‘Death is no child’s play to the living’

‘Death is no child’s play to the living’
These are the words of my dear mother on the death of the oldest man I ever knew from their neigbourhood. The man was hundred and one years old. Born in 1916 in the rural parts of the province. He never went to school but he could read, write and speak English and Afrikaans ‘like a true gentleman’, his words. Everyone who came to live here found him here. Blessed with a humble wife and one son who is almost same age as my dad.
It took over three days for his soul to totally leave his body.
‘Grandpa’, everyone called him that, even people who were older than him in his young age. I think among his very big family, he was the first to become a grandfather. I am told he was only thirty four years when he became a grandfather so it just happened that his brothers and sisters pulled his leg by calling him that. But this did not just end with his immediate family, everyone knew him with that title, so much so other people thought it was his name.
He was sick for a while, ‘Grandma’ his wife took care of him with the help of neighbors and her cousin. Grandpa was demanding in his death bed. In his youth he was a smoker, when old age and sickness took over, he seemed to have forgotten that he stopped smoking and would yell and shout at Grandma for a cigarette.
In his death bed he was a shouter and a complainer sometimes spewing insults like a drunkard, something he never was as long as we knew him. Grandma was overwhelmed by his new nature and resorted to prayer and silence. At night he would fall from his bed because he thought he could still walk.
The last three days of his life were a true testament to what my mother always said, that death is not a child’s play. Grandpa just did not want to die, he resisted death and when neighbors pronounced him dead after he took a long gasp that was exhaled heavily with no more inhalation, pulse or heartbeat until after an hour when he choked and breathed again. By then, as an old and respected member of the community and church, all his neighbors, church people, relatives and friends were by now filling up the yard as the house was filled to pay respect.
They came to do what church people call ‘farewell to his soul’, this happens before the undertakers remove his lifeless body to the mortuary. Instead of hymns and prayers, the pastor came out to say he was still alive. People did not know whether to celebrate, cry or be embarrassed for the family.
Strange thing death, it happens to so much young people so easily, yet to an old man it takes effort and struggle. People were advised to not leave because ‘it might be a fluke’, meaning his breathing might be a miracle that might pass. People waited and it looked wrong that they were waiting for someone to die again. It was an uncomfortable situation that took three days.
When night came most people but family was left behind. They were praying for him to ‘see the road’. Our people believe that there is a road that when one passes, they go through. Sometimes due to the things the people who are living cannot explain, the dying person cannot see the road or what other people believe is the light. Prayers and singing and sometimes talking to those who have crossed over (ancestors) to show him how to get there is done consistently until something happens.
I asked why so many endeavors when one can be left to live. The answer was that when the time has come it has come and there are signs that show that, pain and groaning or snoring in a peculiar manner being part of it. My mother told me that Grandpa was no longer of our world, his name has been called. We the living must help him to cross over.
It is sad when you still love your loved one to see people doing what seems like ‘killing’ him. When they ask God to do His will, that is a direct request that God must take him over. When he is lying on the bed having difficulty breathing and rolling his eyes in pain or discomfort people start singing sad praises to the ancestors to show him the way. Mothers crying because of the pain caused by the sadness to see life so well lived, so loved and so precious finding it difficult to graduate to the next step.
The wailing of the mothers, praying of church people and praise singing by the extended family happened for three days. The extended family left on the third day and Grandma was left with her husband and their great grand children. By now grandpa’s one foot was halfway leaving earth and the other, only God knew where. People got tired and emotionally drained. It was just an unending torture to them.
Until on the fourth day at night. I was at my parent’s when the lights of the whole town went off. As we were busy looking for candles, rain fell hard after such drought that we had experienced. It was hardly five minutes after that when we heard a knock. Grandma’s great grandchild that they were staying with came to report that Grandpa passed away.
It took three days of prayer to the living God and the persuasion of the ancestors, the songs and the mothers wailing for him to pass away. It was when everyone had left that he felt comfortable to let go, in the process taking with him our lights and left us with a welcomed flood of rain.
As my mother would say, death is just not easy not to the living and I would add, especially not to the dying.
I have seen things and I have heard stories, this one is not a story nor a thing. It is a life of a Centurion who lived his life so well here on earth so much so dying was not an option for him.
How we cling to the familiar even when it kills us, instead of letting go and let God. Beyond what we are comfortable with, God has a greater plan for us, plan to heal, bless, prosper us but the journey goes through some tunnels and unfamiliar roads. It is good to have friends, family current or past and neighbors that will help you through life’s journey. Grandpa had plenty and they did the best they knew how in his hour of need. They helped him cross over. If a hundred and one year old man can need help about life, why do you think you don’t? Everybody needs the power of the love from people who love him to open the road.
Life is a journey and pain, struggle, joy and death are just part of that journey.
Rest in Grandpa, as we say ‘those who have met, will meet again

MAA to unveil design of its innovative, distributed, networked museum at AIDS Conference in Durban, July 18

July 13 2016

Durban – The Museum of AIDS in Africa will unveil the design of its innovative, distributed, networked museum at the 21st International AIDS Conference in Durban on July 18.

The structure was designed by multi-award-winning Nigerian architect Kunle Adeyemi, of NLÉ WORKS. Last month, Adeyemi won the 2016 Silver Lion award at the Venice Biennale and is renowned for bold, modern works that address real-world African issues.

