Tuesday, 12 July 2011


Zwelethemba, you have stolen my heart. Your sandy paths, mountain silhouettes, laughing children, and quiet survivors will stay with me forever.

Zwelethemba is a township on the outskirts of Cape Town in Worcester, which is about an hour and half away from UCT. We arrived Friday afternoon and met our homestay mothers. Valerie and I were paired with Nothemba, an elderly woman with a huge smile on her face. When she took us to her tiny brick house, we were surprised to see the number of children running in and out all day long.

When we first met Nothemba, she had three children and ten grandchildren. But by the time we departed, she only had two children. During our first night in Zwelethemba, Valerie and I awoke at midnight to chanting, singing, and praying. We were confused and slightly scared but decided to not leave our room. But in the morning, we were told that Nothemba’s daughter had passed away in the night. This was not the first child she had lost. This daughter left a pair of twins just learning to walk and a five-year-old son, Iviwe. Nothemba had already been taking care of these children, as her daughter had been sick for a year. The previous night Nothemba told us how she was getting old, and she was tired of taking care of so many children. I counted seven roaming around and coming in and out of the house throughout the day and I wondered how many actually lived with her.

After breakfast we were quickly transferred to another mother, because funeral preparations had to be made. The furniture was moved as neighbors, family members, and even Nothemba’s ex-husband visited her and offered their condolences. But no one uttered a word of how Nothemba’s daughter died.  

Curious, I asked Olga, our second homestay mother, how Nothemba’s daughter died, but she did not answer. Later on, I heard it was AIDS and that she had refused treatment. She had refused to fight the death sentence. She had refused to care for her children. At our HIV panel that afternoon, a healthy, HIV positive woman adherent to treatment told us how she refused to become a victim of the death sentence, how she found the courage to disclose to others, and how she would continue to fight for the sake of her children.

For weeks I was working at an HIV clinic where I met patients testing positive for HIV, starting treatment, and either adhering to or defaulting treatment. Finally, I was put into a house with a family that experienced death from the virus. My experiences with HIV went from reading about it in medical journals at Hopkins to seeing it in a personal matter that I could never have imagined would occur on this trip.

On our arrival to Olga’s house, which was a minute walk from Nothemba’s, I was surprised by how quiet our second homestay was. Olga’s concrete house was much larger and did not have the dirt of children’s games smeared on the walls. And after a few hours of talking with Olga, I realized her stories painted a different picture.

Olga was a victim of the 1996 Shoprite bombing in Zwelethemba. A young, white man by the name of Stefaans Cotzee had worked with others to plant a bomb at the store where many black South Africans like Olga did their general shopping. After the bombing, she spent a year at the hospital receiving treatment on her badly damaged legs. The sound of the blast had also damaged her ears. The memories of the incident still keep her up every night and as a result, she can only sleep for a couple of hours.

Olga stands in front of her previous home during a tour of her old neighborhood.

Years later Olga heard from two German journalists that the perpetrators of the bombing had been caught and sentenced without her knowledge. With their help, Olga went to Pretoria Prison to visit Stefaans. There she was stunned to see a 31 year young man, when, for so long she had imagined him to be much older. When she asked him what he would give in return for her forgiveness, he could promise nothing for he had nothing. She was satisfied with this answer and so she forgave him. I never witnessed the meaning, the power, or the simplicity of forgiveness until I came to South Africa.

Because of the injuries from the bombing, Olga could no longer work or financially provide for her children and so her husband’s family took in her children. Her husband died in a hit and run accident a few years ago and the compensation she received in court for his wrongful death was used to build her house. Before she moved here, she lived fifteen minutes away in a tin shack with no electricity or running water. But even now that she has a roof over her head, she cannot pay the municipality bills. She will have to go to court soon to settle this or they will cut off her electricity and water. She showed us all the papers, including her court summons.

There are only two light bulbs inside the house, one in the hallway and one in the kitchen, and so we ate dinner in the dark in the living room. At dinner, Olga quietly confided in us that she is amazed that she is able to put food on her table. She has no job, children who look in after her, just friendly neighbors. She told us to take as much as we wanted and not to worry about her because she is a small eater. I know that she will save the leftovers for as long as she can because the money she gets from being a homestay mother is not much. This is not a meal where you take seconds.

Later that night, when everyone else went to the shebine, I sat down with Olga and gave her a small gift and she held me and started crying. Apparently, she had been living in the house for the past two days with no food. She is frail, lonely, and has no way of leaving Zwelethemba. If she leaves, where will she go? What kind of work can she find? What will happen to her house? She does not know and therefore, she does not leave. She said I was a miracle, because of the gift I had given her. She insisted I must have been a miracle, sent from both God and her friend Nothemba. She was losing faith in God the night before, and God was the only thing she had left. 

As we left Zwelethemba the next day, Olga gave us many hugs and kisses, but she repeated that once again she will be all alone. The only comforting thing I came up with was to tell her that she had God by her side and when you have God you are never alone. She went off to church to pray for us.

As we waited for the van to pick us up, I saw Iviwe again. He is a naughty kid, who always makes trouble, but he still smiles genuinely every now and then and he is most relaxed when he is held. I asked Nothemba if he knows his mother has passed away. She said yes but he does not care much because she never took care of him.

As we said goodbye, Nothemba handed us a copy of her book, Not the End of the World, and I put it with my copy of Olga’s story that she had given me. Within the first few pages of Nothemba’s book, I learn that her name means hope.

The children of Zwelethemba, who have come to know our faces and love our presence in only three days, ran over to say goodbye. They love running their fingers through our hair, braiding and twisting it. They love throwing around Abe’s football, dancing with Sasha, and making funny faces with Jen. But most of all, they love running to us as we stroll the streets of Zwelethemba and fighting over who gets to hold our hands. I saw Ano with watery eyes as she asked me when I’ll come back and I told her that I don’t think I can. She came back with a tiny plastic bag with a sticker and a button. She wanted to give me a gift and that’s all she had. I hugged four-year-old Thama one last time, and in Valerie’s arm she sang a song in Xhosa after I had asked many times to hear her sing. As we drove off, Valerie asked me, how can they love us so much so quickly when we have done nothing for them. I reply that kids get attached easily and our presence, our games, our laps and shoulders provided an escape from their daily routines and households where parents were busy, neglectful, or absent.

The truth is, memories of the view of Table Mountain, the breathtaking scenery of the Cape Peninsula, and dinners at exotic restaurants will probably fade, but I cannot imagine forgetting the people I have met in South Africa. The people and stories of Zwelethemba will especially always stay with me.    

Sarah Islam
PHS 2012

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