February 13, 2008

Dorothy and Nthantisi

These are pictures of two of my co-workers. Dorothy, a nurse, sees patients in the clinic and Nthantisi (pronounced “TA-tease” for those of us who can’t master the “nt” dipthong) teaches in the pre-school. (Dorothy is the one who doesn’t like having her picture taken.)

Every morning I pick both of them up at a bottle store (the South African term for liquor store) that is owned by Dorothy’s sister-in-law and is quite close to Itipini. I navigate the usual collection of customers stumbling around the parking lot, do my best to exchange a few words in Xhosa with the sister-in-law, say, “Masihambe” (“Let’s go!”), and off we go to work.

One of the blessings of spending such a long time here is getting to know more about the fabric of life. Dorothy and Nthantisi have been instrumental in shaping my understanding of that fabric.

Nthantisi is in her mid-40s and has 3 children, the oldest of whom is my age. I don’t think she’s ever been married. In addition to teaching in the pre-school, she runs a spaza shop (kind of like a convenience store) out of her home, where she re-sells items she buys downtown; sells airtime for cellphones; cuts and styles hair; and has about a half-dozen tenants in single rooms she’s built out of mud bricks. She also built her own home one room at a time out of mud bricks she made herself. It’s pretty nice. At Itipini, she’s become the integral link in an effort we’ve launched to secure some serious government funding for the ladies who make crafts at Itipini. Some days I can’t believe all the work she has to do just to support her lifestyle.

Personality-wise, Nthantisi reminds me a lot of what I imagine Whoopi Goldberg to be like – loud, overbearing, and hilarious. In our car rides to work, she makes us laugh and laugh and laugh. She has a way of using the all-purpose South African exclamation “Yho!” at just the right time that never fails to amuse me. She is also fond of “Jesus Christ!” which shouldn’t make me laugh but does because of the way she says it.

Dorothy is quieter but she has some pointed and sharp opinions and is not afraid of sharing them, about say, my Xhosa ability, the alcohol consumption of various community members, and so on and so forth. She has a crustiness that is the prerogative of women her age (69) and is made of steel. When a patient gets caught in her tractor beam, it’s game over for them. Since she’s fluent in Xhosa, she is a huge help in counseling patients, particularly those who have just tested positive for HIV or those who seem to drink all the time.

Underneath it all is a really wonderful sense of humor that has taken me a little while to draw out. One time I was playing the guitar outside the clinic with some children and she came out to ask me to quiet down. I serenaded her with “You Are So Beautiful” and she walked back into the clinic shaking her head and chuckling and I escaped my “talking-to.”

Dorothy has been a widow for nearly 30 years and only started working at Itipini two years ago, when she realized she was bored with retirement and the clinic was looking for another nurse. She is originally from Libode, a village about a half-hour outside Mthatha and goes there nearly every weekend. Why? Because of all the funerals. Since the onset of HIV, funerals are a regular weekend occurrence across South Africa and people are expected to attend funerals even for distant family members. I used to ask Dorothy on Monday mornings about her weekend but I got so discouraged about hearing about funeral after funeral after funeral. One Monday morning, I asked her if she had been to a funeral on Saturday and she said something like, “I was supposed to but I took a back way into Libode so they wouldn’t see me. People expect you to go to all these funerals but it gets in the way of work you have to do. I did what I needed to and then came back to Mthatha.”

So… a slice of my daily life.