“This fantastic design by one of the world’s most exciting architects inaugurates an exhilarating new phase of expansion for the Museum of AIDS in Africa, ” said Joy Phumaphi, MAA board member and the Executive Secretary of the African Leaders Malaria Alliance. “The MAA has been working to preserve the stories of the African epidemic since 2008 – now we can offer our partners across the continent a kit to erect affordable, co-created healing, learning and memorial spaces of a kind never seen before.”

At the conference – the world’s premiere gathering of researchers, responders and people living with HIV-AIDS – the MAA will unveil the iconic design, and also showcase the other components of the kit: a BioMaker Lab (a hands-on program for youth that builds their knowledge of the science of HIV), its Healing Through Memory and Objects grief project and a digital Memorial. The Museum will engage its partners and conference-goers to ensure the design works in diverse contexts across the continent.

The MAA’s ground-breaking, high-impact programming comes embedded in the networked museum kit – a completely new approach to community programming, museology and learning.

“This bold but simple and sustainable design works as well in a low-income neighbourhood in Lagos as it does in a village in rural Zambia,” said Stephen Lewis, MAA board member, and co-founder of AIDS-Free World and former UN Special Envoy on HIV-AIDS in Africa.

The museum structure is inexpensive to manufacture, easy-to-assemble and can accommodate hands-on art and science, exhibition and gathering. The programs are networked via a cloud-based Digital Hub, and partners share common policies, branding and training.

MAA programs help to transform large-scale grief, fear and powerlessness resulting from the AIDS epidemic into resilience and innovation through memory work, knowledge-sharing and skills development in story-telling and hands-on science. Our programs are supported by smart technology and cutting-edge design.

The Museum of AIDS in Africa aims to transform the individual and social response to the African AIDS epidemic by honouring those who have lost their lives, empowering those infected and affected, and building knowledge about the history, science and response to the pandemic, to support the ultimate goal of an Africa free from AIDS.


MAA co-chair Ngaire Blankenberg

MAA project manager Namhla Mbunge

+27. 717059427

IMAGES AVAILABLE high-res images of the new MAA structure, on request

AT THE IAC: Visit the MAA at Booth 356 in the Exhibition Hall, and at Stand 706 in the Global Village

Those who met will meet again.

This last week has been miserable at our house. My mom was admitted to hospital, Doctor said when he was admitting her ‘it is for observation’ because her high blood pressure was quite high. He said two days maximum, but now we are finishing a week without her here.

The reason she is sick is that, after my father came back from dropping my son at school on Friday last. He met their neighbor waiting for him at the gate, the lady neighbor told my father to tell my mom that Aunty Noma (full name- Nomathemba); my mom’s longest and very good friend passed away through heart failure. For some reason she did not want to face my mom when she passed this message.

My father was still surprised when he blurted the news to my mom. She was having tea but my father could not finish what he was saying, her tea cup fell and broke, not without spilling hot tea on her lap. She was overly leaning to the front as if she was going to fall. In the process of trying to stop her fall, I hugged her and whispered ‘It is not her’, remember she is in Cape Town to the wedding of her cousin’s daughter.

She opened her eyes, as if to say ‘yes I remember’.

This was very true to me. Only two days earlier I dropped her at the airport. She was meant to take the bus, but her daughter Thandi (Thandiwe which directly translate to Beloved) was worried about the distance and because flights are normally quite cheap around this time of year, she bought her a return ticket. The daughter and her three sons were to drive later in the week to the wedding.

Because our airport is quite small, one can see their loved ones when they board the plane and wave. So myself and Thandi waited to wave her off. When she was at the stairs to the plane door, she could not climb them. She laughed a little, I guess feeling embarrassed. I thought maybe we should have asked for extra assistance for her.

One of the plane hostesses tried to help but she failed. We went to the security to ask if we could help. They only brought her back to the Assisted Passenger office where we rushed to check. She smiled back and said, ‘it’s my legs, they swell for no reason these days’. I looked at them for the first time. They were huge and shiny. I told Thandi we should have taken her to the doctor first before the flight.

I was saying this because I remembered a colleague who died on the plane because of deep vein thrombosis. I did not even know of the existence of such a disease until I heard Lusindiso died from it. People said she should have taken an asprin before flying. I thought of offering my mom’s best friend the aspirin, but then I thought what if it thins her blood too much.

In anyway, they got her into a wheelchair and uplifted her up the plane. We laughed when we told my mom about the inconvenience her friend caused. She just said it was old age like her. With her, I know even as I book the plane that I must ask assistance. Not because she will not be able to get into the plane, but because she gets easily disrupted. I always worry that she would be confused and get into a wrong plane.

When we heard that aunty Noma landed safely, we moved on with our own preparations. She called my mom in the evening to tell her how beautiful the wedding dress was and how she thought the groom was made to pay little lobola. They talk about everything together. Sometimes I feel what they talk about most of the time is unnecessary.

So in the morning when she called to say she was tired she would not be driving around with the wedding planners to view the venue, my mom said she must take time to relax because when the wedding comes she would be asked to do so many things that could tire her.

In the evening they all went out for dinner with the family of the groom. Later I heard my mom giggling and laughing on the phone, I knew it was her so I asked when she was done, ‘what was the gossip about?’ She told me my aunt Noma was making fun of the groom’s father who did not have teeth.

When my father came in with the bad news, I kind of knew it was not a mistake but I needed my mom to be in doubt so she does not lose herself. My father too was not believing what he was saying so when I placed the doubt, it all made sense to them until the phone rang and a scream came from the other side.

