But turn off to Laingville, Smartie Town or any of the less attractive settlements along the Cape’s west coast and you are more likely to be confronted with high levels of alcoholism, violence, poverty, disease and now a society increasingly confronted with a fast growing Aids epidemic.
Irene Benjamin bucked the hopeless trend of many of her peers ‘ born in Laingville, a township wedged between the West Coast’s icy blue sea and desert-like vegetation about 200km north of Cape Town ‘did her ‘time’ in the fish factories, fell in love, got married and brought up her children.
However, she failed to avoid the one trauma besetting many families in the fishing villages ‘ losing the main breadwinner to the sea.
Three months ago, Benjamin lost her skipper husband Desmond, when after his heroics of ensuring his crew were safe, he joined his anchovy trawler Kathleen Louise III in her watery grave off Robben Island.
Despite her personal loss Benjamin, long-time chairperson of the Call-to-Serve Community Care Project and another community stalwart, nursing sister Chrisna du Plessis, recently opened the Siyabonga Hospice, a ‘place of tender loving care’.
Benjamin and Du Plessis have for many years worked in the West Coast, setting up and running primary health care clinics in the communities and at the fishing factories. Benjamin started as a fish packer, but soon moved to a foreman position before joining the local clinic as a cleaner. After several training courses, she established herself as a community healthworker.
No longer able to ignore the growing plight of HIV-infected patients who lacked adequate care at home or had no place to go, the two women found an empty farmhouse, approached local businesses and three months ago opened the hillside hospice overlooking the ocean and Laingville.
Serving a vast area, the hospice has already lost 10 patients, three to Aids-related illnesses.
‘By the time the HIV-infected patients reach us it is often too late to nurse them back to a stage where they can go onto antiretrovirals, but at least we can give them tender loving care in their final moments,’ explains Benjamin.
When Francis Persens (43) arrived at Siyabonga almost two months ago, Benjamin thought she would be joining their mortality statistics.
‘I also believed that I was going to die. I was skin and bone,’ smiles Persens, who now weighs 33kg, three kilograms more than when she arrived.
‘I was ready to give up. I was too weak to walk, but just the fact that someone was prepared to touch me, love me, talk to me and listen to me, gave me the will to live and fight,’ said the former fish factory worker, who will be starting on anti-retrovirals next month, as soon as she has completed her course of TB medication.
By her early teens, Presens had left school and tells how she was ‘introduced to the booze bottle’ by age 15, employed as a fish cleaner and met her future husband.
‘He slept around, I started sleeping around and this was the story of my life for several years,’ says the diminutive woman with the twinkle in her eye.
‘When I was diagnosed with HIV, I didn’t know much about it, I just knew it as the ‘dirty disease’,’ she says, flashing a semi-toothless smile.
Presens says she was too ashamed to divulge her status to her siblings, until they confronted her one night. ‘I was so ill, and they just told me that I had to share with them what I was hiding. They told me they had not come to lay the blame with anyone, but to listen.’
A few days later, a weak and ill, Presens was admitted to Siyabonga. Today, she speaks of taking one day at a time, caring for her terminally ill mother, who lies in the opposite bed, one leg amputated from severe diabetes and the other leg already showing signs of gangrene.
‘I understand that people on these anti-retrovirals grow very strong, they put on weight and they are able to continue with their lives,’ says Presens. ‘For now, I need to keep my head strong, be there for my mother and think about the support group I want to start once I am better. People need to overcome the stigma in the community. When you are able to talk about the disease and share, half the battle is won.
‘But I also know that if I had not come to Siyabonga, if they had admitted me to one of the hospitals, I would have been gone by now,’ says Presens.
Siyabonga is currently operating from month to month with the help of donations from residents and businesses in the area. Elderly patients receiving disability grants also give a portion towards the running of the hospice.
‘Whatever comes in we split evenly among all the workers,’ explains Benjamin. ‘Sometimes it’s R500, sometimes R1 000, sometimes there is nothing. But the need in the community is great and we need to be there to respond.’
Once this interview is wrapped up, Benjamin sighs, pushes her chair back and walks with a wide smile to the verandah where several residents are patiently waiting in the shade, hoping that ‘sister’ will be able to solve their problems.
* Anyone interested in contacting Siyabonga can call Benjamin at 022-736-1397 or 072 4271009