Today I am honoured to have my first-ever guest post. Please meet my new-found friend Daniela Gennrich. Daniela worked closely with Tony Shelembe, and nursed him at her home along with his fiance, Pretty, during his last hours. In this article, which was published on Saturday, 1 December in The Natal Witness, Daniela interviews people who knew Tony well, including his mother, his fiance and his daughter.
A True South African Hero
by Daniela Gennrich
The sister at the local clinic looks up wearily, and surveys the queue snaking out of the main door onto the road. It’s going to be another long day…
“Next…” A young man approaches. “Sawubona Sister”.
“Yebo Boetie. What’s the problem?”
The somewhat sickly looking man explains that he has a persistent headache, and his abdomen is distended, or swollen. The sister puts on her stethoscope and listens briefly to his chest, takes his pulse and blood pressure, and sends him off with a small plastic packet with the word ‘Painadol’ written on it.
“OK – Next…”
A tired, careless moment, a missed opportunity to diagnose a life-threatening condition…
Just over a month later, Tony Shelembe became one of the death statistics for November 2007, one of the perhaps 1800 who will have died before the month is out.
But who was this man?
As I sat in his house the other day surrounded by his family and friends, the rain pelting down on the corrugated iron roof, I noticed a faded photo of a 14-year-old Tony, and asked people what they remembered about him. This is some of what I heard.
“I cannot eat when I think of my little grandson. Who is going to take of care of me when I am sick? Who is going to look after the cows and the goats for me? I should have gone before you. Who is going to bury me now?”
“I am Tony’s mother. Tony was very helpful, at home and in the community. He loved his children very much, they were very important to him, but all children were important to him. This is a very great loss. Everyone will miss him.”
“He was not talkative and didn’t fight. He loved to braai meat outside on a Sunday. He was often making jokes. One day when he was 14 and I still had a car, he just took it and drove away. But he was humble and just said ‘I am sorry, dad’. He could not resist driving!”
“He was always there for me when we were growing up.”
“My dad was so kind. He did all the things I wanted. The best part was when he used to take us kids to go swim in the river. He bought me a bike for Christmas.”
An athlete and a role model:
“My dad was a marathon runner. He got three Comrades medals, and eight others for running. He won three gold medals for his soccer team.”
A community leader:
“He was a good leader. I always remember Tony with his smile. I remember the work he has done with us in the community since 2000. I remember when the committee was divided, and some wanted to follow Sthembile and others wanted to follow Prudence. And Tony said “No, this thing is too big, we have to continue the work, however scary it is”. And we have continued to work until now. The stigma is less, and more people come forward for help. Tony left us in the middle, but we know that God is there…”
“He was like a son to me, chatting about his future and where he wanted to go. He wanted to be an NGO director and quietly went about making it happen. Working day to day to make a difference, it was never about the money or the status, always about how things would change.”
“He was not like other men. He helped orphans talk about their sadness, helped gogos looking after their grandchildren. How many men have that gift to give children?” (A community member)
“Tony used to come straight away when we called for help. He used to drive us to hospital when we were sick. But he was not like a taxi driver. He used to talk to us to help us not to be afraid.” (A gogo in the community)
“He helped me to take my medication correctly – what will I do now?” (Young woman in the community)
“I remember his dedication. His respect for the young and the old, his smile, his tiny body, his funny caps and his good heart.”
“He was many things in one. He was there for everyone, mothers, children, friends. Whatever he put his mind to, it became possible. Even though things were a struggle he never accepted failure and always found a way forward. He never lost hope.”
“He was not afraid to confront you when things went wrong, to honestly work things out.”
A lover and a husband-to-be:
“I fell in love with Tony on the 9th August 2004, when we were both doing home based care training in Howick. One day he took me to uMngeni River and he told me he wanted to marry me. I did not agree. He begged me until I finally agreed. He has just finished paying my mother lobola (bride price) for me. We have started wedding preparations. Next month we were going to collect our rings at the jewellery shop, and we were paying off a bedroom suite.
Then he got sick. But he never gave up hope. I remember one day when he was very sick, he tried to get up and go to work. He loved his job.
He also loved talking with me about our future and our babies. I miss his smile. When he called my name, he said ‘love’. Everywhere I go he still goes with me. I wish someone could bring him back to me.”
His vision for his community?
I remember he said: “ This community is going to have a vibrant economy and there will be no more unemployment. And most of all, there will be no HIV stigma and we will be free. If I die, please don’t let anyone say it was nthakathi (witchcraft). Tell them I was just sick.”
The Hilton Valley Committee chair has committed to continue working to fulfil his vision. Even though they have very little funding, they have vision and they have hope.
So, who was this man, passed over so easily by the Health System?
The answer is best summed up in the words of his daughter Luyanda, as I was bringing her back from shopping yesterday, when she saw Tony’s cousin in the distance: “Look, look! Daddy IS here! … Oh no, sorry – I forgot ….”
Tony’s memorial service was today. My mother baked scones and with Daniela, collected Tony’s family and drove them to the community hall where the service took place. She said many people spoke, and she was deeply moved by the beautiful singing of African hymns, where one voice begins and then others join in in parallel harmonies. She met all the people who loved Tony and who mourn him so deeply.
My Toni was also relieved to hear that Tony’s community are going to try to help Sambeka, who lives 10 kilometres away and who was one of the many people with AIDS that Tony was helping. Community members will drive her to the clinic so that she and her baby son get the treatment they so desperately need.
I am gaining faith in the amazing networks built by ordinary people who find the compassion in their hearts to help each other. But it is nevertheless a tragedy that such a wonderful man had to die because the health system was too overwhelmed, overworked and weak to save his life.