Friday, July 17, 2009

Things I'll Never Understand, People Who Restore My Faith in Humanity

In one of my classes this week we were discussing the sources of support for people living with HIV. I was fishing for the answer “church” so I gave the hint “your family probably does this every Sunday.” Aside from the one that responded with “bath,” the class shouted “funerals!” Not what I was looking for, but that’s probably true. In the Shiselweni Region (where I live), there are approximately 5 deaths per 1000 PER DAY, giving Shiselweni the highest HIV-related death rate of any place in the world, according to the WHO. After a while, it’s hard to ignore.

But, for some people in Swaziland, it’s not only ignored, but denied. This past week, a man who I’ll call “David” died. As usual, I asked those who knew him what he died from. It’s always interesting to hear how people decide to dance around the actual culprit, HIV. And this was no exception.

First, I talked to his brother, who I work with at one school. His brother told me that he had been sick for many years but, even though his wife was on ARVs, he refused to test for HIV because he was a Christian and thought that God would protect him. Then, after he became so weak he could not walk, he finally went to the hospital for testing. He tested positive for HIV, but it was YEARS too late for help, so the nurses sent him home to die. Which he did. (Incidentally, I was leaving the clinic when he showed up so I know that this version of the story is true.)

Then, I talked to his cousin, who I teach with at another school. She said that he died of “muti,” which is a kind of pseudo-witchcraft or voodoo-type black magic that people use to speed up karma for people they feel have wronged them. It’s usually a powder that is cursed in a certain way by a sangoma, or witch-doctor, and then placed over the doorway to the victim’s house or over the path where the victim walks frequently, and it brings bad fortune to only that person for whom it is intended. But it takes a long time to work so it’s kind of a long-term investment. Anyway, apparently David left his wife about 8 years ago for a girlfriend, leaving his wife with children to feed and no income. To win over the girlfriend, he also took a lot of things from his first wife (money, cattle, food, etc.). So, naturally, the wife was angry. After David made it clear that he wasn’t coming back, the wife went to a sangoma—and most likely paid a ridiculous fee—to put a curse on him with “muti.” Thus, he fell ill about 5 years ago and finally, this week, succumbed to the “muti.”

So, I asked her if David had been tested for HIV. She said she knew that he didn’t have HIV, but then when they took him to the hospital right before he died, he did test positive for HIV.

“So he had HIV, then?” I asked.

“No,” she answered, “it was a special curse in the muti that made him test positive so that nobody would blame the wife.” She continued to tell me about how somebody cursed her with muti, too, and she was sick for 7 years and now she is fine because she found God. She said that the people at the hospital told her she had HIV, but she knows that she has never done anything to get HIV so she knows it was just the muti. Now that she is a Christian she doesn’t have HIV, but she hasn’t tested to be sure because that would be equivalent to doubting her faith. “But if I had HIV, my blood would be thick and black, and it’s not.”

What??? OR he died of AIDS and the girlfriend and their children should also be tested. I’m frustrated by several of the details in this story. (1) He didn’t get tested for HIV because he was a good Christian and assumed that God would protect him. First of all, good Christians don’t commit adultery, which is a pretty big sin as far as the Commandments are concerned. Second, it’s ignorant to believe that God will protect even the most devout of Christians. God has nothing to do with HIV. (2) His wife is HIV-positive and on ARVs, and she’s being blamed for cursing him with muti! He probably GAVE her HIV! (3) It’s not uncommon for men to wait until the last possible moment to visit the clinic, but this man had undoubtedly visited a traditional healer or two to sort out his 5 years of illness. When I was studying in Durban, there was an initiative in Zululand to educate traditional healers on the symptoms of HIV and to encourage traditional healers to refer patients to the clinic, or even for them to be provided with expertise and materials to test for HIV. I think this should be done in Swaziland as well. (4) The woman telling me about the muti is a well-educated woman who went to nursing school in the US (before becoming a teacher) who preaches to me the gospel of the Book of Mormon every time I see her. I’m pretty sure Mormons don’t believe in witchcraft. And I’m pretty sure a nurse should understand the concept of a virus and the fact that it can’t be put into your blood by a witch-doctor and that it wouldn’t change the color or consistency of her blood. And, oh yeah, if you test positive for HIV, it means you HAVE HIV. And the only thing you have to do to get HIV is have sex, and she has two kids so she’s obviously had sex. (5) I’m angry at whatever crackpot pastor she undoubtedly paid to “cure” her of her HIV with his “faith” because he’s not only cheating naïve people out of their money, he’s also telling people that it’s un-Christian to test for HIV. Thanks, jerk, for giving me material for an entire lesson about false promises and fake cures!

