A village waits for the blue death

Lena Matshogo (46) holds up an ­X-ray of her lungs. Her left lung

is clearly visible, but her right lung is buried under a haze of white.

She has just undergone surgery to drain fluid from the lung, but

doctors have given her bad news. She has ­mesothelioma, the same disease that

killed her husband six years ago.

Mesothelioma also killed both her parents. She knows many others in

Vergenoeg village – friends and ­relatives – who

have died from this disease.

She says she is prepared for ­anything, even death, but is ­worried about her five children.

Her parents worked on asbestos mines, her mother as a cleaner and

her father as a labourer. Matshogo also worked on the mines as a ­labourer and

cleaner.

Later, her father left the mines to work on a farm. The farm was

­covered with asbestos.

“We knew nothing. We used the ­asbestos flakes to clean our teeth.

We drank water from dams that were blue in colour.

It is only now we ­understand it was blue

asbestos, which is killing us now. Sometimes we picked up the flakes and ate

them like sweets. We were young and this thing looked so beautiful,” she

says.

When they left the farm to live in Vergenoeg in the early 1970s,

they found lots of asbestos flakes there as well.

Almost the entire village’s adult

population worked on the various ­asbestos mines nearby. They ­returned home in

work overalls ­covered in asbestos. Trucks carrying asbestos would park in the

village overnight, leaving blue asbestos in their wake.

Villagers took the sacks used to carry asbestos to build shacks.

They cooked in these shacks and sometimes children slept there.

They also used asbestos slabs as rooftops for their houses. Today,

Vergenoeg, like the other ­villages around the asbestos mines northeast of

Kuruman, has become a village of asbestos ­widows

and orphans.

“Most of the men are gone. This is a village of death,”

Matshogo says. “Asbestos has left a dark cloud here. Now children grow up

without parents because of asbestos, and they end up leading terrible lives,”

she says.

Her husband worked at a number of asbestos mines. When he was

­diagnosed with mesothelioma he suffered a nervous breakdown.

“He was saying if he knew this thing was so dangerous he would

never have worked there. He was worried about our children,” she says.

When she was diagnosed, ­Matshogo thought about death.

“But now I am not worried any more. I am prepared for anything. I

am just worried about my children because they are still young,” she says.

Matshogo says she’s comforted by the knowledge that at least her

­children have a decent home, a brick house she built with the payout from her

husband’s claim.

But it looks unlikely that the cycle of death will cease soon because ­every time the wind blows

in ­Vergenoeg, it carries with it the ­deadly asbestos flakes that have ­already

killed so many.

 
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