It was hectic from there, my father slumped in his lazy chair and my mom fell on the ground. They knew when they heard the scream that it was Thandi and what they heard from their neighbor was true.

My mother was getting weaker by the second so I dragged her to the car so we could go to the doctor. I first shoved down her throat high blood pressure prescription tablets. Then shouted at my father to move. He was also in a world of his own, dazed.

We all drove to the doctor, but my mother insisted she wanted to go to aunty Noma’s house first. When we approached we saw droves of people going into her house. That is common where we live. Everyone gathers at the house of the deceased to make sure of what has happened and comfort the children. When we got there, Thandi and her siblings had still not arrived. She was still at work when she called our house to scream. There was aunty Noma’s husband, already prepared with his bags to travel to Cape Town with his children to the wedding.

He seemed confused when we arrived and asked my father, ’which Noma are they saying died today?’ my father could not respond and he continued ‘these people must not delay us we are driving later today to Cape Town’. I heard my father asking ‘for what?’ He said ‘wedding of course’. He giggled and said ‘shame you were not invited hey’. They are both 72 but my father looks a little older than him because he fought and defeated cancer in his sixties, that took some good health from him.

My mother was struggling to breath by now so I decided to take her straight to the hospital not the doctor’s rooms. She is still there as I write this. The doctor said it will be two days maximum but today is the seventh day. Her church friends shout at her when they visit ‘don’t cry like someone without hope’, ‘don’t give up like someone who does not pray’, ‘you will meet her on the last day’

She is sad, very sad. But she is sick too. She keeps asking what the doctors said was the cause of her friend’s death. Heart failure we tell her. With confusion she wants to know the difference between that and heart attack.

Yesterday was aunty Noma’s funeral. My mom could not make it. The doctor declined to give her pass for it. I had to go for her. Everyone was talking about their friendship and how it is going to be hard for my mom. Most people call them twins. They were friends since they were babies because their mothers were friends.

All I kept praying for was for good and long health for my mom. I knew it was hard for her but we are still here. Unlike Thandi and her sibling who no longer had a mother. I know how much she was close to her, but I hoped she would not give up on life because of one loss.

We love her too much and we need her always.

They were blessed because they knew each other for all their lives which is almost 70 years. All of us knew her less years than Noma did, but all those years we knew her no matter how few, they were all the years that we lived on this earth.

I went to see her after the funeral and she said ‘I think we were lucky, me and Noma. Few friendships lasts that long, yes we were blessed. Those who met will meet again’. This is one of comforting sayings in my language. How was her funeral she asked ‘the best’ I told her.

‘I spoke on your behalf, Thandi and her brothers needed to hear from you, I was you and I hope I did not misrepresent you’. I would not have spoken even if I was there, I don’t think I would have had the courage, you did well, you were going to speak even if I was there. She said.

Sometimes, some people are blessed to have the soul mate in their friends and their husbands. That they are separated through death even with friends.

I wish I could be like my mom and aunty Noma and be able to keep friends that long.

Rest in peace beautiful aunty Noma, till we meet again

Remember dear?

Going through my wardrobe yesterday I found myself involuntary bursting into song. I wish bursting meant the song was one happy song, unfortunately for you it was one sad song of the days gone by.

I took a trip deep down sad memory lane with Anita Baker, the song ‘No more tears’ flowed out of the blue from my mouth. I must confess that when I first heard this song it was in the very early 90’s. I was in high school knowing not a single word of English but ‘because’ in my vocabulary. You see, in my time the medium of learning was English in our schools. But because we were in villages with no television or telephone at the time, English was heard only when one visited the city on holidays. When I heard it spoken, I could not even differentiate between it and Afrikaans. It did not bother me too that when I visited the townships people watched television and laugh at comedies or cry over something that was showing on TV. I was just not interested. I just did not understand. My friends were intimidated by it, I was not.

I remember my cousin irritating the others who had some clue of the language when we watched television during holidays. He would ask our elder cousins who lived in the city when they laughed or sighed over something they saw on TV, ‘what are they saying’. He would be shushed every time, yet he kept asking every time. Curiosity. I did not have it. Nonchalant.

Even though the teachers taught us English, they used our language. Therefore a pass was dependent on how well one was able to photocopy syllabus content with their brains. When I start reading my high school books these days, I laugh because I knew nothing at the time of the words that were used in those books. Do not get me wrong, I knew exactly what was said in those books, but not the English words that meant what was written.

So singing this song made me smile inside because as you know, now I know what the words mean plus, I can sing the lyrics very well. I started

‘we used to love, now all I do is cry, you used to make me happy now you don’t even try’

Before I could get any further, I heard my daughter laughing too. I thought she was laughing because of my voice. You know they call it old. They say it has distinctively 80/90’s vibe. I do not even know what that means. It embarrasses my son when I sing at church because, you know me, I sing loud and typically African. My daughter calls it a church music voice.

She stopped me before I could continue. ‘Mom but why do all your 80’s or 90’s songs sound sad and baby, baby, baby all the time?’ I stopped for a second but do they really all sound like baby baby baby! I asked myself inside. Maybe they do hey, ‘at least they don’t sound bitch, nigger, money’ I answered still keeping the melody.

You see, whatever they may have told you about the 80’s/ 90’s, it was a beautiful era for us. I am sure the 70’s and 60’s were also splendid for my parent’s too. Every era holds something beautiful for its generation. For us it was baby, baby, baby.

