Hitler got it right when he said ‘Make a big lie simple, say it often, and the masses will believe it’.
I grew up in a relatively sheltered bubble in a small concrete farm called Harding in inland kwazulu natal. I was born during the apartheid era but never really felt the sting of it.
Growing up, I had a pretty sheltered life mainly because we had little to no access to malls, movies and other areas where youth can mingle. My parents are strict and religious orthodox muslims who don’t really believe in friendships and playtime.
For them, school was enough of social activity for one person. In truth, I didn’t mind. I’m the youngest of 4 children, so by the time I was old enough to want any company, there was none. All of my siblings had ventured out to study when I was entering high school, leaving me alone to entertain myself. And I was never bored, thanks to my books.
I had a whole room of books, thanks to my father’s obsessive book-collecting habits. I would eagerly await his trips to Durban because I knew he would return with a massive haul of the most random books a person could find.
I read about how to create a garden in 5 days, how to pickle any fruit and vegetable, every religion that existed, the remote tribes of the amazon, and my favorite- the dummy series: football for dummies, chess for dummies, golf for dummies, mutual funds for dummies, astrology for dummies, Afrikaans for dummies, babysitting for dummies, the economy for dummies, woodwork for dummies; and even how to read a dummy book for dummies.
I would get lost in reading and my world of books. I could entertain myself for hours by just reading and thinking. Paging through novels, getaway magazines and encyclopedias.
It was during that time that I stumbled on a book about the holocaust and the mechanisms hitler used, to wage war and massacre millions of people. If the dates were not referenced correctly and real-life accounts not produced, I could have sworn it was fiction. A horrid fairy tale. After all, how could one person hate so much? I came across the above quote that I never did forget.
It wasn’t until much later that I remembered that quote that I read during my childhood and didn’t necessarily understand, but i knew it carried importance in some way. The day I fully understood the quote was the day I fully understood the after effects of apartheid and the divide it had created.
The year was 2016. I was a new doctor, just entering the medical field. I was afraid and very excited. I was on night duty, busy doing admissions, nothing out of the ordinary. I had just admitted a 4 year old girl who had a cough and vomiting. Again, nothing out of the ordinary. Little did I know, this little girl would be teaching me one of the most valuable lessons of my life.
She was a pleasant child with an innocent smile. Quiet and behaved. She was accompanied by her gogo who was aged, had a bad left knee and looked pretty worn down by life. Her wrinkled skin was fastened by a doek. Her eyes white from the bilateral cataracts. Her joints crackled as she clutched onto her walking stick, a wooden stick covered in varnish. She smiled a toothless smile. She stored her belongings in a dusty checkers packet.
The little girl complained of hunger and gogo nodded. She pulled her plastic bag out and gave the girl a bottle of water. The girl gulped it down and turned over to sleep.
Shortly thereafter, I was called to admit another 4 year old boy, who had diarrhea and vomiting but was relatively stable. I walked into the room and the first thing I noticed was that he was white.
I introduced myself and asked permission to examine the boy. His blue eyes were sunken and he was irritable and dehydrated. I told the grandmother he needs admission. She was alarmed. Admitted? Here? A public hospital?
She explained to me that her daughter had recently lost her job and her medical aid benefits and that’s why she was forced to use our shabby facilities. She wasn’t impressed that she had to wait 15 minutes to be admitted and that she had to walk to admissions office to get a file.
I listened. I apologized and I got on with my work.
The white grandma was obviously not happy to be in a communal cubicle next to a black Gogo. She was visibly distressed and complained about everything. The bed, the linen, the bathroom, the floor, the bedside cupboard, the noisy children, the dry food, the smelly water, the worn-out robes. She refused to sleep, she clutched her handbag with both hands, fearing someone would steal it.
The black Gogo sat beside her grand daughter and smiled. She observed the white grandma carefully but didn’t say a word. She only smiled. She didn’t complain once. She didn’t have any questions. She had no qualms about anything. She ate the food with a quiet contentment. She wore the robe and did as she was told.
I couldn’t help but notice the difference, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it.
The next morning, both children were responding well to treatment. They stood up on their cotted beds and stared at each other, and grinned broadly. The white grandma ushered her grand daughters’ attention away and distracted her with some cake.
I busied myself with ward work.
When I returned, both kids were on the floor, busy playing with a straw. Their laughter echoed. They hugged each other, playing, shaking hands and high-fiving each other. They were safe from the sensless lie of apartheid. Teaching people to hate each other based on the colour of their skin is so absurd, yet it worked well for so long because people bought the enormous lie.
The white girl was confused when the grandma popped back in and furiously pulled her away from the black child. She screamed at how she didn’t deserve the KFC she just bought for her. The girl’s eyes welled up with tears as she was reprimanded for something she wasn’t even aware she had done. Her only disobedience was playing with another child.
She ate her KFC in silence while her friend watched her uncomfortably.
The grandma stepped out to take a call, and out the corner of my eye, I watched them.
The white girl threw a piece of chicken to her friend and he tucked it under his linen. She threw a few chips, a drumstick and some bread. They smiled slyly at each other. I was so amused.
An unlikely alliance rebelling at 4 years of age. I was so proud.
During the next 2 days, these 2 pals were inseparable. The moment the grandma left the room, they would smile, laugh, and grin at thin air. They shared their food, their snacks and their make-shift toys.
`I thought about these 2 children for a long while. I realized that to them, they were just the same. Different colours, that’s all. They knew no hate, no segregation, no racism, no colorism, no superiority, and no injustice.
The stark contrast between these 2 families was a true representation of the past and the present of our country.
When I was discharging the gogo and her granddaughter, I had asked which area they lived in. she explained to me that it was a far away farm, 3 hours away. She had walked for 12 hours with the child on her back to get to the nearest clinic to be referred to the hospital.
I was shocked.
I couldn’t believe that was physically possible given gogos frail demeanor and poor eye-sight.
So I probed. She told me she lived on an isolated farm with 6 of her grandkids and one of her daughters. She farmed on a modestly sized patch of land and grew her own vegetables. She had 1 goat and a few chickens. She was so grateful to have eaten meat and gravy in a long time. She thought the hospital was a safe haven with impressive facilities like an indoor toilet and running tap water. She was grateful for her stay and the treatment she received.
My mind struggled to comprehend how unfair life was. I silently wished we were all leveled on the financial playing field. I wished Gogo didn’t have to appreciate an indoor toilet or running water because she should have it. I wished life would be kinder to Gogo, atleast in the days that followed.
Why should basic rights be a privilege in this country?
I struggled to accept this story and it gave me countless of sleepless nights. Every time I would have the urge to urinate, I would think of gogo making her way to the outside pit toilet with her wooden stick and a bad knee.
I saw gogo again on a Saturday. I had visited a local multi-purpose store and bought the first huge toilet I found, a kettle, a microwave, a few groceries and a 2 plate stove.
I tracked her down with great difficulty and was greeted by her goat at the gate. She ran with her wooden stick.
Id never seen anyone that happy in my entire life,
And It broke my heart.