Who's to blame?

2010-10-15 00:00

THE mist hangs heavy around the tent like a funeral shroud, its clammy greyness mocking the bright candy stripes of the fabric. The cold seems to seep into my very soul and rain drips incessantly, as though even the sky is weeping.

Nonto Zulu* is dead. She was 34.

The only person whom both my children ran to greet and hug when they saw her is inside the coffin before me as I stumble through a tribute punctuated by pauses for translation.

Anna and Jason have lost a second mother, someone who took care of them, cooked their favourite meals, laughed with them, played endless games of cards, Snakes and Ladders, and Beetle with them, and even climbed trees with them. Who will play football with Jason now? Who will do “girl stuff” like painting nails and braiding hair with Anna now? I put off telling them for as long as I can. Anna weeps, inconsolable. Jason fetches his favourite teddy and sits cuddling it silently, alone and still on the couch.

Zulu’s two-year-old son, Sifiso*, sucks his dummy contentedly and watches the proceedings from his vantage point on his aunt’s back. He is too young to understand what is going on. He is too innocent to know how it will affect the rest of his life.

I have lost a friend, the kind who was willing to tell me things few others would. “Auntie Marigold, those shoes don’t go with that outfit.” “You work too much — leave that now.” “Don’t buy from that man, he’s a skelem.” (This on an outing to the “China shops” in the downtown CBD.) “You must come and play with the children now. Soon they will be grown up.” “Don’t worry about the children, I will look after them for you.” I didn’t, and she did.

We slosh and stumble in uncertain procession down the slope to a grassy stretch where the grave has been dug — perhaps the rain’s only positive contribution to the proceedings. Soft soil is easier to excavate. Women keen and men look sombre as a priest prays a blessing over the coffin before the young men heave it into the hole.

“Uthuli othulini, umlotha emlotheni” (“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes”).

Sifiso will grow up within sight of his mother’s grave.

On the way home, I ask my passenger if any one of the many people who spoke at the funeral mentioned the words “HIV” or “Aids”.

“Oh no,” she says, looking horrified, “that would shame the family. They cannot say. No one can say.”

“So,” I say, in my insistently rational way, “you mean that everyone knows, but no one talks about it?”

“Yes,” she nods in agitation, keen to change the subject.

Being HIV-positive is no longer a death sentence. It’s a manageable condition, chronic, yes, but manageable. With medication and decent nutrition, Zulu could have lived to see her son grow up. So why did she die?

I said: “Not if I can help it.”

Even if the state health-care system didn’t seem to care, I did. But I couldn’t, despite all the time, money and effort I spent, I just couldn’t. Help it, that is. Help her.

Despite antiretrovirals, tuberculosis medication, regular clinic visits, social grants, and all the help I could give, she is dead in less than 10 months. In my insistently rational way, I want to know why. In my righteously outraged way, I am angry. I rage against the unfairness of it all. Against a political party that said it would care about “our people” but has become a government that so persistently, consistently, blatantly and scandalously does not.

Is there some kind of fatalism at work here that I do not and cannot understand? Did she “turn her face to the wall” and give up, despite having so much to live for?

Why did she die when she did not have to, when hers was a completely unnecessary and preventable death? Was she, was I, were we defeated by the indifference of the system? Or was it that silent, insidious, ubiquitous killer that got her in the end, the scourge of this continent: poverty?

She was the only breadwinner in a home of four adults and 10 children, many of them orphaned by Aids. Without her income and our additional help, there would have been no money or food in the home and no hope of it until the next social grants came in.

It’s now a home of three adults, 10 children and no breadwinner.

* Not their real names.

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