I deviate again; the reason for this story is neither the English language nor it’s none existence in my vocabulary or the 80’s. But it is about not forgetting.  Never betraying who we are and where we come from. It is keeping in our heads where we want to be and why we want to get there.

Remembering is good for the soul. They say live your life so that when you go down memory lane in your old age you are able to smile and burst into laughter even if you are alone. Try not to live so you cringe and blush with humiliation when a thought of your youth passes through your mind.

Live for something, be part of something, stand for something. I used to have a colleague, as early as in her 30’s she said, ‘things we do, sometimes one wishes to take a typex (eraser) and rub them off in the history of the life we lead’ she was regretting a choice she made of getting involved with a married man. Her sister told her that nothing happens for no reason in our lives. She just needed to stop it and promise herself never to do it again.

She did not; she kept on and off with the man until his wife died. She was eventually married to the widow after six months that the wife passed. That was the most taboo thing that I ever witnessed in my mid twenties. A man taking a new wife before he took off mourning clothes he was wearing. This is one of the reasons I left that town and moved to Johannesburg. I was ashamed to be associated with her, yet I was afraid to ask her why.

Everyone called her ugly names. They said she is the one who bewitched that lady with cancer. Yes I live in a community that still thinks like that. That cancer can be purchased from a witch person to kill someone.

No one really liked her. People still don’t but who cares she got what she wanted.

Last week Thursday I received a call from her daughter. It had been a long time since I saw her. She said her mom would really love talking to me can I surprise her with a call. I did.

My old friend, she sounded so frail and tired yet happy to hear from me. I promised to visit her. She still lives in the same town. I drove with my kids the 250km to her last Saturday. I wanted to see the place I spent my young adult life. To remember my youth with my kids next to me. To show them places that meant something to me in my young life.

Her daughter told us to meet as St. Dominic hospital as she was laying there sick.

I did not know this but we drove any way. I found my friend with her two kids. She was very sick, cancer. I looked around for the husband. He was not there.

After the pleasantries she asked our kids to leave us. I asked what happened. She laughed ‘I think someone bought cancer for me’. Yes cancer? Does she believe that nonsense that there is cancer causing powder? I found myself thinking that this place has not changed a bit. I wonder who could that be? I really did not expect an answer but she volunteered it ‘I guess what goes around comes around hey?’ Good. She remembers, I thought. She was still smiling but tears were forming in her eyes. At least you know you never bought cancer for anyone, I said.

‘Yes that one is true, but I really wished her death. I got her life exactly how it was because my husband cheated from the first day we were married and look at me now, at least she had the support and love of the community and family, I don’t. I am reaping what I sowed.

I remember thinking it must be hard for her to remember her life. It must be difficult to look back and smile or re-live that time in her mind. But she needed to; I thought, for her passage she needed to look in her inner self and make peace with her mistakes.

Remembering is good, but not everything we did was good. So sometimes remembering is painful. But at some point we must face it and make amends. The first step is to remember. To remember how we hurt others for our own gains so we can forgive ourselves, accept ourselves with all the baggage that makes who we were, learn to love the pieces of us that no one is prepared to love. In any case if we don’t, who will?

My friend had a choice to stop what became torture before it happened. She chose not to. Now, as her sister said before, there is nothing for nothing. Everything we do in this earth has consequences. Hers was very direct. Karma is a bitch. I somehow felt sorry for her.

In my language there is a saying that goes ‘loo nto uyanzayo uyazenzela’ loosely translated it means whatever you do, you do it for yourself’. I believe this, because when old age comes, all the things you ever done, you will remember. It is up to the things whether they make you cry or smile.’

I do not take light the privilege of being alive and aging. If I would ever be honored with a privilege a walking stick because of old age. If I am given that honor, I hope I carry the walking stick with pride and dignity like my paternal grandfather did, knowing that I remember my young life and its mistakes but walk tall even if my back has bended because of all age, knowing that I have forgiven myself.

I hope to be like my maternal grandfather and call my children and their families for an ‘urgent’ meeting every other weekend. Item for discussion being the day of my death. Talking about that in my 90’s while still as strong as the day I knew him to be my grandpa. With a smile as if narrating a party tell them exactly what needs to happen on the day of death and funeral. Having everyone laughing and debating the practicality of my wishes without feeling sorry for me, like my mother and her siblings did with their father.

I wish I could be able to give instructions with a pure heart that I want to be buried on top of my wife’s coffin that died more than thirty years before, without feeling guilty that she might be upset with me for things I have done after she died.

My two grandparents were not saints, but they remembered, forgave and moved on. Let’s do that while singing with Anita Baker with our distinctively 60’s /70’s/80’s/90’s/00’s/10’s voices in that churchy vibe, who cares? We remember but;

It’s gonna be no more tears for you……no more crying now….see my eyes have run dry, there’ll be no more tears.



Let them eat cake…..

This past weekend I found myself comforting my daughter. She went through bad pain of a first ever break up.

She only went out with a boy when she was nineteen and he was that boy. They were together at pre-school and primary school until we moved to Joburg. They kept in touch until after high school when they decided to be more than friends. We moved back from Joburg and they became a proper couple.

The break up was hard on all my family too. He was such a beautiful boy that any mother could wish her daughter can have a relationship with. Well raised but also naturally humble. I loved that about him.

Their plan was to get engaged when they both graduate next year. I loved that plan too.

The problem was caused by something that should not have been a problem whatsoever. He started going to church.

