Macassar’s angels

Even though they are officially hospice workers, they have become carers, counsellors, confidantes, problem solvers and a shoulder to cry on for this impoverished community.

‘€œI live in Macassar, but the housing is really inferior. It’€™s a poverty stricken place. Here is no work for the people and the children are taking to the streets. The tik and shebeens are taking over and more and more people are becoming HIV positive,’€ sighs Van der Merwe, who started doing community work in Macassar in 1999.

‘€œI have sympathy for these people. Before I turned my life around, we drank together, we walked together. And now I am here with them to walk this road as well. These uniforms and qualifications don’€™t mean anything to me. It’€™s about serving my fellow human being. I may have left school when I was in Standard Five, but today I can give hope to people, I can tell them it’€™s worth living,’€ adds Van der Merwe.

De Wet, more soft-spoken, nods her head in agreement. ‘€œEmma is a mouthful. She has a lot on her plate and everyone presses on her number when they are in need. I am an outsider in a way because I am not from here, but I have been accepted because I am working with Auntie Emma.

‘€œEmma is a determined woman. She doesn’€™t take any nonsense. If there are patients who are chancers, she will put them in their place,’€ says De Wet.

Van der Merwe flashes an embarrassed smile and hides her face behind her hand: ‘€œYou know I won’€™t find one like Barbara again,’€ she says.

Van der Merwe’€™s supervisor, Gill Wasserfall, agrees: ‘€œEmma is a wonderful example of  a  member of a community who responded to an opportunity. Her loyalty to both her patients and the hospice  is remarkable.

‘€œShe is so ably assisted by the quiet Barbara  and together they make a caring and reliable team,’€ adds Wasserfall.

Van der Merwe has formed what she describes as a ‘€œhip-hop and freestyle’€ dance group for the young people as well as an ‘€œHIV choir’€ which performs at various churches in the community. ‘€œChoir members often share their stories with the congregation,’€ says Van der Merwe, who also runs an HIV support group.

Van der Merwe and De Wet’€™s first stop on their Friday round is a derelict corrugated iron shack in Sandvlei, just outside Macassar. The yard is littered with rusting car wrecks. The two women are greeted by ‘€œAuntie Sophie’€ who leans on the lower half of the stable door as they approach.

Auntie Sophie’€™s daughter Jacqueline lies in a dark bedroom to the left of the front door. The wind whistles through the gaping holes in the roof.

‘€œShe has TB meningitis and has just been discharged from hospital,’€ explains Van der Merwe. Jacqueline, who is often confused and unable to look after herself, is cared for by her elderly mother.

The two women make small talk, check whether Jacqueline is taking her medication and share a joke before leaving.

‘€œThis is such a complicated case,’€ explains De Wet. Both parents are pensioners, but have no identity documents, making it problematic to access grants and pensions.

‘€œThe elderly man tries to harvest some mussels and waterblommetjies which he sells,’€ sighs De Wet.

‘€œThe grants are a big problem,’€ agrees Van der Merwe. ‘€œWhen people get better then the grant is taken away from them and we are hearing about people who are stopping their ARVs because they cannot afford to lose the money. An entire family relies on it.’€

Currently Van der Merwe and De Wet are caring for 95 HIV patients of which 35 are on antiretroviral treatment.

‘€œIt’€™s important that we get into people’€™s homes. When you go to the homes you see the conditions they live under and you understand why they may be defaulting on their medication,’€ says De Wet.

Van der Merwe adds: ‘€œPeople are scared to go onto ARVs. They have to give up drinking and smoking and change their lifestyles. Many are in denial. But we are here to support them every step of the way.’€


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