Today I visited a woman who has experienced more suffering than anyone I know, a mother of 5 small children, 3 of whom are now dead.
Her firstborn, Tamari, 5, was born in 2007. She is now 5.
Her second baby, a little boy, was born on 7 August 2008. On 20 August 2008, unbelievably, he was snatched from her as she sat outside her building breastfeeding him, by a lady who had befriended her at the hospital where she had given birth, and then tracked her down and run away with her baby. Her life was also in danger at this time as she tried to run after the perpetrator ( despite her blindness) who threatened to kill her. She prayed for her baby to be returned, but failing that, just for her own life to be spared. She has not seen this baby since.
In 2009, Charmaine was born. She is now 3 years old.
In September 2010, while crossing the road, police and government social workers very traumatically removed Tamari and Charmaine, then aged 4 years old and 15 months, from their mother in what would later be found to be an unconstitutional and unlawful action. Charmaine was being breastfed at the time but was forced to bottle feed from then on at a child "care" facility, 2 hours drive from where her parents lived. Despite this, at great expense to her parents who were both beggars, her mother visited the girls every week. We met the family at this time and Nigel spent the next 12 weeks fighting to get the children returned to their parents. One challenge with this was the dilapidated hijacked building in which they were staying. It is difficult to describe the horrific conditions in their 3 x 3 basement shack which had no electricity, no light, no ventilation, was constantly damp and where approximately 300 people (50 of them blind) shared the one poorly functioning ablution facility. We managed to get this family moved into a residential hotel in Berea so that the children could be returned.Over the next year we visited them regularly at their accommodation, organized assistance for the family and visits to a dietician, doctors, an occupational therapist and an opthamologist who performed free cataract surgery early in 2011 on Tamari, who was also going blind due to her cataracts.
It seemed that hope and a future had come at last to this little group of Zimbabwean refugees, when in August 2011, another little baby girl, Lynne, was born to them. Sadly she was very tiny and very sickly right from the start. At 3 weeks old she developed pneumonia, and spent the next 5 weeks at death's door at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital (old Joburg Gen.), during which time she died 3 times (2 death certificates were issued) but miraculously revived herself and kept living. Her mother spent every waking moment by her side with very little and sometimes no food throughout while sitting on a hard plastic chair. Since she was blind and again trying to breastfeed the baby, the mother slept every night at the hospital, often on the floor.
We continued to keep track of the Kamanga family, helping them to move to the Supa Quick building at the end of Eloff Street where they still live, together with the children's grandmother.
In May 2012 we were delighted to move to Hillbrow, partly because we knew that we would be closer to this family and would be able to care for them better. Our first visit with them was to be on Saturday, 2 June. We had invited them all to lunch at our flat. In the weeks before, the baby Lynne, now 10 months old, had become very sick again but had been turned away by both the clinic and the hospital, who had refused to admit her this time. The grandmother was bathing the children in preparation for their visit to us, when suddenly little Lynne started gurgling and kicking her legs because she was struggling to breathe. Despite her best efforts, her grandmother was unable to help her, and the baby stopped breathing altogether. In a black comedy of errors, the ambulance that was called took 2-and-a-half hours to get to the scene, by which time nothing could be done. Little Lynne Kamanga had died. The grieving family came to our flat the next day for lunch instead.
In what I will always remember as the saddest week in a very long time, we attended the funeral of ten month old Lynne, and watched as her uncles laid her tiny white coffin into the vast pit of ugly and stony earth that had been dug for her, in a cemetery, running kilometre upon kilometre, row upon row, set aside for the poor of Soweto. I remember thinking that at least she had lived for ten months, unlike the row of names in front of her of babies who had died on the same day that they were born.
The mother's name is, of course, Sukoluhle, and I have purposefully left her nameless until now because these stories seem so unbelievable and so far removed from our comforts, easy to walk away from, until we know the people by name, and have walked a bit of a journey with them. After that, our lives are never the same.
Sukoluhle mourned deeply for her fourth child (and us with her) and the next time I saw her was on 24 August, when she came to our flat for tea. As she shared the details about her second baby, and how he had been snatched from her at only 2 weeks old, I marvelled at her strength and capacity for suffering. As I had thought often before, I could only see my own weakness in the face of her continual hardships, while she had become for me the true hero, as she had persevered through it all. As she sat on the couch opposite me, she said these words, "But you know, Trish, God is so wonderful!"
I wish I could end this story there, but you already know what is coming...
Sukoluhle was in fact pregnant at the time of Lynne's death, a fact she may only have discovered later, so that by the time she came for tea, she already knew it to be true, and saw God's grace in giving her another child, to replace the one she had recently lost. We found this out only a few weeks ago, however. Again in her last trimester, Sukoluhle struggled to get the care she needed from the hospital nearby, due to the fact that she was poor, a foreigner, and blind. By 32 weeks the baby was in a breach position and never turned.
On Tuesday this week, 13 November, Sukoluhle, now 40 weeks pregnant, went into a difficult labour at 2.30am. There were complications and the family waited at the fire station closeby for an hour and a half for the ambulance they had called to arrive. They arrived at Charlotte Maxeke hospital at 4am, where she was rushed into an emergency caesarean operation to try to save the baby. A little baby boy was delivered and taken through to ICU, with a critical amount of oxygen having passed through the umbilical cord into the baby's brain. This, the doctors said, was due to the long delay in them getting to the hospital with the ambulance.
Sukoluhle's mother, Mavis, phoned on Wednesday morning (14/11) to say that the doctors were still struggling with the little boy who, though a healthy full-term weight of 2.8kgs, was still in a critical condition. The family were all worried about the baby but were rejoicing that God had given them another baby boy again.We were unfortunately unable to visit that day and so planned to visit the family at the hospital the next day (Thursday).
Little boy Kamanga died at 1.30pm, Wed 14 November, having lived for only one day.
So today, Thursday, I went to visit this brave and yet again grieving mother. Initially I was not allowed to see her since she was so weak after her operation. She was very quiet and seemed at times to have given up on her life. Despite being in extreme pain due to the operation the previous day, she was not given any pain killers that day and lay on a jacket as the hospital had given her no pillows. Both her mother and her husband kept telling her not to cry. I asked her what she would like me to do for her during my visit. She replied that I should just pray.
And so I prayed.
I prayed to the God of all comfort, to the Counsellor, to the Provider, to the Great Creator God, who I believe will reward this dear lady forever in heaven. I prayed that God would make her strong again, that she would live to tell of God's faithfulness to her, that the rest of her life would be a testimony of God's goodness to her and His salvation. I prayed God's blessing over their family and over their marriage, that they would find the strength to love and support each other again. I prayed for God to show her a picture of her 3 babies in heaven laughing and playing together, to even give her dreams like this, and the assurance of a time when she would see them all again in heaven.
Kenneth said during my visit that he wondered whether their family was some kind of game to God, with so much struggling and death.
So many questions come to mind...the biggest question for me is not why God allowed this, but why did we. Where is the church? Where is justice? How can we say we love people and yet continue to ignore their suffering? What have we become? Where is love? What kind of gospel ignores the needs of the poor? What will we say when we stand before the Holy God one day about our indifference?
While the Bible teaches that the gospel is good news to the poor, it seems that the gospel WE preach and live by is not - maybe OUR version of its truth is not enough...
Shaking our fists at God, is not going to help. He loves, He cares, He sees. Do we?