Strange I know, that should make their relationship strong but not in this case. Their church is far ‘liberal’ than ours.

He got friends there, a group of alcoholic friends. They went for youth services together. In the meantime they were organizing a drunken stupor with a groups of sexy girls.

Every time after their services, he would disappear into these alcohol feasts and reappear the next day hung over. It started by him not calling goodnight as he was drunk.

This happened quickly, over a month I think. Then the last straw was this past weekend. He did not pitch for any of their planned activities and was seen by her friends drunk and kissing a girl at a petrol station. This is after he visited for fifteen minutes and said he was rushing to help granny at home. On Monday my daughter went to see him and confrontation ensued so the break up happened. He said something like ‘he wants to explore life without her’.

I saw her crying in her room, for the first time she told me what has been going on.

It is then that I decided to be a strong mother for her and give some advice about break ups. It is the most devastating ever, the first one. It hurts like there is no tomorrow but I needed her to be strong, for herself not him. It would define how she handles disappointments and betrayal by people closest to her going forward. It would change the way she thought of relationships but I needed it to change for the better. Most importantly, it has the potential to plant doubt about her capabilities as a woman and a human being, I needed her to know this had nothing to do with her and it is not her fault. She has a right to say no if the relationship did not suite her anymore.

She cried as I tried to be stern with her. I did not want her to wipe her tears by getting another boyfriend or worse getting to alcohol to soften her pain as it is common in our shores. Most of all I needed her to stay a lady that she was and remain above board. I told her to acknowledge her pain but never be driven by it. Time has a way of dealing with pain. In time he will see that it was his loss.

She cried and shouted ‘but I love him’. We planned our forever together. He promised he will never unlove me and I did the same to him. I have kept my side of the promise that is why it hurts so much. Why did he have to change the terms of reference?

‘Mommy he changed the rules in the middle of the game. I did not agree to a relationship with a third person. If that was the case I would have gone out with anyone because that is what everyone is doing. I chose to love him because he said he will never cheat on me. I have never agreed to partying and drunken orgies. No matter how much I love him I cannot change who I am for him. He can go ahead and play with his new team and explore other girls, as for me I will nurse my hurt and if I ever see him again, I cannot say for sure I will not get angry or cry or even laugh but one thing for sure I cannot love him ever again.’

He is going to be the reason I rise beyond what I thought I would be. This disappointment is going to be the reason that I succeed in my life. It is my inspiration to reach my goals and beyond.

She said ‘let him eat cake’. What does that mean I asked, ‘ Mary Antoinnette mommy you don’t remember?”. I know Mary Antoinnette and I know the French revolution, but what does that have to do with this?

‘Children’, I found myself thinking, they can say the most unanticipated things. As long as she knows what that meant I was not going to ask more. What I gathered from our conversation was that she was going to be ok, and that was fine with me.

Life is a test, we need to strive to pass it, and do so with flying colours.

We can never stop because someone decides against us as a team member. People change their minds all the time. We need to cry and be hurt but we must sure rise. As my mother would say, we need to blow our nose, wash our faces and decide that crying is enough. A time must come when we say ‘enough’ to pain. Transform it to good life and living.

One person cannot define your destiny, stay focus and march on. Sometimes you can do that with tears still in your beautiful eyes, but determination in your heart will carry you through. You did nothing wrong so why should it be you who suffers endless. You are a beautiful creature of God, He loves you that should be enough.

Whatever break up or disappointment you are going through…..’let them eat cake’ I don’t know what it means but it works for my daughter, try it, it might just work for you too.


Visit to Siya’s funeral

Yesterday I went to a funeral. Saturdays might as well be set aside for community funeral day where I live.

There is context to that though, but today we are not going to talk about it. Besides these days other people do bury during the week.

Today we are talking about a funeral of a young man.

Death of young men and women is not something uncommon where I live. Actually when an elderly person dies, when I say elderly I mean sixty year olds. When that happens, people give a sigh of relief. You will hear them saying ‘at least he was old’.

This caught me by surprise too when my uncle who was fifty six died of heart attack two years ago. I told my colleagues. When they were comforting me they asked his age, I told them. In unison they said, at least he was old. Yes in the age of premature deaths fifty six is old. I don’t know about age but it was still painful, for me and my family to lose someone as generous as my uncle.

Remind me to tell you more about him, my uncle soon.

Today it is about Siyamthanda (we love him), I told you names mean what they say in my language. He was called Siya to shorten it. Everybody’s name is shorten as a sign of affection in our communities. If it is short then it is made long, just because.

I think it is at that funeral that the underneath meaning in the ‘at least he was old’ comment was verbalized. Done by the preacher.

I did not know Siya that well, but my mother knows his mother, they do not go to the same church but they meet at funerals, we have plenty of those. I think it is in job descriptions of church mothers to go to all funerals and prayers of comforting the bereaved. These prayers take place everyday in the evenings in the home of the deceased until the funeral day.

Siya’s home is in the same street with my aunt, this to us constitute a neighbor. I guess that is enough reason to attend a funeral. Besides that though, my mother is elderly so she needs to be driven to places. I find myself in funerals of people I do not know because I have to be there for her and her church friends.

Siya, I heard speaker that spoke about him, was a fun loving young man. He was loved by his mother dearly and his three siblings loved him more because of that. He lost his father Hippo in October last year. He was called that because he was fat growing up. Everyone thought Hippo would die from the diabetes he suffered from all his entire life. But as fate had it, Hippo was hit by a mini bus taxi. He died on the spot.

