Beautiful salmon-coloured dawn, the birds flying like black cut-outs through the colour. I had my coffee just watching the sun come up.
Here in South Africa, the question of healthcare has to do with the quality of care as much as the cost. My housemate’s surgeon insisted she go into the state provincial hospital rather than the plushy expensive mediclinic her employers wanted, because the quality of nursing is often better in state hospitals and the theatre staff more experienced. At the hospital there were armed security guards everywhere and the casualty entrances were crowded and grimy with babies crying and people lying in the corridors who had been waiting there all day in the hope of being seen.
But the wards were clean and the nurses and medical interns were very good. Some of the leading medical research in the world is being done in South Africa. Most of our medical resources, though, go to the battle against Aids and tuberculosis as well as diseases resulting from poor nutrition. To be ‘poor’ in South Africa is relative affluence because so many people are destitute. And destitution and homelessness out here is not due to drug addiction or the refusal to work, it is simply that there are no jobs or housing. There is no subsidised welfare system in the sense that this is understood elsewhere. Many communities live too far from hospitals or clinics to get that kind of healthcare. But the home-based care in rural areas out here is far better than the equivalent in the First World because carers are so well-trained and used to coping with emergencies.
And the core emphasis here and across Africa is on preventative care — teaching people to take responsibility for their own health. To eat better, get more exercise, the basics of hygiene, the basics of contraception and safe sex, not abusing drugs or alcohol, not smoking. I always feel sheepish when I write about this because there was not a single adult illness I had which was not affected by my alcoholism. I drank my way through courses of antibiotics, anti-malarial meds, fevers, sprained ankles, gastric upsets and eye surgeries. My health improved radically when I sobered up, and I can’t imagine how much my alcoholism cost the state healthcare system over nearly 30 years.
Later today I may be sitting in on and helping to facilitate a workshop for women refugees from north Congo, listening to stories told in French and translated into local Nguni dialects, English and Afrikaans. Painful and traumatic experiences that also show great courage and the strength of the human spirit in adversity. After the tears and hugs, there will be cups of hot sweet tea and great steaming cauldrons of mfifi, a stew made from wild spinach mixed with pumpkins, maize and yams. Sometimes chicken or peanuts are added. It always tastes wonderful. And it is no small thing to feel I am becoming a productive and caring member of society, no longer a parasite or recluse.
“The world is filled with stories impressed on people’s hearts. We have only to speak out to set the stories free. Like smoke from burning candles, stories rise up. In the vast collective unconscious, stories amass; they bump against each other, calling out to us.”
– Sandra Benítez