Nokwanda’€™s Journey (4)

The conclusion of our four-part series tracking the last four years of the 27-year-old HIV positive mother’€™s life. In this instalment, writer Susan Winters, spends time with Nokwanda’€™s family after her death.

The women shooed Malwanda away when he approached the door to the room in which Joyce sobbed into her apron. When the boy returned to the door again with tears in his eyes Dorothy brought him in and sat him next to his grandmother and again it was a silent communication that told him his mother was dead.

The boy burst into wails that turned into retching sobs. While the pain exploded from his body he draped himself over Nobantu’s lap and she rubbed his back just as she had rubbed his mother’s leg at hospital just a few days before. He collapsed into the embrace and quietly sobbed for the next hour. The bodies of the women who took turns holding him were there for his mother.

Malwanda has known this was coming. The tension has been broken now, the worst has happened, and he can be a child again.

Nokwanda’s sisters are now in tears, one sits on the floor and sobs. Neighbours begin to drift into the room and the ritual begins, of tears and prayer and song and before the hour is up two headbourne cabbages appear.

There is talk about God and Jesus but Joyce doesn’€™t appear to be buying any of it right now. She has just lost her firstborn; her daughter, her twin, and she is far away, swept away in her torrential grief.

22 March 1998

Transkei Village

Make the turn at the curve where the tractor trailers pile up daily. Go 25k on a mysteriously well paved road, pass the hillside that appears to have been scraped by a huge claw, pass three Transkei robots and take the 4th muddy trail on the left.   Proceed along the huge ruts to the tiny blue Catholic church surrounded by tall mealies.      

Nokwanda’€™s family can spot visitors from the house long before the actually arrive. The children charge down the hillside in noisy greeting, help carry parcels and protect the visitors from overly protective dogs.      

Dr Sarah visits Nokwanda’€™s family to pay her respects and deliver food and clothing. She examines the sores on the limbs of some family members to determine what medications are needed.

Joyce remains seated in the house on the floor; mats and foam mattresses have replaced the furniture and she has donned the appropriate attire for grief. For the next five days Joyce will remain shrouded in scarves and plaid blankets, sitting on the floor with her back against the wall, legs stretched out in front of her. Praying and singing women will surround her and a candle will burn perpetually throughout the week.        

28 March

It has rained for three days but this day, the day of the funeral, promises to be perfect. At the house the dark stained pine casket has been placed in the room where Nokwanda spent most of the last weeks of her life and where women have grieved for six days. They have hung a white sheet over the small casket in which the top is moved down just enough to expose Nokwanda’s face. The sheet is there to protect the children from seeing the body.

Nokwanda’s face is serene.   A white cap covers her hair, a white lace sheet tucked under her chin. The candle still burns on the floor next to the casket.

The family has been up all night keeping vigil with song and prayer.

Outside, Malwanda is acting like a child again, playing with his new tribe of children. Joyce has shown him his mother’€™s body and has explained to Malwanda that his mother will not return, but she waits for him in Heaven, where he will go when he is old and God calls him, and when she has finished the beautiful house she builds for him there.

‘€œI tell him this because he must remain happy,’€ Joyce explains.

The minister from the local church weeps as he begins the ceremony with a dozen women in the room. Joyce sinks deeper into her blanket. The women break into song, some stand and parade around the room, banging their hands on Bibles like tambourines.  

More family and neighbors arrive and mill about outside when they are not joining the prayers inside. The temperature rises when the churchwomen arrive with the bells and horns. About 200 people show up for the farewell.    

Xolani has arrived with four members of his family. He sits on the floor at the foot of the casket. He weeps.

Peter, Nokwanda’s father, takes over the service with readings and prayer. Services go on for over an hour, then the temperature rises a few more degrees when the casket is carried out of the house and is placed on a bench in the yard so people may say the final farewell. Joyce sits on the ground next to the casket, still covered by plaid and women.

Now, faced with removal of the box that holds his mother, Malwanda sits on an auntie’€™s lap and howls.

Mourning men carry the casket from the house to the meadow that faces a valley so magnificent that one is tempted to lay down and roll all the way to the bottom, hundreds of metres below. The facing hills in the distance are layers of unblemished land leading to the angular mountains.

The meadow is the cemetery.

There are no markers on the graves. An occasional tree limb designates a family’s collection of ancestors.

The wind bows the tall silver grass to greet the procession. The mourners cross the meadow at the bottom of the sky in a slow beat prayer-song while the clouds behind them sail past as if to show them the way.

The mourners gather around the deep pit that awaits Nokwanda, she will rest next to her grandfather and near the infant daughter taken by AIDS more than a year ago.

After the graveside prayers led by Nokwanda’s stepfather, the box is lowered into the ground and a few inches of soil are put over it. Xolani weeps.

Peter takes a shovelful of the earth and holds it out to the mourners filing past, each taking a handful and dropping it in. Joyce’€™s sisters help the silent Malwanda perform the ritual farewell.

While the men refill the grave with soil the women disappear over the top of the hill into the sky, taking the song with them. The only sound left is the chopping of the ground for the sod that will protect the grave. When the men have finished their task and take their leave over the hill, the stillness is all that’s left.

Absolute peace.  

Nokwanda knew she would come here in the end. Perhaps that’s why she could leave this life as quietly as her last words to those around her.  

Peter remains at the grave and recalls the last time he saw Nokwanda. “Good-bye, Daddy” was all she said when he left the home to return to his job in another city, nothing more. He wonders, was there more she might have wanted to say?

Life goes on. Back at the house a sheep is slaughtered for the guests. Joyce stands straight. Just outside the village, at the school Nokwanda attended noisy youths cheer their teams in a heated soccer match.