In December there was another funeral at Siya mother’s house. His uncle and cousin who lived in the house outside in their yard were crashed in front of that busy street. One by a bus and the other by a truck on the same day. The cousin heard his father was hit, he ran to rescue, he did not look around, a slow moving truck hit him. I heard he could have survived the crash if the truck did not pull and drag him on the road.

In February, Siya’s mother Nomthandazo (mother of prayer) was also involved in an accident, but she survived.

With how this story is moving, I do not need to tell you how Siya died.

But I will anyway. Last weekend, after a nice beach party, Siya and his friends were driving back home. On their way back they pulled the car out of the road. Young man went to pee in the bushes near the road and other took out the left over booze in the car boot. Siya was among the man who went to the bush. On his way back, in front of his friends, a truck scooped him and threw his tiny strong body off the road. He died in that spot.

His mother Nomthandazo and his siblings were having a lazy Sunday afternoon when police pulled in their drive way and told them the bad news.

You see in our communities once tragedy strikes twice or thrice the same way, people start thinking it is either a cry from God, or wrath of the ancestors. If not, it must be Witches who are either your relatives or neighbours being jealous of your family material acquisitions.

So older people start throwing hints that the family needs to do something. Either go to church to appeal to God in prayer or throw some sort of ancestral cleansing to make amends with the dead. If not that, they need to go to sangoma to know who exactly is bewitching them.

The funeral took place at the African Episcopal Church. It was a full church. Others stood outside. This is how funerals get in our communities. Not everyone can fit into a church. The young people wait and listen from outside the church.

This is what caught me in that funeral, the preacher. He said, ‘At least it was not AIDS,”. I looked at my mother who did not even flinch. There was no reaction in a church full of so many people. At least it was not Aids? So it did not matter that he died, as long as it was not from Aids.

It did not matter that a mother was grieving a beautiful life, a lastborn son she so loved that she called him WE LOVE HIM. The pain of a parent burying her own child was ok as long as the death was not caused by Aids. I just could not sit still. I saw mothers looking at the preacher with no expression like my own mother. I wanted to shake all of them and ask why.

But I sat, like them, still. I looked up at the pulpit, he was still there talking although I heard nothing. I calmed myself and decided to listen again, maybe I heard wrong. ‘You know what that means, it means your child was pure. Never promiscuous or gay. He lived a clean life. He will enter heaven’. I turned and said to my mom, I am leaving, I was going to wait in the car. She shushed me. After those words I heard nothing else. I was angry. People did not find this wrong at any level. Is this 1985?

When the preacher finished talking he asked one of the mothers to pray. It is customary in our churches for mothers to pray after the sermon. One of the mothers knelt with a song. The congregation knew the song I did not. So one of them gave me a hymn book. The first verse translates lightly as ‘Yes Lord I come, even though I am nothing but I come’. The mother in her prayer echoing the words of the hymn ‘ Yes Lord I come because you love us as we are. Aids or pure you love us still. Promiscuous or virgins yet you love us exactly the way we are’.

We are grateful for our children even if they have Aids because they are ours. They live and love us even when we talk about what we know nothing about as if we went to school for it, yet they forgive us. We are grateful because they live. As you know father mine has been living for sixteen years with Aids but she is still as beautiful, healthy and happy because she knows it is not a disgrace.

She works to provide food for me and my other children. She will not die before me because you did not condemn her. No matter how many times the world and the church we are in to praise your name condemns her and all those living with Aids, she will not be what they say she is.

She will enter heaven faster than people who preach condemnation instead of hope and love. Thank you God for your word because it tells us never to judge because judgment we pass will be used to judge us. May Siya’s mother find comfort in knowing that her son was kind and giving not to fallacy of not dying from Aids because, as our fathers before us taught us, there is one death and that is lying on your back. It does not matter the reason.

At this point my mother and the other mothers are shouting haleluya’s and all sorts of things said when this kind of prayer is said.

I whispered in her ear and said but you were quiet with no reaction when the big preacher was telling you all about how disgraceful Aids is. When one is telling bad stuff about your God, it is best not to answer them, rather tell God about them, if he can hear you while you are reporting him to God, then that’s a bonus. This is not a first time we come to this kind of church. All mothers in all churches agreed to respond in this manner when such things are said. Because to respond when someone is in the pulpit will not make you better than what they are saying. So we always wait our turn. I knew a mother will pray and respond, we wait our place and time. She said.

Nomthandazo, Siya’s mother was not dressed in black as it is customary when one buries their son, she was dressed in red. Very bright red. We all frowned at her choice of colour. Other people said she is a twin. Twins are exempted in most of the rituals that people go through. Regarded as special.

When her first born son rose to say a word of gratitude to all who came as it was customary. He explained why his mother dressed in red.

‘You all know my mother is a twin, so she is exempted in wearing black clothes, but she can wear any other mourning colour like purple or mauve, but she chose red, which is not a mourning colour. She did it to symbolize that Siya was living with Aids. She wished her son was killed by Aids rather, because she would have had an opportunity to nurse him, to have hope, to give him medicine and comfort him through pain. The accident is not better than any death.

I went out there feeling both sad and happy. Mostly sad because Siya did not deserve to die and her mother did not deserve burying four people in her house within six months because of car accidents or any reason for that matter.

