Ancestors learn to live with organ donation

”A person must be buried in full with all his or her [insides]. That is why we even stay away from post-mortems,” says Grace Mhawula, a member of the Traditional Healers Organisation.

People who came back as ”cheeky spirits” are the ones who did not leave this world with all their organs.

A traditional healer for more than 37 years, Mhawula says: ”Donating organs was never done in ancient times but things have changed. These are modern times and people talk about saving lives.”

And for Abuna Tekla Haimanot, a Rastafari high priest of the House of Melchizedek in Yeoville, Johannesburg, it is simply ”un-African” to donate an organ.

But these traditional views are not unanimously shared. Ramphalela Matloha, a Soweto herbalist who himself has a donated kidney, said he had never heard about ”that myth” of ancestors becoming angry with someone for donating organs or accepting donated ones. ”Well, my ancestors have not protested. For 14 years I received dialysis at Chris Hani Baragwanath [hospital]. Not even my own African medicine could help me with my kidney failure.”

While the debate rages on about whether organ donation is African or not, more African patients continue to wait for organs. Fewer than 500 transplants are performed annually in South Africa, says Jackie Thompson of the Organ Donor Foundation. There are about 6 000 adults and children waiting for hearts, kidneys, livers, lungs and pancreases; and 35 000 adults needing corneas, skin and bones.

Conflicting beliefs about organ donation led Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital to appoint Matsie Pooe as head of the kidney unit last month.

”I know and respect the people’s cultures. We really need to drive the point home that there are too many black people who are waiting for organs, but black families are not donating because of lack of information,” she said.

Acknowledging that some African religions are opposed to organ donations, she says her job is not to criticise people’s beliefs but rather encourage them to accept the call to donating organs to those who desperately needed them.

About 200 people met on Wednesday at the Fourways Memorial Park cemetery to pay tribute to those who had given them a second lease on life. Organ Donor Tribute Day, celebrated annually in August, which is Organ Donor Month, was organised by Change, a Johannesburg renal support group.

Wearing black as if they were attending the funeral of a loved one or a relative and speaking in hushed tones, people with variously coloured stickers on their jackets hugged and cried.

”This is a very emotional day for most of us because it takes us back to the days when we were desperately hoping for a miracle to happen,” said Caron Lee Arenstein, a petite, 45-year-old woman who founded Change in 2001, a year after receiving a kidney transplant. She said orange stickers signified people who had received an organ, green stickers were for donor families, and blue was worn by guests or Change sponsors.

Arenstein, a painter who is a qualified but not practising lawyer, said she established Change to show her gratitude. ”Someone had to die for my life to be saved and to change. I’ll forever be grateful for that,” she said

She said Change members visited hospitals and dialysis units to motivate, support and offer financial assistance to patients who cannot afford transport fares to and from dialysis. Last year Change raised R50 000, but Arenstein hopes for more this year — membership has increased from 175 to more than 1 000.

”We are trying to reach the townships because we have realised that there is a lot of awareness that still needs to be created about organ donation,” she said, between shouting for her tablets and giving presents to 11 children who stay at Marang Home in Northcliff to make it easy for them to attend school and dialysis at Johannesburg hospital daily.

Judging by the number of black people at Fourways Memorial Gardens, Arenstein seems to have a point about awareness in the townships. Last month, when opening Dumisani Mzamane African Institute for Kidney Disease, a kidney unit at Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, Dr Trevor Gerntholtz said transplants were an African solution to the problem of wards that are filled with patients in need of organs.

”Only one kidney was harvested from Bara last year, the trauma capital of the world,” he said.

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