Today is Tuesday, October 2nd, and it is raining. It has been all week. When we roll up to the gates at Zenzele in Finetown, the ground beneath our tires has an unfamiliar, gritty crunch, like the filing of wood under sandpaper. Water drips from the corrugated metal rooftop, leaving puddles beneath the eaves and turning red clay into mud under my shoes. Small faces duck in and out of classrooms at a distance–hands waving excitedly for attention, little voices laughing and playing off of one another in greeting. I wave back, recognizing still more of them than the last time we came, and I consider for a moment the sense of ownership in all of this. My eyes find Gwanele. Immediately, and as I have come to expect, there is a twinge of responsibility–of love, moving through me from somewhere deep.
* * *
This morning, we have arrived at half-past nine in time to go out with the caregivers for daily home visits. By doing so, we hope to be drawn closer to the reality of life in Finetown once again. In the midst of meetings and planning and pushing through day after day, we can’t lose sight of the reason behind our work, and this, we know, is the best way to stay connected to the people and places we’re desiring to help. Our team is divided into two groups–some will travel with Bonge and Jabulile to visit patients south of Zenzele, and we will visit those north of the project with Norleen and Dorah. ‘These women have made a lifetime of what we’re about to do,’ I think to myself. We set out on foot in the chilly drizzle.
On the way to our first visit, we walk through the vacant lot adjacent to Zenzele. Large, unkempt piles of trash and overgrown grass color in the spaces between heavy boulders, just outside the project walls. Crossing the street, a black baby goat picks at what’s left of an abandoned fruit stand at the side of the road. ‘It is far,’ the caregivers warn, ‘we are going to be tired.’ Conversation comes and goes as we move street to street–waving at little ones as we pass and laughing at the trail of chicks who follow their mother in a hurry down the path, at a gray and white kitten sitting pristinely by the road’s edge, seemingly unscathed by the rain.
* * *
Dressed in a simple red blouse and a cloth skirt patterned with quilt-like squares in primary colors, Daisy is a soft-looking woman with a kind face and a glowing smile. She welcomes all nine of us into her two-room home and quickly offers us a seat. From the doorway, I note the following: refrigerator, sewing machine (material piled high), kitchen chair (1), twin-sized bed, stereo (music playing), camp stove, cabinet, rain patting down on a tin roof, single light bulb dangling, linoleum overlay, dirt floor. Norleen explains that Daisy is HIV positive and, unlike many patients, comfortable with her status. She has been taking ARVs (Anti-RetroVirals) for the past year, which she receives for free from a local hospital. She lives at home with her husband, Amon, and a brother, and she works as a seamstress to support her family when business is available. Both her husband and brother are HIV positive, unable to find jobs and uncomfortable with their status. Daisy is the only one in her home who is willing to take ARVs as treatment for the virus.
In broken, yet determined English, Daisy tells us that October 6th will mark one full year since she began ARV treatment. HIV positive since 1997, she recalls a time when she had no body strength and was dangerously thin. Daisy further explains that for the first month of treatment, she experienced severe side effects (including physical and emotional strain and some dementia), but that for the past 11 months, she has begun to feel well, to put on weight, and to return to a healthy emotional state. Daisy is capable of working from her home, and she makes an effort to do so in order that she can buy food to feed her husband and brother. Without a steady or consistent flow of business, she tells us, they often rely on neighbors and caregivers to bring food for them to eat. Sometimes, a bag of mealy meal (corn meal/porridge) and a head of cabbage are all she can afford to buy from the local shop.
Listening to her speak, what strikes me most about Daisy is that she never stops smiling. She seems content to be sharing her story with a bunch of strangers, and she acts so comfortably in her own skin. Norleen tells us that Daisy speaks publicly about her HIV status in the community, and that she encourages others to begin ARV treatment. In this way, Daisy is a warrior–a David living in peace with her own Goliath.
Before we are ready to go, we ask whether we can pray for Daisy and her family. She is eager for prayer, and even her husband comes into the circle as we join hands together. Daisy is holding my left hand with both of her own, squeezing tighter and tighter as we pray. It is though I can feel her strength overcoming her weakness, as though she is pouring every energy into this prayer that she might overcome it all. I snap a photo of her and her husband sitting together on the bed before we go, and they laugh with one another at their grinning faces captured on the screen.
When we’ve poured out of the house, I am prompted to go back to Daisy to see her for a moment more. And she is still standing there, smiling–waiting with a strong embrace that lingers with me as I pass through the gate and back onto the road.
* * *
Anna’s house is encircled by a tall, wiry fence, and her husband, John, is sitting at the gate when we arrive. We introduce ourselves and make our way to the shanty door where Anna (65) has greeted us with her walker. Inside, the house is large for its type, with old rugby season calendars and other poster artwork adorning the wavy, scrap metal walls. The light coming through the curtains is pinkish red, just like the flowery scarf Anna has wrapped, like a turban/bandana split on the top of her head. She is sitting now, on a rough old chair at the edge of the living room. Anna’s left leg keeps her propped up in an angled position as she holds onto the rusting metal walker frame for support. Her right leg, we’re told, was amputated just a year ago.
