It Takes a Child to Kill a Village.
Sipho woke to the sound of neighbours shouting. This was not strange. It was a ritual every morning for people to stand at their gates and greet people passing by. His mother was outside having small talk with Mam’Khumalo from across the road. They were discussing the news. Soldiers had cordoned off Site C because of a virus outbreak.
“Uyabazi abo bantu, bamdaka”. (You know those people, they are dirty) His mother was saying.
“Ewe yazi xa udlula pha kunuka ituwa qha, mhlambi urhulumente izama ucleana yonke landawo.”(Yeah, you know when you go past their shacks all you smell is faeces, maybe the government is trying to clean up the places, like the olden days.)
He could hear them chatting from his room in the garage. He lived with his mother, father, brother, 2 sisters, and son. His son, Themba had lost his mother to AIDS a few years before. He had been 2 years old. That was when he came to live with Sipho’s family.
How do you explain the loss of a mother to a 5-year-old? No one wants to tell a child they had hugged their mother for the last time. It had been hard at first as he had mourned his mother’s passing.
There had been many bad times but 3 years later, Themba was growing into a happy, healthy boy. There were still times when he would just stare into the distance and you could see the tears starting. He would see a grown man’s pain etched across a face too young to have wrinkles.
When this happened the only thing that moved him was his father holding him close and whispering: “As my father is here with me now, as his father was with him and his father before him, I will always be here for you. We will be enough for each other.”
On this day Sipho was still in bed and Themba was already outside. Sipho couldn’t afford a real bed, so he had made one. It was just a grass mat with blankets on top. He shared this bed with Themba unless his girlfriend slept over. Then Themba would sleep with his sisters or his grandparents.
Themba was probably out playing with other kids from the street. This was not strange. Living in the townships had its problems: crime, poverty, lack of resources, and a whole host of other issues. But one of the greatest things about living in the townships was the sense of community. Your neighbours may be the first to talk about you, but if anything ever happened to you they would also be the first to come to your rescue. It was common to hear a knock at the door, only for it to be a neighbour asking for some sugar or samp or meilie meal. Everyone had very little so everyone shared what they had. They say it takes a village to raise a child. The townships were a testament to this old saying. In the townships children left their house in the morning to play and only made it home when the lights came on. They spent the day exploring and playing in whatever backyard they could. When they got hungry they would go to the nearest friends’ house and be given food, no exception. This was the way things were done.
Sipho worked in the house of a rich man in Sea Point. He tended to their gardens, did odd jobs, went grocery shopping, and any jobs that needed doing for the family. They paid him well for the work he was doing, and would even get him souvenirs from their travels around the world. These gifts were special to him, they never failed to draw out a tear or two from him. He never could figure out if it was the kindness or the sadness of knowing he would never see these places. At least he had the gifts. They made him feel like he was a small part of the family. He may have long given up on ever seeing where these things came from but he hoped his son would one day get there. His son was not named Themba (Hope) for a reason.
He would proudly show off the items to friends and family. “Njonga uMlungu wam undinike ntoni ngoku.” (Look at what my white man has given me now.)
His boss was currently on a ski trip in Italy. Sipho was in charge of making sure the house was still standing when he came back. Sipho went to Sea Point every second day to check up on the place. Today was one of those days.
He walked out of his room into the garage and through the kitchen back door. He put on the kettle and went to fetch the small basin from the bathroom. When the water boiled he poured it in the bucket and went to the cold water tap outside his door to mix the water for his bath. Then he took the basin to his room to wash. He put the basin on his bed and started to wash. His room was small, most of it was taken up by the bed and TV stand. At least they had a roof over their heads and food from the family table. They were grateful happy.
Sipho got ready and checked he had everything. He checked again to make sure his phone was on silent. It wasn’t a great phone, but he ran the risk of being robbed if it rang while he walked to the taxis. He put his wallet in his back pocket after taking R50 and putting it in his sock in case something happened. Then he set out.
It took 2 taxis to get to Sea Point. First he would walk for about a kilometre, down the street, past the church, and an open field. This was the most dangerous part of his journey to work. There was a road on the other side of the field, this is where he could catch a taxi. To catch one you had to stand at one of the points on the minibus taxi routes. Each minibus could legally carry 18 people, but it wasn’t unusual to find one with at least 22 people. This was an accepted reality, but people need to get to work and taxi drivers need to make money.
His first taxi would take him to the Site C taxi rank, from there he would catch another one to Sea Point if one was available. If not, he would take one to Cape Town and then another one to Sea Point. He could choose to take a train but that was a bigger risk and buses were always too full. He had tried the bus for a month but had been late so often his master had docked his pay. He couldn’t risk it, so the taxi was his only option, even if it took a huge chunk of his pay.
