/ 27 April 2009

A long, hard wait

Bhonani Mayixhale, the matriarch of the family. She has since died. Paul Botes/M&G
Bhonani Mayixhale, the matriarch of the family. She has since died. (Paul Botes/M&G)

Before the 2004 elections the Mail & Guardian visited the Mayixhale family in a village outside Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape.

Last week, Mandy Rossouw and photographer Paul Botes returned to see how their lives have changed.

When we first met the Mayixhale family five years ago, eight of them lived in a two-room house with a small garden where mielies and beans grew. The household was headed by Bhonani, the matriarch. Her daughters Nonyaniso, Zandile, Zukiswa and Lizeka, and three grandchildren lived with her. Now there are 13 Mayixhales living in the house, with one noticeable absence. Nonyaniso, then already suffering from an HIV-related illness, died at the end of 2004. She now lies buried in the garden.

Nonyaniso left her daughter, Sisonke (5), to be taken care of by Bhonani, who is 65 this month. Sisonke was born HIV-positive but, unlike her mother, she immediately received antiretrovirals (ARVs). An underweight baby in 2004, she is now a bouncy little girl dressed in a denim skirt and with nails painted bright pink. She eagerly helps the grown-ups with chores around the house, such as fetching water and making fires.

Sisonke has no choice but to lend a hand — her grandmother is not up to the job anymore. Despite years of waiting for the local municipality to lay the pipes for water and power cables for electricity, the family still depends on water from the stream, which is a downhill walk from their house, and they use an outside structure on which they light fires to cook their food. The fire also serves as a source of heat when it gets cold and the kids use it to roast their mealies, which serve as snacks between meals.

So what has changed for Bhonani and her family in five years?

”Nothing,” says the old woman. Dressed for our visit in her Sunday best — a too-big brown melton jacket and a peach dress — Bhonani Mayixhale is emphatic. ”They are just promising and promising.” She voted ANC during the last election, but shrugs her shoulders when asked why. ”The councillor said we must vote ANC.”

She would change her vote if someone else gave them water and electricity, Bhonani tells me through the local health worker, Nomzwakazi Gogo, who doubles as a translator.

Walking towards the small vegetable patch, I start to understand Bhonani’s impatience. The stench from the toilet reaches you long before you get to the fly-infested shed. The toilet is not cleaned regularly, because water for cleaning must be carried up the hill from the stream, a job Bhonani says she can’t do anymore.

”I can now carry only five litres — before I could carry 20 litres.” The Mayixhales have three buckets of water — one for washing dishes, another for cooking and drinking and the third for personal hygiene.

When it starts to rain we move the small wooden bench and the five-litre jerry can that Bhonani had been sitting on inside the front room of the house. Here the crockery is kept with the dry foodstuffs such as sugar and mealie-meal.

The only ornaments are religious sayings in isiXhosa stuck on the wall: ”God take away my tears”, ”All problems will pass” and ”In everything that comes, I ask my heart not to panic”.

Outside I find the children crouched around the fire, leaning out of the rain, which has turned the neatly swept yard into a muddy morass. Two pots are boiling, one for the rice that will be the basis of lunch and another heating up water with which to wash the youngest children, dusty from playing in the garden all morning.

Their clothes are neatly stacked on the floor of an outhouse, which also serves as a pantry. Half a pumpkin lies in the corner; one of the girls cuts a piece off to add to the lunch offering.

Bhonani has to make do with her R940 grant, and her daughters collect grants for their children, but it is not enough to keep the household clothed and fed.

”When month-end comes we have to borrow money from another person to buy something to eat. We do that when the children are crying for food,” she says.

Electricity would change her life. ”I will take the grant [her pension] and buy a fridge — then I can buy meat.” Gogo the translator explains that when the family buys chicken they have to eat it the same day because otherwise it rots.

Bhonani is not interested in politics and political leaders. ”I don’t know Jacob Zuma. I only see him in pictures and on T-shirts. Only the children know him.”

It’s time for Sisonke to take her tablets. The little girl knows exactly when and how many to take. But for her mother treatment came too late. Médecins Sans Frontières began to distribute ARVs in 2004 when they were not being given by government. Since then a Constitutional Court ruling has forced the health department to distribute ARVs free and the programme is back in government’s hands.

”If she got treatment earlier, she might still be here,” mumbles Zukiswa, Nonyaniso’s sister, who is 24 and the mother of Homeboy (6).

Zukiswa is still at school, doing her matric year at the local high school. Her 19-year old sister, Lizeka, is in grade 10, but she already has three children to look after, which makes it difficult to study.

The family has another sister, Nomsa, who lives in Germiston, near Johannesburg.

”I’m afraid Nomsa will come back sick as well,” Bhonani says, referring to Nonyaniso, who contracted HIV in Gauteng.

Outside, Zandile is sorting the washing that struggles to dry in the damp weather. She works at a chicken handling plant in Lusikisiki but hates her job and their poor conditions at home.

”In 2004 we voted, but today we have no electricity. They promised us but there is still no electricity. They are lying just to get our votes. I don’t want to vote for just anyone now, I want to use my common sense. When the time comes to vote I will decide. For now I listen to the radio to know what is happening with other parties.”

She shows me where the local councillor lives and points to a house surrounded by electricity poles.

”He has electricity. After voting last time the councillor bought a car for himself. It was a white Nissan bakkie. So I decided now I will vote for another party because the councillor tells us blue lies.”

She is also fed up with men.

”The father of my children is a policeman in Mount Frere but I won’t marry him because he loves too many women. I’m scared of getting HIV and then I’ll get sick and my mother is too old. When I had the children I was young but now my mind is open.”

The Mayixhales help us carry our gear to where the car is parked in the long grass above their home. Now, as in 2004, the untarred road half a kilometre away remains their only link to the outside world.

Bhonani smiles broadly as she waves goodbye with both hands. We tell them we will come back again. Hopefully this is not the only promise that will be kept.

History lesson
Nonyaniso Mayixhale did not receive treatment in time because:

  • Lusikisiki has 14 times fewer doctors than the national average.
  • Some clinics receive only one doctor’s visit every two months.
  • April 2004 to March 2006: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) used nurses in the area to prescribe ARVs. The uptake of ARVs doubled.
  • April 2006: the health department ordered MSF to stop using nurses to administer treatment.
  • April 2009: no nurses in Lusikisiki administer HIV treatment.

Mia Malan and Qudsiya Karrim


M&G Fast