I just can’t get over the fact that in a place where HIV-related death is so common, and where nearly half the population of the community is infected with HIV, people are still making excuses and ignoring the fact that people are dying of AIDS. I just hope that, by the end of my service, all of my students understand that HIV is a virus without a cure and that if you get HIV you will die of AIDS. And I hope they also realize that there are ways to prevent HIV infection that they should be mindful of, but if they DO end up with HIV that it’s not the end of the world and they can still lead productive lives. What seemed so simple a year ago, turns out, is NOT.

Anyway, my life is not ALL frustration. Remember those three kids who were living alone in the neighboring community who I was trying to help out with food, sanitation, shelter, etc.? Well through a friend of a friend, I think I found them three spots in an orphanage! (Nothing is DEFINITE yet, but I’m certainly optimistic.) The orphanage, called Pasture Valley (I think), is run by a woman named Michelle and her husband Peter on their farm near Nhlangano. They currently have 14 kids (including one TINY baby) in one house, but they’re about to open another house for 10 more. Last Thursday, Michelle and a police officer/social worker (and this Norwegian named Linda who is staying on the farm for a few weeks) came out and interviewed the oldest girl about moving to the orphanage, and if the mother is successfully tracked down (she disappeared and nobody knows where her new homestead is) and agrees to consent to the move, the kids will have a fantastic future full of food, shelter, love and school. Quite a change from their current situation.

On Saturday, I went out to Michelle and Peter’s farm to hang out with Linda, visit the orphanage and take a shower, and I was overwhelmingly impressed with the whole operation (the shower included). When I arrived in the late morning, all of the kids—Michelle and Peter’s kids included—were busy doing their daily chores on the farm, which is the source of funding for the kids school fees and other costs associated with the orphanage. (I don’t mean for it to sound like slave labor…the chores the kids do are probably less than would be expected of them living on the average Swazi homestead, and those kids who have too much homework to do their chores are excused during the week.) After taking their horse, Blitz, out for a ride, Linda and I stopped into the orphanage, where all of the kids live with a house mother named Constance. While Make Constance bottle-fed 2-week-old Grace, we talked about how the orphanage is run, where the kids come from (three from my community, apparently) and how much she loves all of the kids. Having been before in some pretty institutional orphanages, I was amazed to see how much of a HOME that house was to those kids, and how much everyone on the farm treated them like family. Because that’s what they are, really.

In the afternoon, we had a birthday party for one of the little boys, Bonkhosi, who was turning 6 (but looked like he was 3). Michelle had planned a party more extravagant than any I’ve attended in Swaziland, but that doesn’t mean much. (And, remember, she has to do this 16 times a year.) After a fabulous rendition of “Happy Birthday,” Bonkhosi opened presents (a Ken doll, Frisbee, toy cell phone and a new sweater) and all the kids pigged out on popcorn, cake, cookies, Twizzlers, sweets and apples. Then, to burn all of that off, we had orange-on-the-spoon races and played duck-duck-goose and then settled in for a double feature of “Open Season 2” and some romantic comedy intended for 9-year-olds. Then, after the 6-hour birthday party, we had a FEAST of a braai (sausage, steak, cole slaw, salad, stir fry, and a million other things, with wine!), followed by a session of guitar-accompanied performances of songs like “Bye, Bye Love” and “Norwegian Wood,” which is the strangest song ever. Good clean fun for the whole family! And hopefully the three kids I’ve been working with will be added to that family.

