“Maybe this time we can win.”
November 12, 2013
Dzanani, Limpopo, South Africa
As recorded in my journal today:
Shonisana, a six year old girl, is absent again today. Maybe I should have been more proactive by now. Today I am urging the principal of this school, Mrs. R, to allow me to make a home visit.
The response is hesitation. “We have to be wise in our approach,” I’m told.
Discussing the illness of children with parents is a volatile undertaking. There are many cases before Shonisana.
I suggest to Mrs. R. that we each take some time away from the matter, and state my intent to return to her office for discussion in 30 minutes.
During my break, I ask three educators about the child. I already know the mother left her behind about a year ago. I am told that if the child is absent again tomorrow, perhaps I can visit the home.
I want to visit her home anyway. I want to see how she lives and what she needs. I want to be shown the ways I may give. I want to know how she is spoken to and what her meals consist of, if she is hugged at night. Does she laugh and play and smile when she is not at school sniffling through cloudy eyes, forcing smiles and not holding her head as high as a being who knows her worth, as someone who feels loved and unique? God, is it I am falling in love with Shonisana? My heart screams that I must take away the dark blocking her light.
Universe, I trust you’ll reveal the ways I may give.
It seems each new day I meet someone, or some situation, which calls for my touch. My experience, personally and professionally, could lend itself to all challenges which roll before my feet. Parts of me challenge my heart’s song:
“You can’t tackle everything. Who do you think you are…there are problems everywhere…you aren’t big enough to do it all…”
I shed these pieces as soon as they arise. As I wrote a few weeks ago, entitled, Grateful Dead:
“I can feel it fall away,
The old, the dead,
Pieces of me are not pieces of me are no longer pieces of me,
Truth leads and the skin is shed,
Suddenly it’s different paintings inside of my head.”
Yes, even the words I spoke at Peace Corps swear-in, from Nelson Mandela’s Inaugural speech urge, “There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking-”
Fifteen Minutes Later. Mrs. R. called me to her office to discuss the girl. With a loving look in her eyes she tells me, “maybe this time we can win.”
I will be off to visit the child’s home within the hour. An educator, Mrs. M, will accompany me. Thank you, Universe.
We arrive to the home to find the only caretaker is a grandmother, Jules, who is also ill. Jules invites me to sit on a chair under a tree. I learn that the child has been to the clinic but was sent home without treatment. I request to see Shonisana. Jules commands the other children to fetch her.
A few minutes later my dear child appears, sobbing. She looks thin and her lips are gray and cracked with dehydration. She coughs and I can hear the congestion in her chest. Her head hangs, eyes to the ground, as if shamed for some reason. She peeks up from the ground and our eyes meet. She is wondering what the makuwa (white person) is doing at her home. I give her my smile to let her know it’s okay. She forces a smile through her pain as her shoulders remain slumped. I open my arms to her. She is hesitant at first, but then comes to me. In this moment, I feel true love the way I haven’t felt since holding my baby niece, Sophia, in my arms. I kiss Shonisana on the head and wrap my arm around her as I inquire with the granny about her condition, using Mrs. M. for translation when necessary. By the end of the conversation, I’ve sat Shonisana on my lap. Her hand rests in mine.
Unfortunately, nutrition education is lacking in rural South Africa. I learn Shonisana has been sick for three days with no fruits, vegetables, and only salty water from a borehole. I learn about her most recent medical visits.
Yesterday, I sparked up conversation with a Venda woman because she wore a shirt which indicated community activism. She works in home based care. I’m visiting her at her project location tomorrow. Perfect timing. I get permission from Jules to bring some items to their home later today and to have a medical professional visit the home tomorrow. She graciously accepts my offer.
I leave the home and walk faster than I ever have in 110 degree heat, up a mountain to gather items: thermometer, chamomile, water, fruits, vegetables, organic juices, lip balm, a watermelon…and oh yeah…that stuffed giraffe my mother, Theresa, gave me before my SA departure. I pack everything onto my back and into my arms to race down the mountain, into a taxi, and back to Shonisana.
I step off the taxi, with my headphones on. Music from an Edward Sharpe radio station fills my ears. The lyrics delight me, “We’re all Jesus in Disguise when we’re High on Love.”
Mrs. M appears in a Nelson Mandela ANC wrap and a sun hat. We begin our walk over the large stones on the rocky mountain road. She takes the 5L water jug from my grip and begins to speak.
