Where everyone knows your name

2010-09-03 00:00

THIS is a pretty wild town. On Fridays the diamond dealers pull in to trade, all but twirling their guns on their forefingers as they sip their martinis in The Mustard House.

Most desert towns have a Mustard House. It’s an establishment that defies the harshness and bareness of the environment, and swaddles its clientele in ornate, colonial, luxurious décor. The Mustard House has drapes, not curtains. Enormous pewter vases stand on antique washbasins in the passage way. Deep comfortable cane chairs with gold embroidered cushions clutter the stoep. Paintings of men and their horses hang on the walls, and the tables are set with the finest silver cutlery. Very few locals ever eat in The Mustard House. Its clientele are diamond dealers who fly in from Italy and Nigeria. They eat their way through the cordon bleu menu, while the rest of us can only afford a cup of coffee on the stoep, and only occasionally.

The rest of the populace celebrates month end in the Shoprite parking lot. By 10 am on the morning of the last day of the month, every second car has its boot open and drinks are handed out to girls dressed up for payday, and men dressed up to see the girls dressed up for payday. There is music and as a wind sweeps through the town and the girls cling to their legs to keep their skirts down, there is almost dancing.

It’s is only because it is too busy, that I regret having come into town today. For the rest, I am enjoying the festivities. I join the queue at the ATM, which is longer than I have seen it before. After a few minutes, I notice that the queue has not really moved. The woman behind me notices this as well. She walks past me, and joins the other four people who are peering over the shoulder of the person trying to draw money. The woman walks back to join me. “Insufficient funds,” She explains to me scornfully and irritably. “She doesn’t know to check how much money is in there before she keeps trying to draw.”

“So much for everyone in a small town knowing your business,” I thought. “In this town that can mean right down to your bank balance.”

The incident at the ATM on this particular morning, however, reminded me of the “free and confidential HIV testing” that also happens in our town. I took someone to the clinic for this service, and not only was I also invited into the consultation room for the blood test, but once I got in there I saw that there were a couple of other people also receiving treatment. One was having her baby weighed, and the other was having some blood drawn for something else. There were also two staff members in the room, some having some chicken and some just looking through files. While the nurse counselled our employee about the process of having “her CD4 count checked”, conversations were flying around the room as if we had met for a tea party.

I was confused. Wasn’t this supposed to be confidential HIV testing? I had always imagined that the person goes into a room with one nursing sister, and no one need know whether he or she is having an HIV test or a blood-pressure checkup. Not so here in our diamond-digging town. I discovered later that what “free and confidential” testing means is just that your results would be told to no one but you. But it does not mean that no one is going to know that you went for the test in the first place. Everyone is going to know that you are worried. That news will be spread around town as quickly as the facts about Mrs Monati’s bank balance.

I thought of complaining to the staff, and then thought better of it. These sisters were clearly doing an amazing job. There were queues of people outside, yet they were taking time with each patient they interviewed. The clinic is relatively new, but just not big enough to have a separate consultation room for this highly sensitive disease that is shamelessly still killing thousands of people. The problem must lie not with this local clinic, but with the health structures and budgets on a higher level.

I thought of getting depressed about it all, but then I remembered the monthly party in the Shoprite parking lot. In a small town, the fullness of life just feels so much closer: the disease, the death, the music and the dancing.

 

• Catherine Smetherham is an ex-city dweller who is rediscovering herself and South Africa from a platteland perspective. Contact her at Catherine@holtzhausen.com

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