"What did I do to deserve this?" - Christmas 2005

What most people do not see.

Mpume was 16 years old and a very pretty girl; she lived with her mother, her three siblings and three cousins - the children of her late aunt - in the vast hilly countryside of kwaZulu/Natal. Her father worked in Durban and her mother worked as a maid in a village 15 km from her kraal. Her father rarely came home and sent money irregularly, so they had little to live on. However, living in a rural area, they were able to grow their own vegetables and maize and had a few chickens and a goat. Life was good and the family was happy. Everyone did their daily chores. Mpume's mother Lindeni got up at 4.30 in the morning every day, cooked porridge for her children so they wouldn't go to school hungry, washed the dishes, swept the floor and laid out the children's school uniforms. They didn't have shoes because they didn't have money for them. Food was more important and necessary for survival. Lindeni sighed softly as she looked at her seven children sleeping on grass mats. They looked so peaceful, like little angels.

Lindeni woke up Mpume, her eldest child, "Come and help me," she said, "We have to get water to drink, cook and wash before I go to work." Mpume got up and put on her cotton dress and a light jumper, the only clothes she owned. It was cold so early in the morning. Mpume and her mother made their way to the river. They had to walk downhill, which was not easy that day because of the morning dew. The path was so slippery. Finally they reached the river. Lindeni was late and she asked Mpume to carry the water to the hut while she herself walked two kilometres further to catch the bus to work.

Mpume was alone. The sun was just coming up. Ah, the glorious African sunrise! She was not afraid. She had done this many times before. She was dipping the last 25 litre jerrycan into the river when she suddenly heard footsteps behind her. Before she could turn around, Mpume was already on the ground, screaming for help. A hand was covering her mouth and a voice was so close to her ear that she could smell the drunken man's breath. "Be quiet or I'll cut your throat." Mpume was petrified. The man tugged at her thin cotton dress and held the knife to her neck as he brutally raped her. Everything was over so quickly, for Mpume though, time stood still. Shocked, bleeding and terrified, she lay on the riverbank for an endless time. She felt dirty and guilty. "Why me? What did I do to deserve this?"

That day changed Mpume's life and that of her whole family. Her father had last visited her at home six months ago. Her mother was pregnant for the fourth time and on her way home from work she stopped by the "Clinic", a basic health station, to get checked because she was constantly sickly. Her previous pregnancies had not been like this. What was wrong with her? While she was at the clinic, the nurse did an HIV test. The nurse sympathetically told Lindeni that she was HIV positive and that was why she had always felt so sick. No one noticed the endless fear she felt in her heart. With her head hanging, she slowly made her way home. Immersed in her own worries and fears, she did not notice that Mpume was very quiet, nor that she had bruises on her face, neck and arms and that her little cotton dress was all torn. All night she was so restless and worried that she did not sleep a wink.

As she lay in her bed that night she thought about the future of her children and wondered what would become of them. She was also trying to get over her anger at her husband. That's when she heard a soft sob from Mpume. "What is it, my child?" she asked. Mpume burst into tears and, sobbing, told her mother what had happened down by the river that morning. Lindeni did not know what to do. So she held Mpume in her arms and they cried together about what had happened to Mpume, but also about the superstition that a man would be cured of AIDS if he slept with a virgin. They cried until they had no more tears.

The next morning, they asked Mpume's 12-year-old sister to look after her siblings, to stay in the hut and not to let anyone in. They both walked hand in hand to the nearest police station, many kilometres away. There they were explained the procedure to follow in a rape case. What worried Mpume and her mother the most was the uncertainty of whether Mpume was now pregnant and whether she might have contracted HIV. The legal process was like a blurred nightmare; after all, Mpume was still in shock.

Six weeks later, Mpume's worst fears had been confirmed. She was pregnant and was infected with HIV. The rage that rose in her heart was almost unbearable. One morning, lost in thought, she sat by the river and gazed at the current. The river looked so inviting. If she went deep enough into the river, the water would wash her away with all her worries forever and it would all be over. She stood up and slowly put one foot in front of the other.

