Everything is broken

The story ended with my mother trapped in the red mud, her back broken in three places in the spitting December rain of 2011.

But the story begins with a broken public service.

My mother had known about her scheduled clinic visit to a public hospital for a few months. Her hospital card indicated that she was due for her checkup for chronic rheumatoid arthritis on December 22 2011.

I timed my trip home to Lusikisiki to coincide with my mother’s appointment so that I could take her to hospital.

On that ill-fated day we were on our way by 3.30am and three and a half hours later we drove into the gates of Wentworth Provincial Hospital in Durban.

The day was spent shuffling along hospital benches from one queue to another.

The rheumatoid clinic had insisted that all its patients have their blood examined for the progression of disease and the side effects of strong medication, before the end of the year.

The problem was, being a few days before Christmas, most of the doctors were on leave.

By 5pm when the nurses began shooing patients out and closing windows, my mother and her fellow sufferers had not seen a doctor.

This meant they could also not receive medication. The sight of these mostly old black people with deformed hands and swollen ankles shuffling out of the hospital was painful.

I bundled my mother, with her deformed and burning feet, into the car and set off back to Lusikisiki.
Anyone who has driven across the former Transkei will tell you the rolling hills are breathtakingly beautiful and the roads are among the most treacherous. Avoiding deep potholes and wandering animals is a provincial sport.

Pouring rain meant we could not reach home that night. So we waited.

I have yet to encounter a road like the one to my home village.

Mbayi is located on a low-rise hill and is almost totally surrounded by a river but for a mountain to the north. It is common practice to walk across the river to reach transportation to town.

The high number of home births, deaths and other tragedies speak of this isolation. Running water is a pipe dream and electricity came just three years ago.

Democracy gave us a grader and a makeshift bridge. The grader arrives to touch up the road just prior to elections so ballot boxes can reach the people.

Between elections, the road and bridge crumble. The road that clings to the mountainside has been the site of numerous accidents.

My mother begged me to help her out of the vehicle just before we reached the broken bridge. Large chunks of it had been washed away by summer rains over the years. The river was overflowing and only daredevil drivers would have tried their luck crossing that bridge.

My mother got out of the vehicle and almost immediately slipped in the thick mud and fell. The thud and her groans fill my ears even as I write this.

Two women who were walking home in the rain helped me to try and extract my mother from the mud. Her pain was excruciating. Her legs could not move. Her eyes opened wide and she could not speak. She gasped for breath.

I was confronted by the strong possibility of her death. I opened her mouth and blew my breath into her – willing the life that she passed onto me to keep her alive by the simple luxury of air in her lungs. Somehow, she survived.

More importantly, she is alive today because my siblings and I pulled together to get her into private healthcare. The three fractures to her spine are healing gradually.

This is one of many stories of broken promises and things.

No one marches against a municipality or government because of these tragedies. What we do march against are portraits of the president.

» Canham is the project manager at the Transformation Office at Wits University and is a Harvard South Africa Fellow

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