Saving someone’s life can be really easy

2010-12-01 00:00

BEFORE we moved to the platteland, I did not know that saving someone’s life could be so easy.

We live in the sort of place that you will only reach if you drive through it on your way to somewhere else. We live in the North West, the poorest province in the country. Its only claim to fame is that it has the highest density of earth-moving equipment in the world. And the reason for moving all this earth, among all this poverty, is the search for diamonds.

And now that we are here, where the dust devils are the only things that rush across the landscape, we have Katrina working for us and I discover she has TB and HIV. And we cannot fire her. Not because the CCMA will be after us, as they would be in the city, but because she is the only child carer and domestic worker available to us in this deserted landscape. And because her mother and her mother’s mother before her, all worked for my husband’s mother and her mother before her. Firing her would drive a wedge between us and the community of farm labourers that we could never heal. And it would drive a hardness into ourselves where we are trying, in this harsh country, to stay soft.

And I don’t want to fire Katrina. She is a wonderful worker. She loves my children, she plays beautifully with them, and despite her meagre 38 kilograms she works like a steam train. But I am afraid. I am more afraid of the TB than the HIV. I am afraid for my little daughter, who is not even two and is still developing her immune system. And I remember how often my four-year-old boy held her hand as they went for a walk to see the monkeys. It was the same hand that she had diligently put up to her mouth whenever she coughed that little, subtle, barely existent TB cough.

Before I knew she was dying, she knew it. Everyone in the labourers’ cottages knew she was dying. They had buried both her sisters in the past six months. No one was speaking about why they died. But everyone knew that she, with that coughing, would be next. Even she knew that. I later heard that in the evenings, when everyone else was cooking food and enjoying each other’s company, she would hold her head in her hands, unable to hide the tortured psychological place that she inhabited.

And what lay between Katrina and good health? Thirty kilometres of farm road to get to the clinic, expensive taxi fares and a lot of denial. And months of following up with medication. But most of all, a total disbelief that her own life could possibly have a different ending from that of her sisters.

My husband is a straight talker. “Take her to the clinic and get her tested for HIV and TB,” he says to me.

“How can I do that?” I ask. “How can we presume that she has it? Won’t we offend her? Isn’t it up to her if she wants to have that test? What will the sisters at the clinic think of me if I do that? We cannot be so high-handed. We cannot force her.”

“Tell the clinic sisters that she has buried two sisters already, that too many people are dying, and that we are scared that she is going to die too. Tell them to do all the bloody tests that they need to, to make sure that she does not die as well. Don’t pussyfoot around the issue. Talk death.”

I speak to her and she is willing to have the tests. The free and confidential HIV testing takes place in a room at the clinic where three other patients are being seen to by nurses at the same time.

“The results are completely confidential,” the nursing sister assures me. I want to laugh inside, “Yes! But the fact that someone is worried about their status is common knowledge for the entire town.”

The results of both tests take months to come. Even when we have the results, she still cannot grasp the diagnosis. She says she has to go back to the clinic on Monday for more tests. “No!” I find myself screaming at her in the garden. “You have HIV and TB, and you are going to die like your sisters have if we don’t do something about it. And I am going to be so angry if you do die, because it is not necessary.”

“Yes, missus,” she says shading her eyes from the hot sun and from me, wishing I would take my bad news and go away. But I don’t. I hold the demon she cannot face up in front of her wherever she turns.

And that is all I must do to help save her life. Talk to her about the demon, then talk to her about another, happier, ending. Then hold her hand while she walks towards it. Be there with her every morning while she swallows the pills, week in and week out, until she too believes that another ending is possible. Until she also believes she can win this fight.

Two weeks later she comes in the mornings for her pills and she is looking radiant. I see her wearing earrings for the first time. “What can I do to thank you?” she asks. “I will come and wash the windows this week. Just tell me when.”

“Just live,” I stumble with my words. “That will be thanks enough for me.” I find myself unable to tell her how profoundly I mean that. How her living will be a million golden thanks for me and how privileged I would feel to be able to be the one who walks with her to this other ending. I think of her children, three of her own, and the two from her dead sisters whom she has adopted and who depend on her daily. I am deeply happy.

I didn’t know that saving someone’s life could be so easy.


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

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