Since retiring from Mercy Hospice in August of 2007, I have spent quite a bit of time doing volunteer work in Johannesburg, South Africa, and through that, have taken so many people into my heart. Here is a story I think is worth sharing.
This past weekend has been one of the most special times I’ve ever had in South Africa. I went with my young friend Mduduzi to visit his family in the remote Zulu village deep in the mountains of the province of KwaZulu-Natal where he lived until he finished high school. I hired an acquaintance of a friend to drive us the 6 hours south to Kranskop, the closest town that actually appears on a map. It’s about 5 blocks long: 2 commercial and 3 residential. From there, since we just missed the last public taxi (meaning a 17-18 passenger van), Mdu was lucky enough to find us a ride from his former high school math teacher, who happened to be going our way at the same time with his rickety old pickup truck. The shell in back had bench seats on the sides, so he took on paying passengers. I don’t know if it was my age or the sheer oddity of my white skin, but I was invited to sit in front with the driver and his friend. Saying to me, “You must be a stranger in these parts” is so obviously and totally redundant. The gossip began flying just moments later as Mdu started getting inquiring phone calls about me. We drove slowly for about an hour across an unpaved, rutted mountain road through one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in the world – unspoiled by commercialism. Dotting the forested mountainsides were the occasional family compound consisting of several mud shacks and round huts of varying sizes. The walls of some of the structures were plastered over and painted white, tan, pink, or aqua. The shacks were topped at a sloping angle with corrugated tin, complete with a downspout to channel rainwater into a barrel. The roofs on the round huts were mostly thatched, or some combination of thatch and tin.
I don’t think a white person (umlungu) has ever been to Kranskop with the locals – if at all – and certainly not in the far boonies, so everywhere we passed people on the drive, whether it was a small group of children, teens, or adults walking or gathered for socializing along the road, or even in an infrequent passing vehicle, people would be gawking and excitedly shouting “umlungu!” Some approached the window for a closer look and asked the driver where he got me. I’m sure the rumors were flying about him too. As for what was directed at me, it seemed to be in the spirit of friendly curiosity; however for Mdu and the driver, it was also mixed with the occasional intimation from the older adults that now he will think he’s better than us and will want to come back here and change things.
We arrived at the village of Mphise just as night was falling. In addition to the various family compounds, Mphise actually has a primary school, a high school, and a small clinic – and that’s all. Provisions are bought in Kranskop about once a month. We walked the short distance to where Mdu’s family lives, took a seat on a bench in the main round hut where his mother stays, and waited to be greeted by his mother, sister, cousins, aunt, nieces and mom #2 (father’s second wife, as in polygamy, common in rural Africa). With the exception of a little boy who couldn’t be more than 2, the nine others were all female. His father’s grave is in the middle of the compound. Most socializing and eating happens in his mother’s hut. She has a solar panel that powers a battery used for two low wattage halogen lights that are hung high up on the rafters (thin logs) as well as for a clock and a fancy radio. There is also an outdoor light by the entrance. Candles are used as needed in the other buildings. Cooking is done with wood fires, and they use a clothes iron that holds embers from the fire. Many things can be found within reach hanging from the lower rafters: clothing, tote bags, water gourds, an umbrella, freshly boiled chickens, etc. Except for the outhouse – which they call the long-drop here, the floors in the buildings are all red painted concrete and they are kept very clean. The red does rub off on your shoes and clothing, so people sit on large, woven floor mats of the “made in China” variety. The outhouse floor, on the other hand, is covered with a patchwork of linoleum, tin, and cardboard. Those pieces in turn are covered with land mines of goat and chicken poop! In addition to the main round hut and the outhouse/junk storage room, the other structures include: two duplex shacks, i.e. two non-adjoining rooms per shack, one very primitive mud shack, two other mud shacks for food storage, preparation, and cooking, and the partial remains of two other round huts. They grow their own corn, but I’m not sure what else. Roaming around the place were chickens, goats, and 4 donkeys. The chickens roost in one particular tree at night. In a fashion slower than roaming would be giant snails and millipedes.
The weather was very warm and humid, though it cooled off comfortably at night outside. Not inside. I stayed in one of the rooms in a duplex shack. It actually had a very comfortable bed, but to keep critters out, one had to keep the door and two little windows closed. There was no air circulation and it was stifling hot. At least everyone does manage to bathe. I was brought a large bucket of heated water, a decent size wash basin to stand in or lean over for what we used to call a spit shine, a wash cloth and a bar of soap. Due to a minor miscommunication about the need to pack a towel, I didn’t bring one, so I managed to dry off with a dishtowel. Hey, better than nothing. I didn’t bother with hair washing, but one or two more days and I would have had to figure something out beyond wearing a baseball cap.
Given that only one person spoke a little English and I speak a smaller amount of Zulu, we all managed to communicate as well as needed when Mdu was not around to translate. Saturday morning, Mdu took me on a walk down towards the river and around, up and back past the cows, goats, and donkeys. As peaceful as it was, try to imagine how disturbing it was to see on the ground in the middle of nowhere, a discarded bag and a box with Colonel Sanders staring back at me. Did I say unspoiled by commercialism?
When we returned, the ladies were all taking a siesta on the bed or floor mats in the main hut. I had brought beads and the fixings to make simple jewelry, so later in the afternoon, the girls and I had fun making necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and rings for everyone.
By early evening, it had started to rain. As the downpour got heavier and the thunder and lightning got closer, someone covered the clock with a cloth. That was to keep the lightning from finding it. As night wore on, there was no sign of the rain letting up and we were concerned that we might not make it back over the road to Kranskop to pick up our transportation back to Jo’burg. Odako oluningi kakhulu (way too much mud). Luckily things cleared up by morning.
A short, funny story… With the rain clouds and no sign of moonlight, it was pitch dark Saturday night. Navigating to the outhouse with the light from a cell phone illuminating the path, I reached the door, only to startle two goats who like to go in there to get out of the rain. They weren’t the only ones startled. I’m glad they decided to exit.
The weekend was an amazing experience for me and far beyond the ordinary for all of us. As a parting gift, Mdu’s mom took one of the boiled chickens hanging in her hut, hacked it up, and along with two free-formed loaves of bread she had cooked by boiling them in the pot with the chickens the night before, wrapped it in paper she had torn from a heavy sack and put it all in a plastic bag she had stored under her mattress. I was sorry we had to leave so soon.
Marilyn Traugott retired in August 2007 as manager of Mercy Hospice in Redding after a 29-year career that began with the program’s inception. With clinical expertise in bereavement care, she has been providing professional and community education on hospice and end-of-life issues since 1978. Marilyn has an Ed.M. in counseling from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Prior to working in hospice, other professional experience included teaching special education, developing medical education materials and counseling.
She currently spends part of the year working at an inpatient hospice facility, Zaziwe Care Centre, in Johannesburg, South Africa.