It was a fabulous weekend and I can’t wait to spend more time at the farm. Michelle invited me to come out and paint a world map on the side of the second orphanage house, which I eagerly agreed to do. And she agreed to help pay school fees for my neighbor, Hlengiwe, when she starts school next year if her family is still unable to pay for it (because despite my begging, the school said it’s too late to register a new student this year). It’s so refreshing to meet genuinely NICE people who actually CARE about others and DO something about it! Amazing.

In other news, Mpendulo/Noah is doing well. I don’t really know much about him except that he sleeps a lot and dirties a lot of nappies (diapers) that his mother spends all day washing in rotation since she only has 4. And he’s always bundled up like a snowman with TWO hats on, which makes him look about 6 times his actual size. And sometimes he cries in the middle of the night and I wake up even though he’s in the next house, which is strange because I’m not a mother. Maybe next week I’ll get to know him better.

Also, I have a new roommate. Every night this week, after I turned off the light and the radio (after the top 9 at 9, of course) I thought I heard scurrying about, but, after repeated missions with the flashlight, I convinced myself that I was imagining it. Until Thursday morning when I woke up to find dainty little nibbles taken out of each of my 4 tomatoes that were specially designated for my Thursday morning omelet. Further investigation revealed nibbles in my lone moldy onion and a small nest of nibbled-off and relocated coloring book in the corner behind my leftover paint bucket. So, naturally, I grabbed my vermin-killing stick (previously the black-mamba-whacking-stick) and a flashlight and set about turning my house upside down to scare out all nibbling, coloring book stealing creatures of the night. Much to my surprise, I found him with my very first poke of the stick and he came leaping out towards me in an attempt to escape. At which point, obviously, I screamed and the whole family gathered outside my hut to witness the stupid white person with the headlamp and stick running around her house like a crazy person, mumbling about “ingundwane lenkhulu” (big rat)! Finally, Mkhulu (Grandpa) came to my rescue and somehow, despite his hysterical laughter, was able to find the critter and chase him out of the house. He ran into a hole in the side of the kitchen hut, which was immediately filled with mud. I thought that would kill him, but no. Thursday night, again, I was kept awake by the rummaging and squeaking and general rustling of the rat. Friday morning I tried, to no avail, to chase him out of my house. I even tried trapping him in a bucket with a tub of peanut butter as bait. But he lives on. My family thinks I'm crazy for caring, though, because complaining about a rat in your house is about like complaining about the dirt on the floor.

This weekend, Linda and I are heading up to Mbabane to send off my nearest and dearest volunteer, Deja, to re-join the real world in the United States of America. We’ll be going to this new dance club where they have a glass dance floor with lights under it, which I’m pretty excited about. (The only thing that could make the place more exciting would be A&W root beer on tap or a jumping castle.) Then next week I’m skipping actual work to teach the new volunteers how to teach in Swazi schools, which I hope I’m not too cynical about. Then next Saturday is the July meeting of the Shiselweni Region Youth Support Group, then Bushfire music festival and sending off Nicole. Then I will retreat to my hut for the next year because my two favorite people in Swaziland will have left me for the great beyond.

Anyway, that’s all. I leave you with the few photos I happened to have on my camera when my evil computer spontaneously erased its hard drive last week. Including photos of my new and improved brown hair. Everyone says I look better as a brunette, which makes me sad for the previous 22 years of my hair. Oh well.

Love from the Swaz!

Mkelo and Hle wearing my clothes. I rolled up Mkelo's one pantleg and then told him he was a gangster and he went around the house saying "I'm a gangster," which was pretty hilarious. This is what happens when I leave my dirty clothes on my floor.

Me (with brown hair) and baby Mpendulo. He's about a week old here. I have also learned that 2800 grams is about 6 pounds, so he's about 6 pounds here.

The neighbor boy and Hlenigwe with my bags. They fill them up with pillows and papers and things and then head out on a trip around the homestead. When they get back, they tell me in siSwati all about their trip and bring me back "gifts" like rocks and pieces of paper they found. And then Gogo yells at them for dirtying up my bags, but I don't really care.

My exercise bike. Yeah, how hardcorps of me.

1 comment:

Erin said...

The baby is so cute. He looks like a little doll. And your hair is cute too, but I bet you still act like a blonde. :)~