The candle has been extinguished.

Nokwanda will be missed. Her sons will never know who she really was, and this life will never know who she could have been.

Let her be absorbed by the land. In years to come there will be no tangible trace of Nokwanda. She died without a penny to her name, her few possessions will be absorbed by the family.

She leaves her children and this gift she gave to the world, her story.

March 1999

Transkei Village

It has been a year since Nokwanda’s death. Malwanda continues to mend and adjust to his new life with his grandmother.

Malwanda likes school. He’s in Sub A. His teacher says he’ll pass with no problem. He likes to make the letters, the singing, and kicking the ball. His teacher also says he plays well with the other children.

Malwanda is eating well and he plays with the same exhausting exuberance as the other children but he also still looks thin. He has not seen the doctor yet.

Joyce’s place is still covered with kids and she’s still in charge.

Joyce tried to get the paperwork of Nokwanda’s death sorted out but the hospital failed to put the proper stamp on the certificate so provincial authorities refused to accept it. Now she must make more trips totalling over 100km to complete the process. Thus, no pension for Malwanda’s care has been available yet.

Malwanda’s father has not visited him according to Joyce

“He also has not helped with school fees or the uniforms, she reports. “But Malwanda is happy in the place where he can play and play and play.”

“Sometimes he ignores me because he enjoys the play so much with the other children, “says Joyce.

“He plays nicely, no rough stuff,” she adds.

“He doesn’t mention his mother, he doesn’t cry,” Joyce says.

“But sometimes when I talk about Nokwanda, his eyes open wider and he listens carefully to hear what I’m talking about.”

“I think he wants to hear me say that she’s coming.”

April 1999

Transkei Village

Although Malwanda is still basically healthy, Joyce has discovered he has worms.

‘€œThat’€™s why his blood is not happy,’€ she says. Joyce took Malwanda to the location where the mobile clinic comes for one day every month. She waited there all day but the van never arrived. The registration discs on the mobile clinic vans have expired and the local transportation officials have not finished acquiring new discs.

Joyce is between a rock and a hard place. In the year since Nokwanda’€™s death she has spent nearly R300 in the pursuit of a grant that would pay R100 per month, not to mention the number of hours she has spent schlepping to distant locations only to leave no closer to Joyce has Joyce needs 7 documents in order to obtain the welfare grant for Malwanda:

Nokwanda’€™s death certificate
Nokwanda’€™s ID
Malwanda’€™s birth certificate
Malwanda’s clinic card
Joyce’€™s ID
Peter’€™s ID
Joyce’€™s marriage certificate

A  year later Joyce has yet to finish the application for this grant, which will run out when Malwanda turns seven.

One problem has been the death certificate. When Nokwanda died, Peter arranged for the undertaker to pick up Nokwanda’€™s body from the hospital on a Saturday. Because it was a weekend, no one was available to sign a death certificate for him. Months later Joyce returned to hospital for the certificate. But she had forgotten Nokwanda’€™s ID, so she left empty handed. She returned to hospital again with the ID and received the certificate so she proceeded to the district office to file her claim. However the clerk there refused her application because the death certificate had not been stamped. Once again Joyce went home empty handed. Joyce returned to hospital to have the certificate stamped.

In the mean time she has learned that she will also need Malwanda’€™s birth certificate and his clinic card. Joyce traveled 40 km to Malwanda’€™s father’€™s home for the clinic card but no one there could help her. She left empty handed again.

Now she must return to hospital with Malwanda to get a new clinic card and must also go to the magistrate’€™s office with Malwanda to present him to the magistrate for a birth certificate. Then she will have to go there again to pick up the certificate. Then she will have to return to the district office to finalize the application for the grant.

Each trip is costly and time consuming. Joyce’€™s home is 40 km from hospital. The district office is 60 km away and the magistrate’€™s office is another 40 km in the other direction. The taxi fare to hospital is R30, it is R50 to the district office and R20 to the magistrate’€™s office. She pays two full fares when Malwanda travels with her.

There are no telephones with 20 km of Joyce’€™s house so she cannot phone ahead easily to check on the progress of the process or get the information she needs. The queues are long and staff members are frequently less than cooperative.

‘€œThey don’€™t remember that I’€™m a poor woman,’€ Joyce grumbles.

‘€œThey don’€™t care where you come from. They say to ‘€˜come next week, I won’€™t do this work today.’€™ That’€™s why it takes a long time to be right.’€

‘€œWith the costs of the other children to consider, it’€™s too difficult to go up and down.’€

‘€œSome times I have to borrow the Rand from this auntie (a neighbor) for the taxi fare.’€

‘€œThey say, ‘€˜You must come back tomorrow, Granny.’€™’€

‘€œSo then I must come home for another month before I can have the money to start again.

So far Joyce has paid R230 in taxi fares in her attempts to apply for the grant that would pay R100 per month.

If the system were to function perfectly, she will have spent R400 in total just for the application for the grant, which will expire when Malwanda turns seven years in the next year.

For death certificate: 3 R30 single return fare total: R90
For Malwanda’€™s clinic card:1 R60 double round trip total: R60
For Malwanda’€™s clinic card: 1 R40 single return fare total: R40
To district office for application: 3 R50 single return fare total: R150
For Malwanda’€™s birth certificate: 2 R40 double round trip fare
R20 single round trip fare total: R60
TOTAL: R400                          

Malwanda insists on accompanying Makulu when she goes to hospital for outpatient care. While she waits to be seen he slips away and goes to TB ward, where he spent several months with his mother before her death. He tentatively peers into the room from the doorway but he does not go in. Then he roams the halls and returns greetings from the sisters who recognise him. Some say he’€™s looking for his mother.

E-mail Susan Winters

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