June 19, 2008


Since getting my new computer a few weeks ago, I’ve been sorting through and organizing several years worth of pictures, including the nearly 6000 I’ve taken in Itipini. It’s been a fascinating experience to look back on pictures I took when I first arrived and realize that I now know the people in them. They are no longer the random faces they once were, illustrating what at the time was a brand-new experience, but characters (protagonist and antagonist) in my daily experience of Itipini.

In the process, the woman in these two pictures jumped out at me. In the first, I remember trying to take a picture of the child behind her when she raised her head just as I pressed the shutter and in that split second realized what was happening and managed to make a funny face. In the second, she is again making a funny face on the right, while the woman on the left looks on somewhat judgmentally. They were both taken at our pre-school graduation in December.

This woman’s name was Nolufefe (“mother of grace”), she was my age, and she died over the weekend. While she had HIV and her CD4 count was below 200, what likely killed her was a growth in her abdomen that was detected about two months ago as she began the process of getting on anti-retroviral drugs. In those two months, she lost an incredible amount of weight and became a shadow of who she is in these pictures. A few weeks back she was admitted to the hospital and was apparently in line for surgery but died before that could happen.

I mention this story because I was moved by how we heard the news. Unusually for Itipini, her father is a hard-working, sober, and exceedingly polite gentleman and her mother is the alcoholic, unpleasant drain on the family purse. I see her father frequently in town pushing his cart around but when his daughter got sick, he took her to all her appointments at the hospital.

The trouble is that once she got admitted, it was more difficult for him to visit her. A round trip to the hospital on the taxis is about $1.50, which is pretty steep if you’re not making much more than that during the workday. They might have cell phones but airtime is expensive and I doubt they spoke much beyond the usual rushed conversations everyone has around here. He had other family members to support (including Nolufefe’s five-year old son) and so went back to work in town. A few times a week, we gave him the taxi fare and he would go check on his daughter and reported back the news about where she was and her impending surgery. But those were only brief visits and I can only imagine how isolated Nolufefe felt in the ward. My car gives me the freedom to forget just how big Mthatha is and how difficult it can be for people to get much beyond the routes they tread daily.

On Tuesday, we gave Nolufefe’s father money for another trip and he came back to the clinic a few hours later. The usual expression on his face was gone and he looked thunderstruck. I asked him how his daughter was doing and all he could muster was one word, in English - “lost.” She had died on Sunday. I could only imagine what it was like for him to show up at the hospital expecting to see his daughter and instead find that she had died two days before and no one had been able to tell him.

Nolufefe’s son is one of my favourites in the pre-school. In this picture, he’s in the middle of the first row in blue pants.