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Children of Fire Farewell Lydia

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 4th 2002.

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 wouldn’t wish upon a dog.

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 wouldn’t 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 siren’s 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 that’s supposedly not a crime), are not enforced. The community says that most laws only are effected at month end when people can pay so-called “fines”.

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 hadn’t 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 don’t 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 living?

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 can’t discharge her, unless it is to an old folk’s home.

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 Lydia’s 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 alone.

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 you.

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 won’t. The political committee would in any case just muscle in and cream a profit off for themselves. Lydia will get an R800 pauper’s 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 won’t 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?

Bronwen Jones
July 2002

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