In translation, Norleen explains to our group that since the operation, Anna has continued to experience ghost pains where her right leg once was. Meanwhile, her left leg has begun to cause her similar grief, and the doctors are advising that it, too, may need to be amputated. No one seems to know the exact diagnosis of Anna’s condition. ‘We think it could be cancer,’ Norleen poses, as Anna stares downward towards the floor. Norleen also tells us that Anna’s mother, who lives nearly 5 miles away and who must walk to get to her daughter, is the only source of provision that Anna can rely on. Her husband does not work, and when he is able to get food, he does not share it. When asked whether he might take Anna out for a walk or some fresh air, he argues that he cannot be seen walking around with a woman with one leg. As a result, Anna is weak–her skin is thin, and clinging to her frame. She often goes to bed without any food, and without her elderly mother’s care, she would likely starve. She asks for help with food and with assistance in getting an ID, so that she might be able to procure a disability grant. During our visit, her husband never comes inside.
When we pray with Anna, she silently wipes away tears with the hem of her skirt. We ask whether she knows Jesus, and she nods. She is a praying woman, but she seems to have so little hope. As we leave her, my mind is spinning. ‘How can we possibly help each one?’ I think and do not say. I follow a good distance behind Dorah and Norleen on the way out. Their steps are heavy, unwavering, determined in front of me.
* * *
‘This last one is different from the others. It is a different situation,’ Norleen says to me quietly as we walk towards our final visit for the day. ‘This one is in a place where people come to drink, and the patient lives inside the house there. The grandmother makes homemade beer and customers come to her place to buy and drink it.’
‘The patient is 23 and is a PWA*,’ Norleen tells me. ‘But she is mentally handicapped, and she does not leave the house. She is not violent, and her handicap is not severe. She has never had a boyfriend. Since she has never had a boyfriend and she does not leave the house, we are asking how she is getting AIDS. The mother does not want to tell us.”
Norleen further explains that when they last bathed the patient, they noticed sores in her private area. When asked about the sores, the mother grew angry and insisted that she bathe her own daughter from then on. On the caregivers’ last visit to the home, the grandmother would not permit them to pray over the patient, insisting that there were drinking customers who needed to be in and out of her room at that time. As we walk closer to the informal shabeen (bar) and home of this next patient, I am processing all of this new information. My stomach feels inside out, and before we even reach the gate, I am pushing down tears with the lump in my throat.
The pungent smell of fermented alcohol is thick on the air when we approach the crowd of men and women sitting on low benches in the yard. Norleen speaks a few words to the grandmother, knocks on a closed wooden door at the side of the house, and then tells us to follow her inside. The room is dark, the only light coming from a T.V. program broadcast on a 12” black and white screen in the corner of the room. Flies buzz over what seems like every surface, the scent of urine permeating the place. On the bed, the patient, 23 year old Mleboheng, is blinking out the bright outside light until we have all squeezed in and shut the door. Mleboheng’s mother sits on the edge of an adjacent bed. She, too, is suffering from AIDS.
Norleen asks the mother several questions and finds out that Mleboheng has recently developed swelling in her feet, leaving her completely bed-ridden. She also tells us that Mleboheng has swelling and pain in her stomach, and that it is getting hard. Three of us cannot hold back the obvious question. ‘Is she pregnant?’ we ask, practically in unison. The thought disturbs me in a new way; but as we check her stomach, the look and touch of it is different from a pregnant woman’s, and we conclude that this is more likely a complication of the virus than anything else. Mleboheng never makes eye contact, and when she is asked a question, she hesitates for a painfully long time to answer.
For a third time today, we are left with only one tangible solution–prayer. Standing around the crowded room, we ask whether we might pray over Mleboheng and her mother before we go. I want to lay hands on Mleboheng, but am afraid. Instead, I ask permission first. Norleen translates three or four times before the barely audible answer, “Yebo.” When I move to the bedside and place my hand on Mleboheng’s shoulder, she shrugs away, almost wincing like a child. This young woman, I realize, does not know the difference between my touch and the one, I imagine, she must dread. I am torn between the hurt and the lingering hope of God’s healing power over Mleboheng as we begin to pray.
When I try to find words, there are almost none, and what comes out is a mixture of garbled supplication and salty, muted tears. I ask for protection, over the room, over the bed, over Mleboheng’s fragile body. I ask for peace. I want to ask, WHY? As we conclude the prayer, the mother is sobbing, imploring us not to confront the grandmother, denying what is happening in that room. She is afraid that if we talk to the grandmother, they will be kicked out. With no income of their own, they have nowhere else to go.
Leaving the room and Mleboheng in it, we walk outside to where the air now feels fresh and cool. One of our group members has begun preaching the gospel to the men and women who are gathered around. He reads from the Word and challenges them to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, and Norleen translates a prayer of salvation as it is dictated to the group in English. Several stand up. And although quietly, above the friction of thoughts still burning through my head, I hear the small voice of a woman in the crowd, reciting the prayer like an echo to Norleen’s.
* * *
Tonight as I sit up, awake with the tension of today’s events on my mind, I realize–a little more clearly, the battle we are called to in this fight against HIV/AIDS, against poverty. Behind closed doors, we don’t know what is waiting. For each of the three homes we visited today, there are millions of others with stories inside.
And we can’t always be emotionally prepared for what awaits us when we pursue the battle behind every Daisy, every Anna, every Mleboheng. What we can do, is prepare ourselves spiritually to put up a good fight. Where we end, God begins. That could not have been more clear today from one side of Mleboheng’s door to the other. I did not have the right words to say, but God does. I pray that He will continue to give us all the strength to fling–wide open, even the heaviest of doors.
Will you join me?
This post was originally blogged on 2 October 2007 @ 11:54pm from Johannesburg, South Africa