MACHOBENI, South Africa (WOMENSENEWS)–There was an unusual chill in the air the day they set Nozipho Mathenjwa’s spirit free. A cold wind whipped through the Mathenjwa homestead and dark clouds threatened rain.
Mathenjwa had passed from this world three months before and the family gathered to cleanse the homestead, so her spirit could join the ancestors. Mantombi Nyawo shed no tears that day as she prepared a special meal to honor her dead grandchild, though inside she grieved that she and her grandchild had fought during their last days together.
Just three months before, Mathenjwa, 25, had been laid to rest next to her mother, Lungile Mathenjwa, who died in her mid-40s, under rocks and dirt in yard of the home where three of the remaining Mathenjwa children still lived.
Both women were taken by AIDS, the illness Nyawo calls “umbulalazwe”: the disease that is killing the whole world.
Mother Dies First
Lungile died first, in February 2003, leaving her five children in the care of Nozipho. But less than a year later, daughter followed her mother, and Nyawo was left to care for the remaining five children, although the youngest lived in another village with other relatives and one of the oldest girls had run away to stay with her boyfriend.
“I didn’t understand what was happening, why my children were dying,” says Nyawo, a heavy, dark-skinned woman with drooping breasts, who guesses that she is in her late 60s.
It was only after Lungile died, when Nozipho fell seriously ill, that Nyawo learned about AIDS and how it was spread. At the nearby hospital in the small town of Ingwavuma, they taught her how to take care of someone who was sick and gave her gloves to protect herself as she cared for her ailing granddaughter.
But Nyawo fears that she may have caught HIV before she learned these things, as she tended her daughter and granddaughter through their illnesses. Following traditional healing practices, she used her finger to clean the excrement from their anuses, believing that if they bled during the process the blood would wash away the disease.
Now she knows how risky such actions were. Once, after Nozipho died, Nyawo even went to the local hospital for an HIV test. She never went back for the results.
“I was afraid that someone would recognize me there and say ‘this woman, she has AIDS,'” Nyawo said.
Each Day A Struggle
Each day is a struggle to feed her large family, which includes the Mathenjwa children as well as half a dozen of her youngest children and several grandchildren whose parents live elsewhere, all of whom stay in Nyawo’s kraal. Their only income is the about $250 they receive from the state each month for Nyawo’s pension and the disability grant her husband receives for his weak lungs, the lasting legacy of years working in a Johannesburg gold mine.
But her husband Obert, a thin lanky man, often spends his money on frivolous things like new jeans or a cell phone, while she puts hers towards food, school fees and clothes for the children. Each month, she buys the Mathenjwa children a large bag of white corn meal, South Africa’s staple food. During the month, she tries to give them a bit of meat or some vegetables to put on top of the pap, a thick corn gruel, but often the children must fend for themselves.
Often, though, the children claim she is stingy, that she is fat because she keeps the best bits for herself. Once, they say, their grandfather asked the eldest boy, Phumlani, to help slaughter a pig. The only meat the Mathenjwa family got in return for his help was the snout.
Nyawo says this is not true, that there is simply not enough to go around.
Once, Nyawo says, she could grow enough corn and vegetables to feed her whole family. Her husband kept cattle and occasionally hunted for antelope and baboons. But the game is all gone and four years of drought have yielded withered harvests.
Nyawo is also getting old and has no energy to plow so large a field. It is an effort to haul her large body and she limps from a bad knee. In her compound, as in many others here, there are children and old people but few able-bodied laborers. The young people in any case do not want to work in the fields. They dream of modern clothes and life in the city.
These days, Nyawo is often baffled by the behavior of her orphaned grandchildren. After Nozipho died, 12-year-old Mfundo began picking fights with neighboring children. He stabbed his sister Sbuka and ended scraped and bloody on the day of Nozipho’s cleansing ceremony after a fight over a wire car.
“He wants to hit everyone,” said Obert, shaking his head the day of the ceremony. “He doesn’t respect his elders.”
Sbuka, aged 16, became sullen. Often she would respond to Nyawo only in monosyllables: yes, no.
Just before Christmas, one of Sbuka’s teachers asked if she would like to go live with her mother in a township several hundred miles away. The teacher’s siblings had all left home and her mother wanted a girl to help her around the house. In return, the family would pay her school fees, buy her clothes and feed her.
Sbuka saw the offer as a chance to escape from the hunger and the poverty of Machobeni, but Nyawo wouldn’t agree.
“Her mother gave me this child and told me that I must look after her,” says Nyawo, lying on a mat in her kraal, her waist wrapped in the pink towel she often uses as a skirt. “I cannot let her go so far away. How will I know what is happening to her? If she goes, it is without my permission and I am no longer responsible for her.”
She was angry that the teacher had never come to speak to her, to ask her permission. She was also worried that the police might come to arrest her if Sbuka was no longer staying with her, since she had applied for a foster care grant from the government for her, although the grant had not yet come.
“This woman must come to speak to me to tell me why she wants to take away my child.”
Sbuka did not argue. She simply grew silent, refusing to speak to her grandmother for months.
“She won’t talk to me about it,” she said sulking. “She won’t listen to me.”
Now Nyawo is worried that Sbuka is misbehaving, running around with boys. But does not know what to do or how to control her.
“These children today, they have no respect,” Nyawo says sadly. “That is why there is this disease that is killing us.”
Nicole Itano is a Johannesburg-based writer who is currently working on a book about women and AIDS in Africa.
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