Blog III: – On in – admissable grief

I try to remember, all I can recall is Silence

by Deirdre Prins-Solani, Program Lead Healing Through Memory and Objects (HTMO) program of the MAA, cultural heritage expert

It has been weeks now since I first attempted to write this piece. Weeks of starting and stopping, words weaving in and out – here now, poised at the tip of my pen and then – gone. Their aftertaste causing self – doubt, me, wondering whether I had actually held the thought in word weaves or whether it was me in one of my dream states. At some stage, I convinced myself that I had caught it – candy floss on a stick, piecing some of these thoughts into being and that was after having heard these words from songstress/poetess/healer Malika Ndlovu;

“Still, she’s no fool when it comes to the real thing; she has loved with abandon,

Has had her fair share of betrayal, been broken in battle, sacrificed and lost so much..”[1]

for what I wanted to, want to, long to write about is the grief of the mother whose daughter chose to live her life seeking – seeking joy, seeking adventure, seeking self beyond the confines of the rolling green hills and plunging valleys of her birthplace, the mother whose son chose to live his life seeking – seeking the self he saw in his dreams, mirrored in the shared bucket of water drawn from the informal settlement well, the mother whose son got klapped[2] because he chose to stand with grace and poise in her heels, chose revolutionary love, labeled a “moffie”, brutalised by the army general and disowned. The mother who lives to mother another child after one has been lost.

And thinking about how one would write about this grief entangled with pride at their daughter’s courage, their son’s tenacity colliding with layers and layers of religious moralities and dogma, intersecting with her anger at the profound loss. The loss of dreaming, the loss of a means to live a better life, the loss of ______ – words to speak a mother’s layer upon layer of sadness into a world where judgement reverberates/echoes back into her narrative of how her daughter, her son sought wholeness and self – fulfillment and for whom the toxic blend of chemicals came far too late. The loss of a child for a mother for whom the diagnosis came too late.


And I try to remember each and every story told me during our ‘healing through memory and objects’ process, attempting to recall the nuances the details in descriptions of those who remain behind of those they have lost…and somehow, all I can recall is Silence.


In spite of the body wrenching tears in the washroom after a mother has shared her story.


Even as a photograph is lovingly, longingly caressed.


As a tissue box is carefully reconstructed, decorated and embellished with beads and shweshwe cloth.


As a frame is made from discarded card, buoyant fabric and rainbow color beads.

And it is the word gift from a friend that echoes in the space between words;

“remember what it is that you had” Virginia Woolf


[1] Malika Ndlovu’s ‘My Mother’

[2] Afrikaans for smacked, often against the head

Dreams deferred: HIV and culture

In 2012 I conducted a study as part of my honours degree looking at how black women in townships use traditional systems and medicine to cope during pregnancy and how these mechanism intersect with western medicine.

The reason I chose to do this was to illustrate how mental distress is often made invisible in black township communities and finding out what exists for young women who themselves need to be nurtured. What I found supported most of my assumptions but I never accounted for everything I would find.

One of the women I interviewed, we’ll call her Nolutho told me she was HIV positive and she began to talk to me about how she negotiated her traditional role as a Xhosa wife and how this affected how she dealt with what was going on in her body as a pregnant HIV positive woman.

What was familiar about her experiences, for me at least was the was the fact that she found out she was HIV positive when she went for her antenatal check-up like most women in South Africa. She then endured insults and blame from her husband for making them sick but they chose to fight the disease together for the sake of their children.

She have birth to a baby boy who at the time of my interview she was bathing and the little one kept on trying to grab my pens and papers as his mother told me her story. Her deep sighs and tears made this more than an interview for me, it opened my eyes up to a reality that most women struggle through but never talk about.

She came from a traditional rural Xhosa family and when they found out she was pregnant her mother in law kept insisted she consume herbs to protect herself during her pregnancy. She declined to do so and this created tensions in the home because she could not come out to say she was taking ART in fear of stigma and labelling.

Although my heart felt heavy and her pain was apparent to me I understood her mother in law’s frustration because I also come from a family where traditional medicine and rituals are highly valued and my refusal to partake in them has alienated me from my loved ones to some extent.

The pressure to fulfil your role as a wife and daughter is complex in my culture and living with HIV complicates it even more. I saw this with my aunt who was HIV positive and fell pregnant knowing her status because as a new makoti (bride) she felt the pressure to have a son because this gave her value and she would be accepted. But like my participant, she could not come out to her in-laws about her condition because of the stigma that exists in rural areas.

Oftentimes the narrative around living with HIV is always focused on the physical experience of the disease, how your body reacts what not to do but this narrative rarely tackles the interpersonal experiences that shape the lives and choices of women who are HIV positive. It never speaks to the dreams deferred or hopes abandoned.

What may be seen as special rites of passage and rituals can potentially compromise one’s health but at the same time, not engaging in these means a large part your self is denied and silenced. Some women often have to negotiate risking their health to be good daughters or refuse and be labelled people who have abandoned their culture and ancestors.

The silence around the disease that still exists makes this worse for some women and it is still poorly addressed. When I interviewed Nolutho* she asked a nurse about the herbs her mother gave her but she was ridiculed for asking and was told to stick to what was prescribed at the clinic. It’s as if being infected erased her link to her culture and social positioning.

In my dissertation, these are some of the contentions I tried to illustrate but I think these are ideas that need to be considered for those designing HIV treatment programmes and campaigns. I believe, the essence of who you once were is not lost to the disease but how do we treat the illness respecting people’s cultures, roles and personhood?

By Ath’enkosi Sopitshi