Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

A 29th Story of AIDS


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

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

22 thoughts on “A 29th Story of AIDS

  1. So incredibly sad. Thank you for posting this, Charlotte. It’s so easy to forget what happens on the other side of the world, all of the dying and suffering. Please email me with Dan’s contact details.

  2. It truly is overwhelming how much there is to be done and ‘turning your back and walking away’ is often a matter of self-preservation rather than heartlessness. I’m full of admiration for your mother for stopping and doing all she could for this girl. If everyone could help just one or two people that they came across in their daily life, in a practical way as she has, then it wouldn’t seem so huge a feat to face the AIDs epidemic here.

  3. We already “turn our backs and walk away” on so many other issues, I feel my heart break when I think about Sambeka and how helping her means facing something ugly and starting a ball rolling.

    Lots of people don’t want to do that.

  4. Thank you for sharing this story.

    Please email me with the contact details as well.

  5. In our trip to Lesotho (summer 2006) we were told that whole valleys have been devastated. The young people were forced to move away because so many adults died of AIDS before the children – those who were still healthy – could learn how to sow crops and properly care for livestock.
    Signs of it are everywhere. In a village we stayed in, they were digging the grave of a woman, 22 and the mother of two small children, who had just died. Typical story: her husband, a trucker, had brought it home from the brothels on his route.

  6. Christmas is coming, a mother and child need help, shelter and compassion, how could one turn away.
    Please send me the contact details for Dan.

  7. Contact details please. Nothing more I can add.

  8. Kit put it very well, that perhaps if we all tried to help someone right before our eyes instead of feeling helpless or distant from these problems, then perhaps these issues wouldn’t seem so insurmountable.

  9. It’s Monday morning in Cape Town and its the second time I have been brought to tears. The first was call with my sister who is working as a trauma doctor at Africa’s only children’s hospital, called Red Cross. She spent most of her night stitching up a small girl’s vagina. Living here is sometimes very very hard. I am finding it hard today.
    Charl, you should know that our dear friend Marion is works for a UK organisation called ARK which is the largest private provider of ARVs in South Africa. I am going to give you her email and see if she can recommend some people who can help.

  10. What a shattering story – and you just know it is one of hundreds if not thousands just like it. Good for you for making us look, even if we are tempted to look away. And I think Kit is right – rather than being overwhelmed by the problems in this world, throwing up your hands in despair and walking away, maybe we should rather try our best to help one or two people that we come across in our daily lives. If everyone did this, think what a place the world would be…

  11. Your mother is an incredible woman. Thank you for sharing.

  12. The world needs more people like Toni.

    My tears on reading this devastatingly sad account won’t help – but my cash will. Please send me details too.

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  14. Please send me the contact details. It is Just Not Fair.

  15. Please email me the contact details. Not sure what else to say, really.

  16. I used to be a Director of Umngeni Aids Centre, and wish to assist in finding more money for them. Please Dan contact me @0723527655. I now work for SA funder in Dbn

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  18. I was privileged to be with Tony as he breathed his last, with his mother, sister and fiancee beside him. I was also privileged to witness how Pretty, the woman whose bride price he had just finished paying and whom he was to marry ealry next year, loved him on his way. She emptied herself to try to ease his pain, she held him, rubbed him, washed, and talked soothingly to him, 24 hours a day for the last week of his life. She, too, is an unsung hero. She spends her days as a comunity health worker doing nursing the dying at home, encouraging the living to face their fears and make HIV manageable…
    But this was so fitting a way for him to go. He was an exceptional man – How many men spend their lives helping children work through their grief, accompanying the sick whenever he could, motivating people to overcome stigma in their lives, and especially the self-stigma that prevents them from going for testing for fear of becoming an outcast…

    And yet, it needs to be said that the Health System in South Africa did not see him this way. He was yet another sick person with hollow eyes, who needed to be gotten rid of as soon as possible – the system can’t cope. He went to hospital with fluid in the abdomen over a month ago. The fluid was drained, and he was sent home. No further investigation, no treatment offered. This was only done a week ago when he returned, half the weight he was before. If he had started on TB treatment then, he may well be on the road to full recovery now… This is an outrage!! Why are we not more outraged?
    The reason why UMAC is at threat of closure, is because the Department of Health is happy to have organisations like UMAC do its work, but will not support them, or they make it so difficult to get support through the endless red tape and delays….

    I have been considering writing a letter to the KwaZulu Natal Dept of Health – but who will take it seriously? People who criticise the government are branded ‘unpatriotic’ or worse still, aligned with the white liberal opposition party. It is much easier to write-off criticism than listen to it…

    Who will join our voices with me and Dan and Sbu, so that together we may eventually break through the hardness of heart that comes from seeing too much death??? Pls let me know if you have any ideas for how we might take this forward.

    Lastly – I want to ask a small favour. To honour Tony’s life, I want to put together a story about Tony and submit it to a newspaper writing competition for the 16 Days Campaign, on the theme: “Men Making a Difference”. Can I have your permission to use snippets of what you have written here as part of the story? Today I am also to sit with Luyanda, his daughter, as well as Pretty and his mum and his dad, to hear their stories about this remarkable man – their father, life partner, and son. I will post this story on this blog when it is done.
    We need role models like Tony to be celebrated this 16 Days. Last year, the media had such a field day demonising men through bombarding the public with stories of violence against women and children, that in the end, the stats of incidences of gender based violence increased substantially during the same period!! This year, we want to celebrate those many men who are quietly going about the business of building a more peaceful world.
    Pls let me know if I can use excerpts from your contributions to this conversation.

    Daniela is Director of the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (PACSA), KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

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