Mlilo Mpondo
Mlilo Mpondo

Nolwazi, HIV and the people she left behind

My daughter’s nanny died today, 10pm on the 12th day of December. The day of her passing is 11 days after December 1, World Aids Day, and 10 days after December 2, the day I was born. We celebrated her birthday two weeks after she had tested positive for HIV.

Because *Nolwazi lived thousands of kilometres away from home, it was only right that we – her immediate family – dedicated a day in celebration of when she was born.

When October 26 2012 came around, our home was abuzz with people running from corner to corner in preparation for the surprise. Nolwazi looked frailer than I had seen her since the day we all learned of her blood test results. Face shrunken, shoulders caved and cheek bones so sharpened she would have put the bone structure of European models to shame.

But this is Africa, and a face like that could mean only one thing.

Irrespective of her thinning frame, and dissolving energy, my mother refused to “let her go”. Her having HIV did not change the fact that Nolwazi was the reason we had a happy toddler. Besides, sending her back to her village would be sending her away to die. That woman loved my daughter; I was often envious of the “boo” games and funny bones that only listened to Nolwazi’s fingertips.

When preparations were complete, food laid out and presents put on display, we gathered in the dining room and I was instructed to summon Nolwazi. She walked slowly toward the room crammed with lungs filled to their capacity with the words of Happy Birthday anxious to leave their pursed lips. My excitement hurried her along, forgetting that her feet were not being dragged by nonchalance but that she had recently found it increasingly impossible to breathe.

When we did finally turn the corner and enter the dining room, lungs erupted and the theme song for the day was liberated in exaltation to her. The look on her face was of complete shock, and as she placed skeletal hands over a face drenched in tears.

We, the Mpondos – with our horribly off-tune voices – were determined to sing happiness back into her. We would have sung in all 11 official languages if we knew the other eight, but for that day, Xhosa, English and Afrikaans would just have to do.

That night she told me that the gift she prized the most was that given to her by my mother and I: a light blue pair of suede shoes adorned with a dainty gold buckle. She said she cried because she’d never had a birthday party and because she’d never owned shoes that expensive (they cost R200). She gloated that she would show them off to all her friends when she went home that Christmas.

Her birthday was the day my daughter learned the tune to Happy Birthday, the last day there would be any music in our home.

We suspected that Nolwazi had known of her status all along; she was too far gone not to have known. We knew something was severely wrong because she was constantly sick. She slept more than usual and when asked, she offered fatigue as her excuse. Another sign was her dramatic weight loss and bouts of diarrhoea.

My mother refused to have anyone die in her house for as long as she lived in it – and so Nolwazi was forced to go to the doctor. On the day of her appointment my mother took leave from work and they went to wait in the eternal queues that have been a constant feature in public hospitals.

When recounting the events of the day, my mother emphasised her own impatience with government facilities, and how she had worked “damn hard” to get a medical aid so that she would never be subjected to the vulgar insensitivity of nurses coupled with the endless waiting. When I asked about Nolwazi, she merely said that she had sat quietly without a word.

Poor people are accustomed to waiting and are happy that once in a while the seat next to theirs becomes empty and they can move a seat ahead. The lives of the poor are about waiting and hoping they near the end of the line and that when they reach the front desk the person behind the counter may offer some possibility of change. This was one of the many queues that Nolwazi, from Ngcobo in the rural Eastern Cape, had waited in; queues were the metaphor of her reality.

Living with someone that sickly can be frustrating. I was maddened by Nolwazi’s passivity; she took no initiative to learn more about her disease. What unnerved me most is not that she had HIV, but that she had taken so long to speak out about it. My friends chastised my insensitivity, but my fury wouldn’t let me. Nolwazi knew about HIV, her best friend had lost her life to it the previous year.

When Zuki died, Nolwazi was enraged. She spat out that she could not comprehend why Zuki had not been more proactive, and had instead chosen apathy. To this day I do not know why Nolwazi did not have the same ferocity toward her own disease. Our disease.

After a month of hospital appointments, treatment and an entire list of paraphernalia associated with the disease, my mother decided that the time had come for Nolwazi to go home. Her health radically deteriorated, and my frequent leave applications and late work arrivals began to raise many eyebrows. So she left with her uncle for a Johannesburg township called Diepkloof. Whenever we spoke after that, she always asked that I kiss our daughter goodnight. I never worried because I knew of stories about people defeating the disease and living positively for 10 to 20 years.

I was convinced that Nolwazi would return to us in the New Year ready to be tugged at and drooled over.

But on December 12, the phone call from her uncle revealed otherwise. Nolwazi had been admitted to hospital on December 10 with cancerous sores, and subsequently died. At 29 she leaves behind a heart-broken mother, two orphaned children, a pair of blue suede shoes that she will never dance in, and a toddler, our daughter, who still walks around the house looking in each room hoping that Nolwazi will be just around the corner waiting with a “boo” behind a closet door.

* Not her real name.

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