I was happy that the preacher was ignorant so that a brave woman can talk to God about him in his presence when everyone was listening. Leaving that church hall what I knew about our mothers and Siya’s mother was reinforced that our mothers are humble but never weak. They are quiet but have an opinion and at a right time they voice it whether to God or the righteous.

I love our mothers, my own mother included. Mothers of prayer in all our community churches because when they meet, they pray for all of us and once Nomthandazo heals her wounds, she will know exactly what to do about the accidents that are tragically robbing her of the loved ones.

For now, she is mourning in bright red colours to prove that it will not be Aids or any accident that will bring her family down.

After we came back from the cemetery, as it was customary I went to her to say how sorry I was about her loss. Of course I was accompanying my mother, just a step behind her I heard Siya’s mother saying to her ‘’one prayer at a time we will change the mentality of the ignorant, one strong voice will shush all the loud ignorant clutter’’. My mom nodded and said, ‘do grieve your son, cry when you miss him and laugh if you think of good times. Never say he was your son, because he still is, he will always be and if anyone says his name was Siya tell them it still is, even if he is cold but his name remains. For now forget about the rude and ignorant, as you say we will deal with them one prayer at a time.

With that she kissed her on the cheeks and the only words I could utter to her were ‘I am so sorry’

Written By: Namhla Mbunge

Living life with LOVE – a story.

Let me tell you a story, only that it is not a story. It is a life lived.

That life is that of Nothobile, and it is called LOVE.

In her language names are everyday use words. So if one says Nothobile, they are saying mother of humility.

She got this name because she got married, all women are given new first names when they get married in her culture. Change of first name is equivalent to a marriage certificate. Burning of women clothes to symbolize entering a new stage is one of the customs in her culture.

Her life was blessed because she lives to be 72 years next August, born in August 1944. A traditional woman all her life. Her husband was chosen for her. Her name changed. Her clothes burned down.

Two nights after she was kidnapped into marriage, her husband was revealed. Not a bad looking man, but still not her type if she had a say on the matter.

They made love that night, which felt more like a rape, but who is she to complain. She is mother of humility, remember?

So she never had many children, just one. A boy, Luthando (it is love). Name given by her mother inlaw. Everytime she called at him she wondered what love had to do with anything, not realizing her life is a love personified. Yet she grew to accept her life. At some point she loved it and forgot all the hard parts.

After the first night as husband and wife, the husband left to Johannesburg for work. He was to leave for two years working in gold mines. The expectation was that she would have been pregnant on the night she met the husband so she could have something to keep herself busy with until the next visit of the husband to make another baby.

This was the life for everyone then, so yes she was, but that was her only child ever.

Living with her in-laws, she helped raise the children of the extended family whose parents perished due to political persecution or just died. At least eight of those children became hers.

One such was Nomnikelo (Offering), a biological daughter of the sister in law who vanished to the city to look for work but never came back.

When Nomnikelo grew to be a drunk and prostitute Nothobile could not understand how it happened since she raised her with love, and when Nomnikelo died in prison she was devastated but found solace in the life she left behind. This life was Ntando (Will), a beautiful girl that she took in and raised with love as if it was her own grandmother.

Her husband said she was over compensating for Nomnikelo’s failures, but Nothobile love Ntando even more.

Nothobile beamed with pride when Ntando finished high school. She became what Nomnikelo could not become. Ntando was her proof that unconditional love can change a person’s destiny.

She poured this love by taking all her retirement money that she received after years of scrubbing school floors and making tea for teachers to further Ntando education.

Ntando studied computer sciences, but she never came back with the certificate. Instead she did what her mother did before her, she poured herself into alcoholism and prostitution. In one year she had two children both with two different man that she never named.

When her last child was born, Ntando gave birth in the family bathroom, Nothobile found her suffocating the newborn baby on a floor full of blood. She grabbed the newborn and called an ambulance. On the way to hospital Ntando died. She died of complications relating to AIDS because even if she did not say it, everyone knew she was dying and no matter how she tried hiding the pregnancy or the AIDS it was just there.

With her bare hands, Nothobile helped with after birth and securing the newborn. Today that newborn is nine year old and the most beautiful boy called Simnikiwe (He has been given to us).

Nothobile is a grown woman now, she no longer has the physical strength she had when Nomnikelo or Ntando were born. Simnikiwe is her great grandchild but she has to take care of him the same way she took care of his mom and grandmom. Her husband is sick, old age and working in the mines all those years. He is bed ridden. Nothobille is the one taking care of him.

She has buried all the children she raised, and the last burial was of Luthando her biological child, he became a teacher and Union activist you know. I met him through my work as a social activist.

In that funeral, Simnikiwe sat next to her. They looked at each other as if to ask whose next?  Simnikiwe had many siblings but he is the only survivor. They died of AIDS.

Nothobile rose to talk, which is something that is frowned upon in her culture to talk on her child’s funeral, but she rose. She cared less about culture and protocols, because what have they ever done for her.

She is seventy two years old and she has a nine year old calling her mama, because no matter how many time she said he must call her grandma, Simnikiwe never changes. He just called her mama. She looked at the full hall and said ‘ well it looks like Job was telling the truth, I came naked and I will leave this earth naked. What Job did not know is that I do not mind. I lived and I loved and what is there to be ashamed of in nakedness in death. Yes I will leave naked, and fulfilled because I lived like any other woman of my time.

I am not the only one, no exception to the rule. Every woman I know raised their inlaws unwanted children, some of them grew up to be successful people but most like me were not so lucky. Nature was stronger than nurture in ours. We cannot claim we did not know what we got ourselves into. We knew because even raising your own child is not a guaranteed for success.

