Ten years ago I was in South Africa, a hot, dry African summer, when we opened the swimming pool for the panting kids and tried to walk between the buildings in the patches of shade.
I was young. Young in the passionate, idealistic, oh-so-naive but so earnest way. I’d emailed a children’s home with a basic website and then bought a plane ticket to a country 8,000 miles away. My parents had hidden any worry behind enthusiastic smiles, given me a credit card for emergencies and waved me off.
And here I was, washing 50 socks and 50 pairs of socks each day. Waking up as the sun was just cresting the horizon and walking sleepy-eyed through the misty morning to chase 50 children out of bed and into school uniforms and then the right minibus for school. Searching down missing sports uniforms and odd socks, arguing with proud teenagers over the peanut butter sandwiches because they were for “poor kids” and they wanted balony instead, exchanging relieved smiles with the Zulu aunties who stepped in with a sharp admonition when the cheeky ones again decided to defy this uber-white girl from some far away land.
They’d leave by 7:30am and I’d breath a sigh of relief that no one had been left behind, that they all seemed to have departed with bags and uniforms intact and with minimal tears and arguments. And I’d wander over to the hospice building where a cup of too-sweet tea was waiting for me, and chat with Lungile while we hung up washing and swept out the dusty floors.
If it had been a hard morning, I’d head for the nursery and the sight of a dozen joyful babies, running naked from their morning baths, shiny with vaseline to smooth their skin, was sure to send my spirits soaring.
I was happy and yet set afloat in a world I hardly understood. My tongue learnt the unfamiliar clicks of Zulu as I tried to pronounce the children’s names: Sicelo, Xolile, Nhlanhla. I awkwardly tried to figure out the right way to respond to the audacious flirting of the maintenance staff, who assembled for work as I was chasing children into school vans each day. I tried to pretend not to be shocked by the volunteers who spent the after-hours smoking weed in their cabin away from the sleeping children.
I loved it. I wanted to stay forever. And yet I was out of place. Even the other volunteers seemed to slip more easily and naturally into their new roles. My inner dialogue was on overdrive, trying to do the right thing, say the right thing, be the right person.
One morning I was crossing the wide car park to find Lungile or Pretty to chat with, when the manager called to me. Fiona? Are you free right now to go to the hospital to get Snehlanhla?
I vaguely remembered this little girl from the week before, brought in when her Grandma died: thin bones, round stomach, lungs breathing loud and hard for air. She’d not spent a few hours here before they took her straight in to the hospital.
I can go, I said, and rushed to grab my bag on the way to the car where the Afrikaans driver was waiting to take me in.
I was not familiar with hospitals. In memory, I could only recall one trip to a hospital, when we’d thought I’d broken a finger (I hadn’t). This was different. The halls were clean and my flip flops made loud echoes as we walked through the corridors.
We were shown into a room. I don’t remember much about it because my eyes were on this little girl. I’d been told she was eight but she looked more like five. She was sitting up in bed, in a hospital gown that engulfed her and made her thin arms appear even smaller. She looked nervously at us, two white strangers.
And I was struck dumb. I didn’t know what to say, what to do. I didn’t know if she understood English. I didn’t know what the procedure was. The driver talked with the nurses, said something to the little girl as I stood smiling inanely, so out of my depth.
You have clothes for her to wear home? the nurse asked. No. Crap. I didn’t even have clothes for her. I was a complete failure. No one had told me. What was she wearing when she came in? The nurse rolled her eyes at me and went to find something, came back with trousers that came up to her calves, a jumper not big enough to stretch across that tight swollen belly.
I helped her dress. No shoes. I hadn’t brought those either and the hospital had none to spare. We lifted her down from the bed and started to walk out, paperwork completed. And I felt the stares of everyone we passed – an old Afrikaans man, a young white foreigner and a little Zulu girl in ill-fitting clothes and bare feet.
She walked slowly, her feet also swollen and painful for her, and so finally I found within me some degree of sense, and I reached down and swept her up into my arms, She was awkward to carry, all stick limbs and round middle. And she was tense, nervous, unsure.
In the car, we found a blanket. I sat her on my lap, pulled the blanket tight around her and we started home. She held my hand tight and after a while, her head fell against my chest and she slept, her lungs rattling like baby’s toy with each difficult breath.
And something in my heart broke. She was hot against me and I was sweating under the weight of her and the blanket on that hot day, but I could feel her pressed into me and I knew that this was a watershed moment. I could never go back. This girl would change me.
Back at the home, she was lifted out of my arms and carried into the hospice to be cared for. I let her go into the hands of the staff and volunteers more knowledgeable, more wise, less likely to forget her clothes.
The next morning the chaos began again and I half-ran through my tasks, finding lost shirts and berating the teenagers for always sleeping in too late. As I passed through the dining room, breakfast for the pre-schoolers in full-flow, I felt a tug on my dress and I looked down and there, with a smile as wide as her face, was Snehlanhla. Her hair was knotted and messy, her nose was running, her lips dry and scabbed, her teeth yellowed and gappy.
And I had never seen someone more beautiful.
Our paths crossed often in the weeks that followed, although my duties were with the school children. I would find an excuse to visit her and the other children in the hospice – Susie, Sicelo, Amanda. And then I had to leave. England called me home to find a job, pay back my parents for the airfare to South Africa, get some experience beyond washing socks that would count on my CV.
But South Africa had seeped into my blood and it felt strange to be back in shoes rather than flipflops, to not see the children every day, not argue with teenage boys over sports uniforms or chase playing girls in the direction of school. I missed my evening rounds of the houses to collect the laundry, missed the long hours I’d take in each house to chat and play with the children before bed. And I missed Snehlanhla.
I booked a flight back five months later. Three days before I was due to leave I got an email. Snehlanhla had died, her body finally giving in to the full-on attack on her ravaged immune system.
The day I landed on South African soil again, we held her funeral at the home. She was buried on the edge of the land, next to the trees, overlooking the valley. The beautiful voices of the aunties and gogos joined with the deep bass of the maintenance men as we sung her home.
I stayed one more month before I flew back to start university. In my first week I joined a student society that was advocating for a better response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic, for better prevention, better treatment, stronger rights for the victims and families. Snehlanhla’s photo was on my wall throughout those university days, as we organised fundraisers, collected signatures, wrote letters to governments.
Ten years on, she’s less often in my thoughts. But when I remember her, I see her face cracked open by her smile that morning in the dining room, reaching to the one she recognised, the one who’d come to take her home. I feel honoured to have known her for a short few months, honoured that she let me love her in my own awkward, inadequate way.