“I believe that sickness comes from stress. From being lonely. From being afraid…”
Amazing. Indeed, I’m in the right place. This is exactly the perspective I’d hoped to enlighten in my counterparts here. And in this moment, I realize, we’re already there. Half the battle. Mrs. M. continues, “the young girl is wondering, ‘Where is my mother? Does she care…? You see, and so she made herself sick.”
We arrive at the home and Shonisana is waiting by the gate for us. Her face is clean, and she’s in fresh clothes. She is beautiful.
We take our places under the tree again. The grandmother, Jules, joins us, also looking fresh. I provide fruit for all of us and begin pulling the items from my bag.
I reveal the items intentionally and individually. First, the thermometer. I take Shonisana’s temp, while explaining to Jules how to properly do this on her own. I am pleased the child does not have fever. I explain at which temperature Jules must immediately seek medical attention, and the importance of frequent monitoring until I send a nurse tomorrow.
Next, I remove the lip balm. I look at Shonisana and exclaim, “It is special, just for you!” Mrs. M. translates for me, and the child looks up at me with a curious smile and a nose crinkle. Her shoulders are more erect than I can recall seeing before. I remove the cap of the balm and place the soothing cocktail on her little lips. She is happy.
I then explain the value of each food item I’ve brought and ways to prepare.
Next, I remove the stuffed giraffe. Shonisana smiles again. I hand it to her and explain, in broken Tshivenda, that my mother gave it to me from all the way across the world in America. She is happy.
Lastly, I remove the watermelon from my bag. The entire family exclaims, “Oh! Oh! Ndo livhuwa nga maanda! Nga Maanda, Takalani!”
Takalani is my Venda name, prescribed by my tribal counterparts. It means, “be happy.”
I ask to carry the items inside for Jules, and she allows me. On our way in, Mrs. M urges that I name the stuffed giraffe for Shonisana. “I want her to name it whatever she wants,” I respond.
“It will be more special for her if you name it,” Mrs. M and Jules agree.
I thought about it for a minute, and then I knew. The one person who helped make it possible for me to even be in South Africa, the most compassionate woman I know, the woman who gave me the giraffe…my own mother, “Mme anga, Theresa,” I decide.
Jules laughs and repeats, “Theresa.”
“Can she say it?” I ask motioning to Shonisana.
“Theresa,” she speaks it perfectly.
We take pictures and I hug the child goodbye, and give her brother a playful pinch. I can see, she is happy. During goodbyes, I stutter when trying to speak her name.
“It’s okay, Mrs. M. says, “she goes by another name, ‘Omphulusa.'”
“What does that mean?”
“To be saved,” she replies.
Silence surrounds us for moments.
Before our farewell, I show Jules and Mrs. M. the pictures we snapped today. They are pleased. The two women farewell in advanced Tshivenda, as I admire the day’s pictures myself. I burst into laughter. This disrupts their conversation. They look at each other and giggle, pointing at me, “She is happy!”
Mrs. M. and I walk down the path to the gate as the nearby gardeners and Jules watch us leave, exclaiming, “Ndo Livhuwa nga maanda, Takalani! Ndo Livhuwa nga maanda, Takalani!”
On our walk home Mrs. M. tells me, “She already looks better. She feels love today. Tonight, she will sleep well. She won’t be lonely. She will hug her giraffe and be happy.”
The first time we saw Shonisana’s teeth! Smiling just a few days after our Little Victory.
The next day. This morning, before I could even make the phone call myself, my friend who coordinates the mobile clinics for Venda had sent me an instant message asking how I am doing. I call her to tell about Shonisana.
She made a visit to the girl’s home. The child is now receiving proper treatment and should be in good shape within 48 hours. The grandmother, Jules, is also receiving treatment, food supplements, and dietary education.
Ruth, my friend from the mobile clinic, will meet with me next week to collaborate on plans to rollout nutrition workshops for parents throughout the district. Another Little Victory. Today is definitely an ace! And it’s not even 3pm here.
I’d also like to add that Ruth was a chance meet. I decided, spur of the moment one day, to participate in a 12k walk with community members. It was two days after I wrote, “It’s People,” in which I discuss HIV/Aids in the community, and state my intent to tackle the issues surrounding the problem by employing the methods revealed by the Universe. After the 12k, I mingled with the crowd, introducing myself in Tshivenda. I met Ruth, who also coordinates health outreach and education for the district. Two days later, we were collaborating.
I’m more than optimistic about the work here. And I thank you for all the encouragement from home.
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