In the community section we have shown that a wider engagement is
necessary some of the time to make communities safer. It is simple to say that
open stoves, candles etc lead to children being burned but the biggest real
cause is the social degradation - the mafia who threaten me, the shebeen
(illegal pub) owners, the lack of functioning law, the drunks who knock the
stoves/candles over or push people intentionally into burning braziers, the
abuse of old women like Lydia, etc.
Only by acknowledging these problems, the extent of them and making
aware people who never set foot in squatter camps at all, what the situation is
like, do we start to effect change. The volunteer nurse came because we were
Children of Fire but it was as inevitable as the sun rises every morning, that
other health care problems would arise and by sheer humanity, would need to be
tackled. South Africa is dysfunctional. There is the biggest skills shortage -
people are ignorant. There is a desperate health problem with Aids exacerbated
by the apartheid history that made the family unit all but defunct. Most of all
there is a lack of morality in the most day to day activities.
So occasional articles in the community section paint the picture that
helps understand the rest.
Lydia was not burned but she was helped through the energies of
Children of Fire.
Lydia Manzana born September 7th 1938, died July
An old lady died today. But weep for her and you will weep alone. Lydia
Manzana had no known family and few friends. She lived in a squatter camp in
Coronationville. A desperate horrible life that I wouldnt wish upon a
I got to know Lydia last year when I arranged for a nurse to visit her
community. Lydia came with faltering steps, for help. Lorraine the nurse
quickly identified bilateral cataracts as the main problem and so I researched
how someone with nothing gets cataracts removed.
I paid transport for nearly a dozen people to go for assessment at
Leratong Hospital where I was told they could be seen in August, instead of
maybe waiting a year for an appointment at a closer hospital. Everyone got
treatment of some kind but Lydia, 63, and Gabriel, 80, were both booked in for
operations in early November 2001.
Lydia was a good patient. Thin but sprightly, it seemed the fact that I
was paying the paltry R13 hospital fees, the R26 for the operation and that I
was chauffeuring her back and forth, was enough to show her that someone in the
world still cared.
I brought her a new dress to go to hospital and made sure that I always
had sandwiches, cold drinks and something to read for my patients,
for the interminably long waits in hospital queues.
Gabriel, though an upright handsome man, was frailer so I pushed the
system so that he wouldnt have to sit around so long and when nurses were
too busy I fetched sheets and made his bed myself. But Lydia was
striking up conversations with other women waiting for operations and I
believed that I was making a difference. She seemed almost happy.
Both her eyes were operated on and then she walked much more easily
because she could see so much better. I took her back to the shack that she
rented for some R100 a month from a man called German on Transnet land and was
disgusted at the thin dark hovel she had to call home. I could barely step
inside it was so small. It was a death trap emotionally, physically and
certainly if there was a fire.
She had the most meagre possessions threadbare blankets, a pot, a
stove. But there were hundreds of others in need in the same community so I
decided that transport, operations, clothes and a little loving care would be
my contribution to her life.
Lydia got a pension but old people in the camp are picked upon,
especially if they are women. Many turn to drink because there is no other
amusement or companionship beyond the shebeens. If there were just one
entrepreneur who could start a coffee-and-knitting club or
pool-playing-and-soft-drinks place, what a difference it would make.
But SAB rules the roost and there is nothing to compete with the
sirens call of beer.
Even the nonsensical rules that make card playing or dice throwing for
fifty cents an illegal activity (when you can lose your whole pension on the
Lotto and thats supposedly not a crime), are not enforced. The community
says that most laws only are effected at month end when people can pay
Lydia went to hospital in August 2001 and several times in November and
for check-ups in December and finally in January this year. She had used her
eye drops and creams properly, was walking easily and seeing well.
We kept in contact sporadically as she attended pro-democracy community
meetings; a group of people desperately struggling against the oppression of
landlords, thugs, bullies and politicians. She apologised for not being able to
walk with a group of people who presented a petition to their apathetic ward
councillor, as the distance was too far.