He would only be able to use his phone when he was in the taxi. Usually he would read up on what was happening in the country. The transfer from one taxi to another happened in the taxi rank and no one in their right mind would dare commit a crime in a taxi rank. The taxi drivers were the only people to worry about. So it was sort of safe. Today he was reading reports about a mysterious sickness hitting different parts of the world. Even though it wasn’t as lethal to young people it was contagious enough to make it a threat. It had killed many older people. Facebook was just full of people talking about it. Some were saying it is dangerous and countries should be ready. Other people were saying how it is not that bad and comparing it to other sicknesses. While other people even believed it was caused by phone networks. He read these and was not worried, after all, it was a foreign disease, how could he ever catch it.
When he got to work he found his boss had come home. He kept saying he was lucky to be home, cause Italy had closed just after he left. Sipho wondered how a country could close, it was not a shop. His boss had a gift for him. It was a beautiful glass ball with a broken looking building inside. Near the building was some lettering reading: The Colosseum. When he shook the globe white flakes would swirl around the building. HE shook his boss’s hands to say thank then he went back to work. He would have hugged him but he was still Umlungu. At the end of the day he went home, showed his family the snowglobe, had dinner, kissed Themba goodnight.
A week later Sipho started coughing. At first it was a normal dry cough. He thought maybe he had left the window open during the night. But the cough continued and got worse. Then he had a constant runny nose and always felt too hot. He would wake up in a sweat at night. He had scared his girlfriend the first night. She had woken up to the bed soaked with sweat. This whole time he assured himself and his parents that he just had a cold. When he could barely get out of bed, he had called his boss, to tell him he wouldn’t be able to go to work. His boss told him he had caught something in Italy and that it was best to self-isolate.
“How does one use up space just for himself in a full house?” He wondered to himself.
His mother finally convinced him to go to the hospital. He had never seen the hospital this way before. The hospitals were always busy and it was normal for people to wait for hours before seeing a doctor. This is the price one pays for free medicine in the townships. There were parts of the hospital with barricades and soldiers. Doctors were wearing masks and even full protection suits.
They did tests on him for the virus that had closed down countries as if they were petulant children. They put a swab up his nose and in his throat. Then he was told to go home, self isolate and they would call him with his results in a couple of days. When he left he saw a van leaving the cordoned-off area. The back was full of white plastic bags, he didn’t want to guess what was inside those bags.
Sipho had gotten into the habit of taken regular HIV/AIDS tests. His first few HIV tests had been difficult. At first he had been confident he was virus-free, then doubts had come, these were followed by identifying every risky thing he had done, next came the information gathering phase, finally came acceptance and trying to figure out what to do if the worst happened. He did the same things with this new virus. He had a hard time finding good information. Many people had many ideas but very few facts. But one comment stuck with him:
“Every meme, news story, tweet, etc reminds me of H1N1 and for me that’s personal. I haven’t got enough left in me at the moment to cry but I will. My wonderful husband died of H1N1 related pneumonia on 27th December 2009. So I’ll grieve every loss in this current virus because I lost my own victim of one that people said wasn’t that bad until the deaths started.”
The results finally came 9 days later. They came too late, at this point, he could barely breathe, the cough was worse, he was constantly dripping mucus and had no energy. His family finally decided to take him to the hospital. When he got to the hospital, he was isolated and he couldn’t see his family. He stayed in the hospital for 14days. In those 14 days he had a machine helping him breathe, tubes running all over his body. Some days he felt himself losing the fight. His lungs were drowning him, and couldn’t get the breathe he needed to keep fighting. The only thing that kept him going was the image of his crying mother explaining to Themba that he didn’t have parents anymore.
When he got off the machine he was able to receive a call from his sister.
“Buthi, I have to tell you something”
“What’s wrong? Is Themba sick?
“No, Themba is not sick, but…”
“Ok, good please put him on the phone. Please…”
He spoke to his son for a few minutes holding back the tears and guilt for what he had brought to his family.
“As my father is here with me now, as his father was with him and his father before him, I will always be here for you. We will be enough for each other.” Themba whispered.
He dropped the phone after that. He didn’t want to scare him. A son should never hear his father wail.
Sipho finally got released and went home. His family was happy to see him, they even baked a cake for him but he was so happy to be home. He kept his distance. This happy occasion was only broken when his father collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital. He was dead within 7 days, the only goodbye the family had was seeing him carted off in a white plastic bag.