Nokwanda spends most of her time crumpled beneath the blankets in the hospital TB ward. The coral pink curtains are tied in knots to allow any willing breeze to pour through the huge, open windows.
Some of the women in this room will heal and go home to their families. Others will be asked to visit the nurse’s consultation room where they will be told they are HIV positive. Some will die here.
The cough is the common language among the 18 women who spend months living in this room.
TB is a fact of life in this region but AIDS is an alien invader from another world. TB is the cloth that hides the AIDS, like keeping one’s head under the blanket.
At 27, the once beautiful Nokwanda’s hair has thinned, her skin is pale and loose on the bones of her girlish frame that has produced four children. Two of the children, her sons, are still healthy; ages eight and five. The older son lives with relatives in Johannesburg, the younger son has remained with her. Her first born, a daughter, died shortly after birth. Her youngest, another daughter, died nine months ago at the age of nine months. The baby had AIDS.
Nokwanda did not know she or the baby had AIDS until after the baby died at home and Nokwanda returned to the hospital with TB, where she has remained for treatment. Her terror of explaining her illness to her husband Xolani and his family keeps her chronically depressed.
The doctor gives Nokwanda permission to travel to her husband’s home with a friend for one day to visit Xolani to tell him. Dorothy, a nurse, agrees to accompany Nokwanda to help with the education of the family about AIDS.
The last 200 metres of Nokwanda’s journey must be made on foot. Although the young mother is anxious to see her son, she collapses at the top of the hill, overwhelmed by the thought of the ordeal that faces her.
Relatives see the activity in the distance and climb the steep eroded hill to find her there, weakened by TB and fear. The concerned women gather around her in a protective ring. Dorothy explains to the women that Nokwanda wants to see her husband and child. One woman gathers Nokwanda into her arms. She slings her onto her back and carries the frail woman to their home.
Nokwanda was married at 15. Xolani captured her and took her to this home, made an installment payment on the lobolla to Nokwanda’s mother, and then went to work at a factory in Johannesburg to earn the money to pay the remainder of the five cows debt.
Nokwanda was too young for marriage. She wept. But the women in Xolani’s family were good to Nokwanda and she settled into their life on the mountainside. The women loved her and soon treated her like one of their own. She helped with the household. She bore children.
Now she must tell her adopted family that she has depended on for 12 years that she brings death into their midst.
The women carry Nokwanda to the first house to rest. There she is given a plate of food, some pap with pumpkin. They move on to the next house, which was the one she shared with her husband. He is there. With the mob of curious family watching their greeting is shy. More women stream into the small house, they sing and pray. They don’t know what is wrong except that one of their own is in trouble. That’s something that is immediately turned over to God.
Nokwanda collapses into a chair next to the window. Xolani brings her a pillow for comfort. She puts the pillow on the table next to her and lays her head, cradled in her arms, on it while she talks. Nokwanda requests some time alone with her husband. She asks the family auntie, a brassy benevolent woman, to remain in the room with them.
Softly Nokwanda tells them that she has AIDS. She is rehearsed, straightforward. She displays no emotion. She eats a small peach while she tells them.
The silence is like something has sucked all the air out of the room. Dorothy gives them some time to think, then she begins to counsel. Xolani says he knows he must come to the hospital to be tested. Dorothy steers them away from any discussion about where this disease may have started. To do that would be counter-productive.
Malwanda, Nokwanda’s five-year-old son arrives with a cousin who has fetched him from school. He stands tentatively in the doorway when he sees his mother. Nokwanda reaches out to him, he goes to her, hovers near her, searches her face. Someone gives him a small green apple. Nokwanda questions him about school. The child replies in whispered single-word sentences.
Nokwanda doesn’t want Malwanda to know what is wrong with her.
Thunderclouds form outside the rondavel. Nokwanda must leave before the storm begins. Loved ones have little time to absorb their situation.
A cousin leads Malwanda away from his mother, the child wails at the thought of losing his mother again. But Nokwanda has another month of treatment to finish for the TB. There is no choice.
Xolani walks up the steep hillside with the army of women who take turns carrying Nokwanda on their backs. Auntie and Xolani pile into the back seat of the small car to accompany Nokwanda to the outskirts of the location. When they arrive at the taxi rank, Auntie rushes over to the nearest fruit seller and buys bananas. She hands them to Nokwanda along with a few coins.
