By Rachel Hahn
A short and burly black woman wearing a bright orange head scarf and a matching dress applies calamine lotion to my face.
I don’t have a rash. She’s using the lotion to create circles and dots, similar to the ones on her own face, so that everyone will know I am celebrating the official opening of the Ikhwezi Lokusa Wllness Centre.
Ikhwezi is a centre for community-based aid for those with HIV/AIDS in East London, South Africa. Ikhwezi has been operating for six months, but this is the official opening.
I look in the mirror and laugh. Although the pink design is beautiful on her dark skin it just blends into my pale cheeks.
I thank the woman with a smile and then move to my seat for the ceremony.
The crowd of almost 100 people is thick in the small, bright yellow building. The heat hangs in the air despite the electric fans and the fact that it’s only 10:30 a.m.
The master of ceremonies, Big King Camshe, wears a white robe and a crown of beads on his head. He welcomes us all in his native language, Xhosa, a series of clicks and other noises. Then, he translates his message to English.
He says he is happy to see so many people in the centre’s official opening, then introduces the first speaker, a tall, thin black woman in her twenties named Asanda Veni.
Veni speaks to the crowd in broken English.
“When I needed to urinate it was so sore. When I had a bowel motion it was so sore. When I went to the toilet, it was so sore.”
Veni is HIV-positive. She breaks down and cries.
One of Ikhwezi’s three volunteer doctors comforts Veni as she continues to tell the crowd her story.
Veni was diagnosed with HIV in 1998. In 2001, she began to succumb to infections. Her body was covered with sores and pimples. She was so dehydrated from diarrhea that her tongue was dry and stiff and stuck out of her mouth. At times, she was so weak she couldn’t walk.
“I thought it was losing my mind,” says Veni through her tears.
Veni found hope when her mother introduced her to one of the doctors from Ikhwezi. She says they opened their hearts to her. They began treatment on her and it wasn’t long before she regained much of her weight and strength.
“You saved my life. Thank you,” she cries.
The crowd applauds enthusiastically, and I smudge some of the calamite lotion as I wipe tears off my cheeks.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic has become overwhelming in South Africa, infecting a third of the population, but it has inspired people like Dr. Nonkosi Ngumbela to make a difference.
Ngumbela explains that Ikhwezi is helping more than 200 HIV/AIDS patients like Veni.
Ngumbela founded Ikhwezi six months ago. She works at a hospital in East London and says she was touched by the pain of the poor who were suffering from HIV/AIDS and couldn’t afford treatment. She began to dream of a place that could help.
“There are 600 people in South Africa who die every day from HIV/AIDS,” Ngumbela says.
“In developed and privileged communities, the HIV takes about 10 to 20 years to progress at least. And even so it is a manageable condition.
“In our patients, the progress is just three years.”
Six months ago, Ngumbela, along with two other doctors and several volunteers, opened Ikhwezi’s doors.
They registered as a non-government organization, but have yet to receive any funding.
Ngumbela has kept her job at the local hospital in order to finance Ikhwezi. So far, she and her husband have been able to cover the overhead costs of running the centre. However, many things, such as antiretrovirals (ARV’s), a drug used to prolong life in HIV/AIDS patients, are still too costly and out of reach for Ikhwezi.
Ngumbela ends her speech with a plea to the crowd for help.
The crowd cheers and applauds Ngumbela. Not just for her words, but for everything she has done for the community.
An Ikhwezi volunteers honors Ngumbela by yelling improvised poetry in Xhosa. It’s a very traditional display of respect and it startles me with its harshness.
Jos Nolle is the director of International Education and Development at Niagara College. He came here to talk about the help he and his fellow Canadians are offering.
Niagara College, in partnership with the Canadian International Development Agency and Eastern Cape Technikon (a South African post-secondary educational institution), has started an internship program to add to the centre’s skeleton staff.
“We’ve brought you some volunteers, some help … Erin and Kristen,” Nolle says.
Kristen Marosi and Erin Rogers have been placed with Ikhwezi since November. They are both university graduates and proud Canadians.
Ngumbela refers to the two girls as her “Ikhwezi Angels.”
I met Marosi and Rogers earlier that day. they are both short, blond and full of energy. Rogers said to me, “we can’t take credit for a lot of things that happen (at Ikhwezi).”
As I listen to Nolle explain the things Marosi and Rogers have done I realize that Rogers is being a little modest.
Mariso and Rogers put on a lot of education programs about HIV/AIDS prevention in the community. They also help care for patients, teaching them the right foots to eat and helping them stay active. They’ve helped to plant a garden Ikhwezi for a source of vitamins and fresh food.
The official opening, attended by people from all over the world, was also planned and organized mostly by them.
When Marosi returned from Christmas vacation in Canada she brought two wheelchairs with her. The wheelchairs were put to use right away and today they are officially presented to Ngumbela as part of the opening.
A man near me stands up and interrupts the applause for the wheelchair donation. He is a representative for the Rotary Club, an international organization with many branches.
“If you need more wheelchairs, tell us. If you need more medical equipment, we’ll find it for you,” he says.
The final speaker is the member of the executive council for the government of education Nomsa Jajula. She is also a chairperson of the Eastern Cape HIV/AIDS council.
Ngumbela has been trying to get the attention of the South African government for a while, and finally, they have sent someone.
Jajula speaks of the importance of government involvement in such programs as Ikhwezi, as well as the importance of promoting HIV/AIDS prevention.
“We need to take the initiative to band together to support this centre,” Jajula says.
Her final words are to announce a donation of 40,000 Rands (the equivalent of $7,100 Cdn.) to Ikhwezi.
The crowd cheers and applauds. Volunteers begin to dance and sing in celebration, and a smile stretches across Ngumbela’s face.
I find myself nearly silent, applauding instinctively. I am overwhelmed by the sense of community around me.
People hug and laugh, smile and kiss. I’m introduced to people’s brothers and sisters. The children run outside, wearing their school uniforms and dance. The women volunteers are dressed in colorful clothes. They dance and march in the parched streets, creating music with their shell anklets which act like maracas.
I get swept up in the celebration, clapping with the rhythm.
The commotion continues into the afternoon; singing, laughing, and celebrating Ikhwezi.
Eventually, I drive back to the bed and breakfast where I’m staying. In the van, I realize the sundress I’m wearing, bought on sale for $45, could have bought ARV’s for an HIV/AIDS patient for more than a month.
It’s a thought I don’t dwell on. It’s too hard to think about.