So after burying everyone else, people say I bury my own flesh today. What they don’t know is that Nomnikelo and all the others were my flesh too. Bones of my bones because love made them that way. I bury Luthando not because of AIDS, but because of ignorance.

If anyone thinks, because I contracted HIV/AIDS through nursing my children I am going to die soon, they might as well bury me now because that is ignorance. I am not ignorant. Ignorance is not going to take me down. I tell you all silence kills a nation. That is not going to kill me because I have a doctor to raise’

She looked at Simnnikiwe and she said ‘yes he is going to be doctor, astronaut, pilot or a soldier whatever he wishes to be because he is mine, love made him mine, mine he is and never again will I bury my children through ignorance. The buck stops here. It almost did not stop, but it did. No more.

Written By: Namhla Mbunge

…Of plaiting and slowing down the shutter speed…


Image credit: Deirdre Prins-Solani 2016

Plaiting. Not. The fast paced, finger racing kind in order to prepare for a rushed school morning but the plaiting, braiding, weaving which takes time. Bum cheeks flat on the ground head braced between two knees, wide forked comb stuck somewhere in between the seemingly endless brush of gorgeous hair. The three thick strands of hair held aloft by two hands on one person. The quiet, sometimes raucous chatter between age mates and an elder…that kind.

This image nudged my head for the longest time as three independent almost disparate stories crashed their way into my head and heart space. The first – witnessing the dispassionate story telling of a brutal killing, the second – experimenting with my camera during a photographic workshop and the third – practising the tree stance in yoga.

On witnessing the first, my body as facilitator went into survival mode; watching keenly the body and the eyes of the storyteller whilst carefully surveying the heaving heavy rasping sighing shoulders of all the listeners…simultaneously thinking carefully about the ways in which the story and its seismic waves could be contained and listening with care and presence to the storyteller. The telling and the listening far more gut wrenching with the knowledge that the one year old girl spoken of, who had been with her mom at the time of death, was now a young woman, someone I had worked with and appreciated for her incredible spirited being.

The second experience, of experimenting with my camera at dawn at Dalebrook Kalk Bay in Cape Town had me spending endless moments contemplating the effects on the body and mind of consciously slowing down the speed at which one “sees”. Playing with the shutter speed of the camera taught me an invaluable lesson about the perception of movement and change and how in order to adequately capture and communicate the immense power of the wave, one needed to slow down the “eye”.

The third experience, that of practising the tree stance in yoga, over and over again had me thinking about the necessity of earthing ones lower body in order to create the balance necessary to maintain the pose of calm and serenity. And how fundamental the breath is in sustaining this balance.


Listening to the ocean’s waves, watching them crash in slow motion, I caught myself synchronising my breath to its cadences. Listening to, for the story of deep heartache and searching, I found myself breathing deeply belly up. And whilst my eye flitted from shoulder to shoulder, observed how, eyes averted, sorrow escaped in rasps and gasps, recalling a grandie recount how learning to breath belly up has continued to help her through the waves of immeasurable grief which continued to beat at her.

Perhaps too many stories of loss? Perhaps too much pain? Have we become inured to each others’ story? How do we listen keenly, slow down our “seeing” so that the power of the story and the compassion asked of us by the storyteller does not lead to misunderstanding, callousness and hardened reactions?

Neither, for those of us who bear witness, become broken shells smashed on-shore…

Written to Paul Schwartz’ “Turning to Peace”

Healing Through Memory and Objects


Image Credit: Deirdre Prins-Solani

There is a second kind of death which shadows grief. And that is the slow paced dying of memory, and its strange anxious bedfellow, the fear of forgetting. Where once images of a person were crystal clear, stories of experiences and Life walked together were sharp – with time and age, these fade. There are moments, triggered by a smell, the timbre in a stranger’s voice, a facial muscle shifting expression when the sharpness and clarity return, but with time these become fleeting and rare. The knowledge of this is what haunts us when grief is new – the fear of forgetting which so often is reiterated by the ways in which the rhythm of Life for those around us appears to remain unchanged and uninterrupted.

And so the value of the object. Its sensual materiality offering a glimpse, a trigger into the past. A retrieval mechanism from an archive buried under layers of present concerns, mismatched puzzle pieces of the past and anxieties about the future.

A slient grief

Healing Through Memory and Objects

Blog 11, Deirdre Prins-Solani

One of the loneliest forms of grief is that which does not allow the name of the loved one to be spoken.  The reasons for the ‘disallowed’ is often linked to shame borne out of stigma, immense unresolved emotions about the loved ones absence such as a mixture of anger, resentment, and inability to articulate what appears to be confused emotions – but is in fact experiencing feelings which are poles apart; intense love vs intense resentment, sweet memories vs visceral anger. Supporting a loved one through loss often requires a gentle unravelling of the emotional complexities, shining a light on why each are being felt and experienced and calling the loved ones name into being. One can only imagine the wounding which takes place when, in addition to facing the reality of the absence of a loved one, the fear of forgetting that loved one is compounded by the inability to call their name out loud – call them into the present.

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Inserting an object into the storytelling space navigates the storyteller from the ‘disallowed’ into the spoken realm. Its physical presence allows an evocation of the unsayable as participants move from the real to the symbolic, thinking through and speaking the complex web of emotions associated with it. The object becomes a vehicle through which to Name.