Nokwanda begins the journey back to the hospital.
Nokwanda knows now. She knows that there is nothing to fear.
Nokwanda will lose her life, but she has not lost her family’s love.
She smiles, “I have crossed the highest mountain.”
Nokwanda looks better. She has gained weight and color. She sits up in the bed and occasionally walks around the room. She interacts with the other women on the ward.
She wants to be released. She wants to be with her mother and sisters at their home. The doctors agree.
Nokwanda packs her belongings in a plastic bag and delicately works her way out of the ward. There are the good-byes to the women who all wish her well.
Once outside the barefooted Nokwanda endures the rough walkway to the friend with the bakkie who will take her home. Her goal is to walk to her destinations this time instead of being carried.
It’s late afternoon and the small rural community where Nokwanda’s mother lives is quiet. Again Nokwanda must complete the journey on foot. She refuses assistance, and with the bag slung over shoulder, begins the walk over the last 50 metres on the straight, grassy path to her mother’s home. Occasionally she becomes breathless, sometimes she winces with pain, but there is nothing tentative about the steps she makes and her only words: “Yes… I am walking.”
The sisters, cousins, aunties, children are excited about Nokwanda’s return but she is too exhausted to share the excitement. She talks with her sister while they build a fire for warmth and cook some mealies. Here her name is Rosemary.
There is no mistake about who her mother is when Joyce comes home from her job as a tree planter on a farm; the two women are like twins but it’s Joyce who has the vitality of health. Clad in her work clothes and wellies she immediately sits close to her daughter and the fire and questions her.
Nokwanda needs to rest. Joyce walks out with the departing friend, giving her bags of mealies. The women talk about children and daughters, Joyce reports that Nokwanda has told her she has AIDS. The friend confirms it.
Joyce looks as far away as she can. She understands that she must help her daughter to fight. Wordlessly she begins to return to the house on the grassy path, accompanied by the still excited noisy youngsters.
A rainbow appears in the sky as she walks away.
Nokwanda is back. With her sister’s support she returned to hospital a few days ago. Weakened by more chest pain and coughing, she wants to spend time on the TB ward to regain her strength.
During the weeks she spent at her mother’s home Nokwanda has had no contact with her husband or his family. She aches to see her son, worrying about his welfare. This maternal force is stronger than traditional customs that have provided both sustenance and obstacle for a young woman of strength; Nokwanda decides she must fetch her son from her husband’s home as soon as she has enough strength to travel the distance.
Xhosa traditions dictate that any decision about the child belongs to the child’s father but this is in direct conflict with what Nokwanda believes is best for her son. Her argument with the invisible forces begins.
“He’s my son!” she jabs at the intangible but powerful possibility that the child might not be released to her. For her, a refusal is out of the question.
Nokwanda’s arrival at the outskirts of the family compound is as much of an event as it was five months ago when she visited with the family for an afternoon to tell them she has AIDS. But this time she does not trek to the houses when the family women come to greet her. Instead she makes her request from the shadow of the parked car of the friend who has transported her here.
Her husband Xolani is not here, the women inform her; he seeks work in another region.
As before, Malwanda is fetched from the school and once again the normally lively boy becomes shy around his mother. She tells him she wants him to come away with her. There is no argument from him when aunties bundle him off to the house, quickly change his clothes, and then plunk him onto the back seat of the car next to his mother. Still in stunned silence that comes with his mother’s unexpected appearances, he sinks into the deep cushioned seat of the car, absorbing his mother’s presence as though she were a fairy godmother.
The aunties are not allowed to give Nokwanda the permission she needs to take the child so they all drive to the government offices to find her brother-in-law. A cousin locates the man, he comes to the car and leans on the open window where Nokwanda speaks to him from the back seat.
Having reached the outer boundary of her tradition-busting spirit, she begins politely,
“Brother of the father of my child…”
After some discussion about arrangements for the return of the child, Malwanda’s uncle gives the God-given consent that comes with being a Xhosa man.
Malwanda will stay at hospital with his mother where he will undergo routine tests and observation for TB.
To be continued.