Winner 2007: The neighbour who loved

2007-10-12 00:00

“ONLY September and I’m sweating already,” I thought as we stepped out of Phumzile’s tworoomed house in Mpophomeni.

We had been visiting Phumzile for three months since she asked for help to care for her sister. It had been a good visit and we felt close to the sisters as they spoke frankly about the struggles of living with HIV and poverty. Not all visits went this well and it often took months to get past the shame and assure people that we did not come to blame or moralise.

As Dudu and I were about to get into the car a man approached and introduced himself as Nkosi.

“Please come and see my neighbour,” he said. “He is very sick and needs help.”

We had already seen the four families we were due to visit that day and were keen to get home. He must have seen the reluctance in our faces because he said, “His house is just over there, we can walk.”

As he opened the door, the first thing I noticed was the emptiness of the house. Its only room was completely bare, except for an old steel bed in the corner and a newspaper page stuck on the wall. The bed was unmade and empty.

“He must have gone out,” I thought. “He can’t be that sick after all.” Just then the blanket moved and a soft moan came from the bed.

As we stepped closer, I saw a gaunt face, jutting cheekbones and eye sockets deeply sunken. His thin hair was light orange from starvation and I watched his pulse racing through the huge artery that bulged and collapsed on his temple.

He was taking his breath in short rasping pants through cracked lips, crusted brown and white with dried blood and saliva.

While we stared overwhelmed, Nkosi bent down, picked up a cup and a cloth from next to the bed and dabbed gently at the crusted lips, trying to get him to sip some water.

Briefly his eyes flicked open, the huge white eyes in his disappearing head, looking through and past us. As he squeezed drops into his mouth, Nkosi told us his story.

His name was Kagiso and six months ago he had come alone from QwaqQwa hoping to find work. Soon after moving into the rented house, he became ill. Two weeks earlier, not having seen his neighbour for a few days, Nkosi came to check on him and found him lying in his bed confused and incontinent.

Nkosi had washed him and brought some food and tried to feed him. Kagiso had never spoken about exactly where in QwaQwa he was from, nor about his family, and he had no ID or other documents to help locate them. Nkosi had taken it upon himself to come every morning and evening to feed Kagiso and clean his bed of the diarrhoea which had overtaken him.

But he continued to get steadily worse until he was now barely conscious and too weak to even swallow. Overcome by the horror of a person so broken and my impotence to do anything for him, I feebly looked around the room, perhaps hoping to find some answer or inspiration there.

I noticed the page stuck on the wall. It was a Witness feature about a friend’s Antarctic expedition as part of the South African research team. I remember staring at the photograph of that Antarctic landscape — bright, crisp and pure, with my bearded friend looking so vigorous, so alive, with a limitless future before him.

I felt my disparate worlds colliding in that hot room. The comfort of suburban life, the stimulation of my work and the ease of relaxing with friends. A world of so many options and so much room to manoeuvre. And this grinding world of pain, despair and drudgery.

Crushed by the tectonic collision, my eye caught a small advert beneath the article offering free lectures on the logistics of moving to Australia. “That’s the answer!” I thought. “If I take my family away from here, I won’t be constantly tearing these two dragons apart, wrenching my mind from one absurd reality to another.

I can forget about this ugly world and surround myself with peace, order and beauty.” Even as I thought it, I knew it really offered no escape. Reluctantly my mind moved back to the withered, gasping man whose landscape I had come into. If he was to survive, his extreme dehydration needed help we could not offer.

We phoned for an ambulance and watched as Nkosi carefully smoothed his blankets and spoke softly to him — his lips next to Kagiso’s ear, just above that throbbing artery. Then we left and drove Nkosi to the community centre where he would wait for the ambulance to direct it to Kagiso’s house.

On the way Nkosi told us about himself. He also lived alone in a one-roomed house like Kagiso’s and hadn’t had a proper job for four years. He survived by getting work for a day or two per week in his neighbours’ gardens or helping with small renovations. If there was no work he depended on his neighbours’ kindness for some phuthu, bread or rice, which he ate with the cabbage or spinach he grew in his garden. Work had been more regular recently and so he had some extra to share with Kagiso.

This was all said without complaint or self-pity and I thought with shame about the plans I had made to extend our three-bedroomed home and my irritation with our old car. Kagiso died at Northdale hospital that night — with no one there to notice.

No family, no friends and no one to hold his hand or speak softly into his ear. His memory also could have disappeared, but for Nkosi’s last act of mercy. When Nkosi went to the hospital and was told that Kagiso had died, he asked what was to become of his body.

The nurses told him that, if unclaimed, his body would be given a pauper’s burial and left to lie in an unmarked grave. Nkosi and Kagiso lived in the poorest part of Mpophomeni, where people often go hungry and it is not a shameful thing to ask neighbours for food, because it will soon be your turn to help.

Knowing that no family would ever come to claim the body, Nkosi went home and visited his neighbours.

He spoke to them about this man who had died alone, far from anyone who knew or loved him. These neighbours gave Nkosi small amounts, the largest single donation being R20. After a week he had the R600 needed to pay the local undertaker to collect the body from hospital and provide the most basic coffin.

Two weeks after he died, Kagiso was buried in Mpophomeni. Over 100 of his neighbours were there to honour the memory of the man most of them did not know, but whose life had become incredibly significant to them. Nkosi taught us that this man was not worthless; his life was not futile — because he was our neighbour.

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