I’ve spent the last week in Mthatha, South Africa, my former home, visiting the people I used to work with at the Itipini Community Project. There were far too many people to catch up with in far too short of a time. Two years is a long time and people have changed – as I have, presumably.
For me, it was a lesson in small steps and little victories. Many people I once knew are now dead, most from AIDS. There were several stories of tragic deaths too young. Nomantombi was a delightful young woman who died in June this year. Sipho and Pamela were a married couple who died with six months of each other, leaving behind several children, including two daughters whom I helped into high school. Those two daughters are still going to school, even as they planned funerals for their parents. Though these deaths were tragic, they were not exactly surprising. It was clear when I left two years ago that some people were not long for this world.
More surprising were the people who lived. A handful of the HIV-positive people I knew well and worked closely with to help get them on anti-retrovirals are now thriving. Pakama, one woman I invested lots of energy in, even as her family was dying of AIDS around her, is still alive. Whereas I could once carry her around the hospital in my arms, she is now – there’s no other way to put this – fat. Three years ago when I was visiting her every day, she bottomed out at 47kg. She now weighs 82.5kg. I had a great time sitting with her on this visit and listening to her talk about these last three years. For every Pakama, there are three or four Siphos or Pamelas. But that one Pakama matters a lot.
The same is true for the high school students I used to know. Many have done one or more of the following things: dropped out, had a(nother) child, or tested positive for HIV. (Two hit the trifecta and did all three.) One dropped out because her mother got quite sick and she had to take care of her. Others struggled with the English-language education and the lack of resources.
But there are a few who have stuck with it and two passed the high-stakes graduation exam and got a high-school diploma. This puts them in rarefied company in Itipini. I can’t imagine more than a half-dozen people in the entire community have diplomas, if that. Those two are now in college. Looking at the students still in school, there are probably three more who have a really good shot at passing the test. Of those three, one, Khayakazi, a daughter of Pamela and Sipho, will be a trend-setter if she passes. (You can read more of her story from two years ago here.)
Five years ago she had a child. She took two years off then came to me and asked for help going back to school. She has stuck with it – even as her son has started first grade and her parents have died. If she passes, she will be the first young woman to our knowledge to have a child, stop school, and go back and finish. Buoyed by her progress, I was walking around Itipini this last week talking to all the young woman I know who’ve dropped out of high school and making sure they know it’s possible to go back.
So a few steps forward, many more steps back. That seems to be how things work.