"Mpume come and help me carry," her mother's plea came just in time. Mpume turned back, tears rolling down her face. Then her mother realised what her daughter had planned. "She needs help," she thought, "but where do we go?" The police wouldn't help them, the nurses from the Clinic are too busy and the social workers are 80 km away. Lindeni tried to call her husband to tell him the bad news. But his employer told her that her husband had been admitted to a hospital in Durban three months ago because of tuberculosis. Lindeni was completely dejected: "What am I going to do? Who can help me at all? Where am I supposed to go? I don't have any money. The children are hungry!" Mpume and Lindeni are both pregnant and HIV positive. What a hopeless situation!

One Sunday afternoon, Lindeni was washing her clothes by the river. All the women from the hills around were there and there was a lot of talking. Mostly about sick children, husbands who don't come home, friends who have another wife in town and AIDS. One of the women was very brave and although she knew she was risking her life and position in society, she admitted that she was HIV positive. She had heard about a facility in Mandeni where people could get help. Lindeni listened attentively. She knew: "I must not die! I have to be there for my children!" She was worried about her husband, even if it was he who had infected her. However, she had neither the time nor the strength to visit him. She put that thought aside because her first concern was for the health of her daughter and the unborn baby, her own baby and the other five children. "This facility" said the woman "is in Mandeni and is called Blessed Gérard's Care Centre. You can get help there if you have AIDS or anything else for that matter." Lindeni wanted to go and see for herself, but she was scared. She spent her last cents to get to Mandeni.

When Lindeni entered the Care Centre, she looked through a glass door. She was shocked at what was reflected in the glass. She saw an emaciated woman whose clothes were hanging down, even though she was heavily pregnant, who had black marks on her face and a skin rash. She saw someone, all skin and bones, at the end of her tether. She saw herself.

But she was surprised. The building was beautiful, bright and clean. People were laughing. She saw a few white people, many Africans and they were all cheerful. 

A nice woman took Lindeni to a small room where they could talk undisturbed. Lindeni could not believe her eyes and ears: never before had she been treated so politely and courteously. Everyone was so nice. The woman she spoke to had a gentle, understanding voice and she was in no hurry. The nurse took her time. Lindeni felt safe and so she told the nurse everything that had happened. The nurse from Blessed Gérard's Care Centre assured her that she would get all the help she needed. First, she told her all about the antiretroviral therapy that could help Mpume and her to get healthier again and live a long time. There was no question that they would accept such kind help and Lindeni asked how much she would have to pay for it. She was flabbergasted when she heard that she would not get a bill because there are good people who financially support the work of Blessed Gérard's Care Centre so that destitute patients like her can be helped for free.

The nurse then got another nice woman and she explained to Lindeni that she could get a disability pension from the government and she gave her all the information she needed to apply. She then asked Lindeni how many children she had and how old they were. She pointed out that she should also ask for child benefits. It would take about three months for her to get the allowance from the state, so she asked Lindeni if she had any food at home. Lindeni was embarrassed, but told her the truth and denied it. She herself was too sick to work and her husband was also in hospital. There was nothing to eat. "Don't worry, we will help you. We will give you food parcels so that you will be taken care of until you get your support" said the kind woman. The nurse asked Lindeni to bring Mpume to the Care Centre too, because then they could both talk to the doctor.

Lindeni and Mpume came to Blessed Gérard's Care Centre and since then they have both been cared for by the medical staff of the HAART programme. Lindeni gave birth to her baby, a wonderful little girl and we hope and pray that she did not contract HIV from her mother at birth. Mpume had some intensive counselling sessions and now she is looking forward to having her baby, but she is also determined to go back to school after the birth. The man who raped her died shortly afterwards of tuberculosis and meningitis, both diseases often associated with AIDS. Lindeni and Mpume have been helped in every way and are on the road to recovery.

A heartfelt and sincere thank you to all donors who make it possible that we can help Lindeni, Mpume and hundreds of others so effectively!