This is my mother’s story, so I’ll let her tell it in her own words. Meet Toni:
“I was driving through the village to my bridge class when I saw an old gogo (grandmother) with a baby on her back. The baby seemed to be slipping out of the blanket and looked as if it was going to fall, so I stopped my car. I ran across the road to tell her, but when I got to her, I realised she was not an old lady but a child.
I could see she was very sick. I asked her how old she was and she said, ‘Seventeen’. I asked her where her parents were and she said, ‘My parents are dead’. I asked her who she lived with and she said, ‘I live with my aunt. She does not like me.’
I began to cry. My heart just opened and I wept. She said, ‘Please don’t cry.’
Then I asked her where she was going and she said, ‘To the clinic.’ I drove her to the clinic, and then I told her I would come back and fetch her. I drove to my bridge class to tell them I wouldn’t be joining them and I told them why. They told me the only thing to do is to turn your back and walk away.
I knew I couldn’t do that, so I drove back to the clinic and saw Sambeka sitting, feeding her baby. She seemed to be smiling, but then I realised she was grimacing with pain. Every breath hurt her and she could hardly hold her four-month-old baby. Her arms were too weak. The clinic sisters seemed kind but overwhelmed. They told me Sambeka was the tip of the iceberg. They also told me not to cry in front of her. They were waiting for results of a blood test, so all they could give her was porridge to take home and formula for the baby. They said that she was too sick to walk.
I told her I would drive her. On the way, I stopped at home and gathered everything I could find – food, cooking utensils, money, blankets. Then I took her home – to a small, two-room RDP house (RDP stands for the goverment’s Reconstruction and Development Plan) where she lives with her aunt and her three children, who were all semi-naked. It is a twelve kilometre journey from the house to the clinic. Sambeka would have had to take a taxi (a minibus used for public transport), crammed with people and then walk part of the way. It must have been such a struggle for her to get there.
I went home and phoned my neighbour who is involved with AIDS organizations in the area. She told me about the Umngeni AIDS Centre and a young man called Tony Shelembe, who helps people with AIDS and counsels children bereaved by AIDS. I phoned Tony and arranged to meet him to find out what else could be done for Sambeka. He asked some details about her and where she lived, and before we met up, went to visit her. I also went shopping and bought clothes for all the children in the house, and more food.
I collected Tony and he told me he was taking me to see Dan le Cordeur*, a Catholic priest, who also volunteers for the Umngeni AIDS Centre (UAC). Dan said that the UAC has had to close down because donors don’t want to pay for administration. The eight UAC employees are now jobless, except for Tony. They have managed to find R700 (€70) a month to pay his salary.
Tony and I then went to see Sambeka. He told me he had already applied for a birth certificate for the baby and ID for her. While I was away, he was going to take her to the Howick Clinic (20km in the opposite direction) to try to get her on ARVs.
Sambeka is dying. Unless she can get on ARVs immediately, her baby will be orphaned, with only a reluctant great-aunt to look after him. I don’t know what to expect when I get back. She might be gone, she might already be on treatment.”
I have a photo of Sambeka, taken by Toni. I thought briefly about posting it but I decided I didn’t want to without her permission. She holds her baby son propped up on her lap so that the camera catches his little face as well as hers. The camera doesn’t show the lesions on her chest and around her mouth, but it does show the devastating hope in her eyes.
Sambeka does not want to die. She does not want to orphan her child. But unless Tony and the UAC can help her cut through South Africa’s red tape, get her to a clinic – no mean feat now that she’s so sick – and help her access those ARVs that she so desperately needs, she won’t make Christmas.
* If anyone would like to make a donation to keep the UAC above water so that it can help people with AIDS like Sambeka, I can provide you with Dan’s email address