By JESSE SCACCIA
The title of this post isn’t a rhetorical question. I mean it. What do you do?
Because me, I’m stuck, and it feels like the ground beneath me (and my student) is turning to quick sand fast.
I work with a young man I’ll call Zumani. Zumani is about 24, gets work a few times a month at the docks, and I’ve seen suburban doghouses nicer than the tiny shack he calls home. Zumani has a son he never sees because when Zumani’s girlfriend died the child went to the mother’s family, as is the Xhosa tradition. That family doesn’t like Zumani very much because he doesn’t support his son, And anyway, even though the child is still a toddler, Zumani doesn’t like to see him because he is ashamed to show up without toys or food.
Zumani is also a wonderful young man. He has a brilliant smile, a sharp wit, and big brown puppy dog eyes. His father died from a petrol bomb during the Apartheid struggle. Zumani was my first real friend in South Africa. He taught me that we all can be loved and accepted here, as long as we first commit to loving and acceptance.
Zumani is also HIV-positive. Here in South Africa, that’s something you don’t talk about. Its so bad that nobody dies of AIDS in South Africa, the country with the highest HIV infection rate in the world. Cause of death is listed as TB, and that’s just how it is.
Only myself, two social workers, and his mother knows Zumani’s status, which makes it tough. One of the social workers moved away, and the other has a full plate. His mother is struggling herself. When she came to me a few weeks ago, begging me to find a way to convince Zumani to go to the clinic, she didn’t look so great herself. Here, for so many, struggle is a way of life.
So I’ve been trying to help Zumani help himself, but its not going so well. After taking him to two clinic visits (both of which he tried to bail on), today he was scheduled to get his new CD4 count results. These would determine whether or not its time to go on antiretrovirals. They would tell us whether or not Zumani now had AIDS.
I was to meet him at the clinic. He showed up a half hour late for his appointment. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin ashy. His clothes looked unwashed. He had failed to bring his ID or clinic card, so the clinic refused to help him. He blamed the trains. Then he blamed not having transport money.
“But what about the food and transport money I gave you two weeks ago?”
He fidgeted and made excuses. Then he admitted that his mother had bought groceries for the neighborhood and it was all gone.
“But you know I gave you that money so that you could be strong,” I said. “So that you could be strong to look for jobs and to keep going to the clinic.”
Zumani said that he was sorry, but I think he was more sorry that I was mad at him than for his actions. That’s how things are here: when you have money or food, you share it. I knew that, so in a way, its my fault… but still.
We talked a little. I couldn’t understand. Why wasn’t he taking this more seriously? I told him I respected how hard this must be for him– I respect it, but there is no way I can understand it. But what about in a year or two, when he’s dead from lack of treatment? When his mother loses it? When he creates an orphan in this country where orphans have about as much of a chance as does… well… an orphan in a slum?
And what about me? When I get the call that Zumani is dead, how do I process all the emotional output I’ve given over the past months? How do I not blame myself? What should you do when you care more about a student than he does?