Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas and Cape Town

Christmas this year was one of the most special that I have had in recent memory. After my ward round, we went to pick up Elsie and her family. (Elsie was the lady who washed my clothes and cleaned my flat during the time I was in Swaziland). Despite the fact that our communication at times was restricted by her lack of english and my lack of SiSwati, we became firm friends and it seemed only natural that I invite her and her family to share Christmas with us. Elsie and her family are really poor. They live in one of the houses made of sticks and mud. Elsie used to take my discarded newspapers as she would use them for toilet paper (and other feminine hygeine products). She would also collect the 5 litre water bottles I used to throw away and she would use this to collect water from a local stream. One of the most special things I have ever done, was pay for one of her daughters to finish school. This was never within my budget, but once I knew that her daughter was not going to finish school because of financial restrictions, I had to step in and I know that I gave her daughter one of the best gifts possible.
Elsie, her husband Sabelo and their 4 children all turned up to Mabuda Farm wearing the biggest smiles I have ever seen. I have never seen chips and soft drink devoured quite so quickly! They enjoyed the turkey and our "umlungu" (white person) salads. We were also joined by Susan and my friend Wiseman (my TB nurse who did a ward round with me once a week and taught me everything I know about the disease). We all had a wonderful time and I will always treasure the memory of the eldest daughter singing her own version of "Silent Night" for us and the two younger girls doing a little Swazi dance as we clapped along. It really was incredibly special. Elsie cried and cried as we said goodbye and I couldn't help but feel somewhat overwhelmed that she was no longer going to be getting a source of income from me. Thankfully, she also works for Susan so there will still be some income for the family.
The next day, I went back to Good Shepherd Hospital to do my final ward round. I couldn't help but feel an incredible sadness as I said goodby to the nurses and looked at my patients for the very last time. Despite the enormous challenges I faced there, the heartache, pain and tears, the reality is, it has been the best experience of my life. I have grown personally and professionally and I feel incredibly privileged to have been a part of that hospital for a short time. I sobbed as I walked up that rugged hill to say my final goodbye to Susan and I then had tears in my eyes as we drove into the airport at the metropolis otherwise known as Manzini. As we boarded the plane, my Mum asked "Are you sure you want to leave?". The answer of course is that I'm not sure I'm doing the right thing by coming home, but I have no money and I have a good job awaiting me when I get home. I also know that there were times when it was all so terribly hard that I struggled to keep well both mentally and physically. I need to go home.

The trip to Cape Town was complicated when our flights and transfer through Immigration were delayed and we missed our connecting flight. Mum and Graeme's nerves were frazzled and Rachel had diarrhoea. It was not pretty. The one thing about my time in Swaziland is that I have developed incredible patience and things like this no longer bother me. This is a virtue that hopefully will remain once I return to Australia as it makes life so much less complicated.

Cape Town is an amazing place. It's a modern, cosmopolitan, harbourside town that is blessed with incredible scenery, good shopping and fabulous restaurants. We are staying at the famous Victoria and Albert Waterfront and compared to Siteki, it feels like we are on another planet.
On our first morning, we went into the retail district. This is when I felt the full effect of the reality I am about to return to. Everyone was just so well dressed, wealthy and happy. There are very few black Africans here and it is hard to believe that South Africa is also a country ravaged by the effects of AIDS. It's certainly not evident here. I was wearing the same clothes that I have worn for the past 5 months- cargo pants, a t-shirt and running shoes. I have been aware of my rather casual appearance during my time in Swaziland, but I was never embarrassed by it- I always looked better than my patients and my nurses thought I was pretty cute in my attire. Here in Cape Town, I was embarrassed and I felt out of place. At one stage, I noticed a big mark on the back of my trousers- some of the pervasive red dirt that coated my skin and my clothes during my time in Siteki. Suddenly, I felt dirty. My hair, which is now troubled with dandruff, was loose and a mass of waves that can only be described as looking like a birds nest. I suddenly wanted to hide away from everyone and I have to say, the enormous crowd of tourists started to bother me. Despite this, I still enjoyed going to the top of Table Mountain. I savoured the meal we had in an Italian restaurant and today I even went on my first ever wine tasting tour in a beautiful vineyard nearby. I felt incredibly peaceful as we walked around the botanical gardens of Kirstenbosch and tomorrow I am looking forward to driving down to the Cape of Good Hope. I also feel incredible privilege at being able to visit these very famous places.
In less than a week, I will be home. Whilst I am looking forward to the familiarity of home, I also admit that I feel some trepidation. I already miss Swaziland and I miss the warmth of its people and the assistance I was able to provide them. I don't think it will be too long before I am back again.


Susan said...

Mel, we miss you so much!! What you gave the patients here and what you gave the rest of us balungus (plural! :) can't be replaced. For me, it is more than just great towels and a decent cup of coffee. You gave me amazing friendship and so much laughter...You won't be forgotten easily...but the staff, the patients, and certainly by me.
love, s

Susan said...

oops. edit!! should read "you won't be forgotten BY the patients staff, staff and me."

Anonymous said...

Hi Mel, Just read your blog and thoroughly enjoyed it, reminding me of the 3 years spent living in St Phillip's Mission working with the HIV/AIDS patients and consequently having a close relationship with GSH.

It will be hard for you to settle back in to the Aussie way of life and all the consumerism that comes with it. You will have a guilt trip about leaving such a disaster behind but you have to remember the difference you made to so many people, even if it was only to relieve some of their pain and to let them die with dignity.

If everyone with a medical/paramedical background in the western world contributed what you did, the western world WOULD make a difference in Africa.

Remember what they say in medicine - don't internalise other peoples problems - just help them the best you can.

And I am sure that you will be back! Africa never leaves your blood!!!

Cheers H

Anonymous said...

Mel, Thanks for the privelege of sharing your commitment during these past few months.

I have laughed and I will admit to crying as you told of your daily round.

I am sure there will be further tears yet...from me.

I look forward to welcoming you home and hearing more of your time in Africa. Love, RR (+GPH)

Heather said...

yhMel you are such a wonderful person, we so miss you and you will always have an open door here in Bulembu. We pray that you will find the desire of your heart. Bless you from all the Tubbies at Thabsile house, Andy & Heather