Rebel with a smile

2009-03-17 00:00

“This is Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s twin sister,” I thought when I encountered Abigail Ntleko at the launch of Khuphuka, the community-based HIV/Aids project at uMqatsheni in the southern Drakensberg. If Tutu had a twin sister, she would be like Ntleko: energetic, capable, never far from a smile or a laugh.

At 75, this former nursing sister, known to everyone as “Sister Abi”, shows no sign of slowing down, and why should she? She comes from a long-lived family. One aunt died aged 114 — “her great-great-great-grandchilden sang at her funeral” — and another at 104.

Ntleko was born near Harding in 1934, the 12th of 13 children. “There were seven boys and six girls. My mother died after having the 13th child.”

The boys had the option of being educated if they so desired; not the girls. So Ntleko herded cattle. “Traditionally it’s a boy’s job, but if there are no herd boys then the girls do it.”

Ntleko says she was a rebellious child and at 14, despite her father’s opposition, she decided to go to school. “I negotiated with herd boys to look after my cattle during the week, and at weekends I looked after all the herds.”

Ntleko’s first day at school was traumatic. “The teachers chased me away, they said I must have a dress,” she recalls. “I went in traditional attire — I didn’t have a dress — I went with beads in front and a piece of cloth behind.”

Margaret McKelvie, a medical missionary, gave Ntleko a dress, but that didn’t stop the teenage Ntleko becoming the “laughing stock” of Class 1. “They called me ‘auntie’ — at least they were respectful.” Unlike the teachers who mocked Ntleko’s ambition to be a nurse. But in

McKelvie, Ntleko had found a role model. “I idolised Margaret, she combined nursing and evangelising and running a clinic.”

Ntleko is a devout Anglican, rising at three every morning for an hour of “quiet time” before starting her working day. “Reading the word of God in the Bible is what keeps me going,” she says. “And if things are not working out that means it’s not God’s plan; I’m being trained for something else in the future. I always have room for disappointment.”

At 18, Ntleko decided to run away from home. She required various school items but her father, who had been invalided out of the mining industry, was spending his disability grant on drink and dagga, and would not buy them. Ntleko went to Port Shepstone and found work as a domestic. “I also earned money rearing Zulu fowls and selling them.” This financed her schooling, along with some help from a cousin, and Ntleko finally obtained her junior certificate. “I paid him back when I started nursing.”

When Ntleko applied to study nursing, her father raised objections and forced her to turn down invitations to study in Johannesburg and then Cape Town. When a call came from Edendale hospital Ntleko decided she had had enough. She went to the magistrate to get a stamp for her “dompas” and came to Pietermaritzburg. She was 30.

After qualifying, Ntleko worked at mission hospitals — “I went all over, I wanted to see the country” — before joining the government Health Department in 1968, first working in Greytown before being posted to Underberg in 1970 where she set up mobile clinics and motivated for a permanent clinic. She applied for training as a community nurse but was told she didn’t qualify as she didn’t have her matric. So Ntleko did matric and then did the nursing course, qualifying at the age of 58.

Her biggest challenge has been HIV/Aids. When she first encountered it in 1986, she found out all she could about the disease and began to spread the word — “I would go from farm to farm on Saturdays and talk about it on Sundays after church.

“People began dying. Parents would die, the wife first then the father, also babies started dying. More and more orphans began to appear.”

Twelve of those orphans found a home with Ntleko in her two-room house, but she worried they were not getting proper attention and wrote an article appealing for help in the local Underberg newspaper. Roger Teeter, a visitor from Seattle in the United States, read it and went to see Ntleko. She told him of her dream for a residential home for the children. “He said he would go back to Seattle and speak to his church and his family.”

Six months later, Teeter returned and bought a smallholding on the outskirts of Underberg. “It was the house that belonged to Dr Wilkins who first welcomed me when I came to Underberg,” says Ntleko. “I cried. And I don’t cry very often.”

The house, called Clouds, was renamed Clouds of Hope and Ntleko, who had now retired from the Health Department, was appointed manager. She and the children moved in on July 1, 2002. The next day it snowed. “At 3 am I got up for quiet time and at 4 am went to the kitchen. There was this funny light and then I looked out of the window and saw the snow. I called the children. I thought: ‘We have been blessed’.”

And Ntleko has been a blessing for many children. Although she never married, she is a mother to many children, officially adopting 11 and regarded as a mother by another 11.

The newly opened centre became a magnet for children in need. “By August, we had 20 children; by December, 36.” Teeter came on another visit. “Roger asked me: ‘What is your vision now?’ I told him my wish was to build cottages. These children needed a home, they missed a sense of belonging, moving from house to house as relatives died.”

Today Clouds of Hope has 12 cottages, nine of them home to six children and one caregiver, the others used for counselling and staff housing.

Ntleko’s endeavours have not gone unrecognised. In 2006, she won the social welfare category of the Shoprite/Checkers Woman of the Year competition. Next month, she will be going to the U.S. to accept the Unsung Hero award from the U.S. organisation Wise Giving. Ntleko will receive her award from the Dalai Lama in San Francisco. “I can’t wait to meet him,” she says.

The Dalai Lama, like Tutu, is famous for his laugh. He and Ntleko should get along just fine.

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