From the archives | 'People kept telling me I stepped on umuthi and was going to die' - Israel on overcoming gangrene

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Israel Zulu on finding the strength to deal with losing his leg.
Israel Zulu on finding the strength to deal with losing his leg.
Frennie Shivambu

He was told he had a calling. He needed to accept it and go to initiation schools. On the other hand, doctors told him they only saw the kind of symptoms he had in someone with diabetes, which he didn’t have.

It took a lot of going from pillar to post for him to get a proper diagnosis – he had gangrene. It was the first time he’d even heard of the name and before long, he was told he has to amputate his leg.

Quite a lot to take in for someone who led an active lifestyle both on and off stage.

Now former Gomora actor Israel Matseke Zulu is part of the Nescafe: Made Strong campaign alongside other popular personalities like Lerato Sengadi, Nhlanhla Nciza, Thembi Maphanga, Youngsta CPT, and Nozi Qamgana-Mayaba.

They’ve each had to overcome something in their life and are using their experience to help others stay strong.

Israel amputated his leg earlier this year. It started with a sore on his toe, which quickly because severe pain and before long, it was difficult for him to walk.

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Being part of this campaign allows him to teach and share his story about a condition that caught him off guard.

He’s always been strong, he says. It was just something he grew up with.

“This type of campaign tells me that our country is moving in the right direction, it is changing and changing for the better.”

He tells Drum about the painful period of his life. He sought both medical and traditional help until a friend told him he had to amputate his leg. He was scared of being an embarrassment and having to make adjustments to his life.

He says his condition started eight years ago, he felt an electric shock in his small toe and it felt like it was moving.

“I was shocked as to what is happening to me because that was a very painful shock but it only came once, like it was passing. After that I suffered from cold feet, sometimes my feet were stiff, sometimes I would limp and sometimes I would get out of bed in the middle of the night and sit on the couch and I would feel better because when I go to bed the pain would be heavy,” he says.

It was during this time that he decided to seek help. He consulted with both doctors and traditional healers and they told him different things. The actor says sangomas told him that he had a calling and he needed to be a healer.

And said he must go to initiation school while the doctors didn’t understand what was happening to him.

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He tells Drum that there is no test that he didn’t do to get to the bottom of this because he was told that something like this is caused by sugar diabetes and high blood pressure but he didn’t have any of those.

“They were always saying this is very strange and asked themselves what is this because they never came across this. They said even a person without chronic diseases can’t have an illness of this nature. My big toe started to develop something reddish and it was very painful and this redness went from one toe to another. From there I went to a lot of doctors, consultations, and churches and I ended up attending a specialist who deals with gangrene. That was the first time I heard of the name and finally knew what is wrong with me and I had symptoms of gangrene,” he says.

He says gangrene is caused by the lack of blood flow and he was even more shocked by that because when he wasn’t on set, he was a people’s trainer and was also keeping fit and always at the gym. His cells were blocked and didn’t function, and his feet ‘couldn’t breathe’ anymore, he explains.

“It is like the feet died while you are alive, looking at it, it became very dark and then it moved apparently. My best friend, who is a doctor, told me to go for an  amputation. I think I agreed three times and when it was close to the date of doing it, I changed my mind. The fourth time I agreed because my condition was worse, I became critical, and I couldn’t walk.”

The veteran actor, filmmaker, and musician tells Drum that he cried for seven nights and went to do the procedure in a hospital in Mpumalanga so he can also be close to his best friend, who can take of him.

"I thought I was going to die because some people kept on telling me that I am bewitched, I stepped on umuthi and it got into my body and that will travel to my heart and I will die. But now that I didn’t die, I found an opportunity to live again.

“As an icon and inspirational role model and the person who is respected in the community, I took this whole thing otherwise,” he says.

Israel thinks that maybe some of the things that he will do in the future needed him to go through this. “When I lost my leg I also found the courage to do more,” he tells Drum.

He says he can’t walk in the garden, kick the ball, or dance and can’t just stand up and walk up and down like he used to. He’s not at his full energy levels yet.

What he is grateful for is the ability to tell his own story because he got into the acting and the music industry because of his love for storytelling.

“I am one of the people that is born to live and tell a story of things that are happening in my life, good and bad. I feel very proud and brave because people have interesting stories but they are not telling their stories. Talking is therapy and therapy is healing. Silence is no longer golden, that is why I will always appreciate a platform that allows me to talk about my life experiences,” he says.

He says what made him strong is the way that he was born and the way he was raised as an African child. He needed to be strong, it was not a matter of choice. As a South African born in a country during apartheid, being strong was the only option.

And he hopes his strength helps others.

“The things that I do in life, that I am involved in and the covenant that I made between me and God is that I want to change the future for the better, not only for myself but for the others.”

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