But, all things considered, she seemed ok.
Until early June this year when good people told me that her health was
deteriorating. I asked them to keep an eye on her, to help her. Then they said
she was much worse and that they were going to call an ambulance to take her to
hospital. Then they said that members of a political committee had turned the
ambulance away because they hadnt called it.
At around 9pm on June 19th, they asked me to go to the
squatter camp and to fetch her. I left children in charge of children and went
to help. The people always ask me to help when services that are meant to help
them with injured people, abandoned babies, abused children and starving
children, do nothing at all.
Lydia was unable to walk, so they brought her to my car in a wheelbarrow
and we lifted her in. Unusually for her, she was filthy. The elegant cream and
red dress I had given her last year was smelly and grey with dirt. I took her
into Helen Joseph Hospital casualty.
At first, I struggled to get her a wheelchair. She sat there shivering.
Then I struggled to get her a blanket. They dont have blankets in
casualty. I asked the nursing staff if I should phone the Superintendent at
home and that seemed to make things move faster.
I got her into a warmer area and gave the nurse, and then the doctor,
all the information that I knew. I emphasised that Lydia was not herself. She
might appear to be answering questions correctly to a stranger, but someone who
knew her, knew that she was mentally confused. I was shocked at her rapid
deterioration. I was not surprised that she said she was: Fed up. I am so
Fed Up. Why should any human being have to live the way Lydia had been
But I was surprised at her loss of personal hygiene, her inability to
walk, and the tremor in her arms that was different to shivering with cold.
I decided that the hospital would admit her whatever their examinations
proved, if for nothing other than to get her a clean warm bed, safety, and some
food for a few days. I wanted to give her a short holiday from Hell. I stayed
by her side until her admission was assured.
Then came the negotiations with the ward and the social workers. They
wanted to discharge her after a while. I asked if she could yet walk and they
said no. I said then you cant discharge her, unless it is to an old
I know that there are very few homes for people, even if they are on
pension. The money is simply not enough to pay for food, shelter and care.
A young, seemingly caring, social worker asked if Lydia could go to
Emseni chronic care in Hillbrow or to the Millenium old age home. I asked her
how many people share a bedroom? What are these places like? Emily did not know
so I asked her to check in person.
All the time I knew that they really wanted me to be the
family, to offer a solution for just one more unwanted person in a
too-full ward. But I thought Lydia might have another ten, twenty years to live
and I wanted the best solution the state could provide. I pushed Emily to get
the best place and I asked Rose, a slightly younger woman in the squatter camp
to wash and sort all Lydias clothes. I know nothing is for mahala so in
return I said that I would take Rose to Home Affairs, pay for her photos, and
help her get a long-overdue replacement ID. Then Rose might at last be able to
get child support grant for her grandchild that she was having to raise
Now this morning I had another phone call from the hospital. They were
sorry to tell me that Lydia was dead.
The death certificate says pneumonia and TB. Some people said that Lydia
had a boyfriend called One Time. Other people talk in the squatter
camp about how the old ladies are raped and robbed.
At the end, Lydia had dementia. That is often associated with the final
stages of Aids. Her thinness could also have been due to that, or simply due to
starvation, because a pension goes nowhere when the young men steal it from
Now she lies cold and alone in the hospital morgue. I could go shack to
shack and collect coins from the poor to bury the poor. But I wont. The
political committee would in any case just muscle in and cream a profit off for
themselves. Lydia will get an R800 paupers funeral courtesy of the
government. If no family claim the body within three weeks, she will be buried
in a coffin in a grave somewhere south of Lenasia. And I will use what money I
have to help the living not the dead.
But I wont forget her. Her sprightly step, her clear-seeing eyes
and her pleasure in her smart new dress.
My God, how can you all be so indifferent to the misery of our old
lonely people dying in squalor? The kennels at the SPCA are better than the
hovels where we dump our people to live their final years. And I thought
African culture revered the old?