Bongiwe Ngobeni, 19, lives on an Ermelo farm where her mother, Thoko Manikela, works. Both women are single mothers and Ngobeni looks to her mother for help raising her two-month-old baby, Lerato.
When Lerato was born at a nearby hospital, nurses told Ngobeni to bring Lerato back within a week for a check up.
Ngobeni’s mother advised against it, saying Lerato was too young for clinics and instead gave Ngobeni traditional medicine for the infant.
“The next day Lerato got diarrhoea, but my mother told me not to worry and that it was normal,” Ngobeni told OurHealth. “The diarrhoea didn’t stop, but still my mom said it wasn’t necessary to take her to the clinic.”
“Lerato started showing signs of dehydration and my neighbor suggested that we should make a glucose drink, which we did,” Ngobeni added. “We were giving her the drink and traditional medicine, but still the diarrhoea didn’t stop.”
Sugar and salt can be combined at home to make a drink to help rehydrate people suffering from diarrhea. According to 2008 Department of Health guidelines, half a teaspoon of salt can be combined with eight teaspoons of sugar dissolved in preferably boiled water and then cooled to make the drink. However, the guidelines caution that use of the homemade drink does not eliminate the need to seek medical attention.*
Clinics can also dispense a similar drink called oral rehydration solution.
Afraid Lerato would die, Ngobeni finally took the baby to the local clinic where she was referred to the nearest hospital. Lerato was hospitalised for a week until the diarrhea passed.
Manikela said she saw nothing wrong in giving the child the medicine – and that she had followed the same advice raising her own children, who did not attend clinics until they were at least four months old.
“Do you see my daughter?” she said, pointing to Ngobeni. “She’s grown up fine and healthy.”
Nurse Ntombi Zungu said young mothers often find themselves in situations similar to Ngobeni’s.
“Some young mothers sometimes feel disempowered as parents because their own parents have so much power over them,” Zungu told OurHealth. “I understand that we are Africans and that it is important to practice our culture, but it’s wrong to give a two-month-old baby traditional medicine.”
*This story was corrected on 7 April. It initially incorrectly listed baking soda as an ingredient of homemade oral rehydration solution. We regret the error.