.” A little girl with very short hair comes out to greet us. She is wearing a light top with spaghetti straps. Aubrey tells me that she has lost her Granny. This is her best friend’s family who have taken her in. “And her own family?” I ask. But before he can answer, the little girl is offering her hand to me. I guess she is 9. She greets Aubrey, Nellie and Thembi—it is clear she knows them. Her name is Imbali, which means, “rose.”
Aubrey asks Imbali how she is and she says she is passing her subjects at school, but still missing her gogo. Imbali’s best friend comes out to join us and I see what Aubrey was thinking in bringing Nellie and Thembi. Now when Thembi takes Imbali’s friend to the side and asks about her schoolwork, Aubrey, Nellie and I can have a private word with Imbali. Aubrey lifts her up onto the tailgate of the truck. “Why are you so sad?” Nellie asks her. “My teacher passed away.”
This causes Aubrey to turn away and look up at the sky. I go over to him and ask, “What is it?” He says, “I first saw Imbali when she was 6. She was nursing her dying Granny, carrying her 18-month-old sister on her hip, and hanging up heavy wash. She was coping unbelievably well, thanks to neighbors who helped a little here and there.” I glance over at Imbali, so shy, looking down, and notice the tears slowly rolling over her face like dark diamonds. I can see Aubrey is very upset. He says, “She has lost everyone. She was nursing her mother, who has aids, then her mother rallied with the ARVs, and deserted her, taking her sister. Imbali was left alone with her dying gogo. When we found her, she had been living with a corpse for a day and a night. Now she’s lost her teacher, as well. And if Nellie and I are right and she is being abused, she will also be HIV+.”
“Can’t you get her out of here? She’s only 9.” I wince at my tone, not meaning to sound so accusatory. But Aubrey only nods, then shakes his head and makes an Afrikaner sound, which is also a Dutch sound, “Tchya.” In Dutch people say this when their hands are tied and there’s no option left. Aubrey says, “It was hard enough to find this foster home for her. There just are so few places and homes, nowhere truly safe.”
We rejoin Nellie and Imbali. Aubrey translates a little of their conversation in Zulu. “She is getting top marks in all her subjects and reads beyond her age, far beyond nine years.” I say, “Sometimes the children who cope the best are gifted.” The sun is hot. I ask about her health. Aubrey asks Imbali and she says her eyes hurt her when the sun is bright. He says he can get her some ointment for that. Then a drunken man staggers past us and hits the side of the truck. Imbali jumps and the tears run fast and silent over her chin. “Who do you think is abusing her?” I ask Aubrey. He nods at the men on the bench. Beside them the mother of Imbali’s best friend is washing socks and hanging them over a line.
She sees us looking in her direction and comes down to join us. Nellie has been asking Imbali about why she is so afraid, but the little girl can only shake her head back and forth. She looks at the men and the mother and hugs her arms around her chest as she shakes like a leaf in the storm. When I ask Imbali why she is crying, she says because she is afraid everyone she loves will die. The mother starts to cry when she sees Imbali’s tears. She says something in a rush of Zulu. Aubrey translates, “She worries and says, ‘If anything happens to me, what will happen to these girls?’ She has told them if anything happens to her, they are to go straight to the social workers.” Her name is Nokwanda. We stand in a circle with the girls and Nokwanda asks us to pray for them.
I cannot say anything. Imbali’s tears have finally stopped, but the fear in her eyes is so familiar, I feel like I am the one being visited in the dark.