When the Chanting Stopped By Nola D Muller
Thursday, August 06, 2009
Rated "G" by the Author.
Life in KwaZulu Natal...
WHEN THE CHANTING STOPPED
Fourteen months have passed since that day. I do not wake up drenched in sweat, hearing the ululating and screaming any more. The feelings of guilt that would not go away are now replaced with compassion and understanding. I am ready to tell my story…
The only perk I have, where I work, is to have my coffee delivered to my desk three times a day. Doris was the tea lady. Thirty-something, always friendly, full of fun and never complaining. It was with surprise that I noticed, on this particular Monday, that she was not at work and someone else brought my coffee. On asking where she was, I was told that she had taken ill and was in hospital.
Two weeks later she had still not returned and I was told that she was really ill and that she had been sent home from hospital because there was nothing more that they could do for her. On the strength of this information I organised a collection from the office staff and expressed my intention to go and visit her, after work, on the Friday. Feelings were mixed. She lived out of town in an inaccessible place and everyone thought that it would be foolish if I went to see her – a European is not a common site in the middle of rural Sweetwaters.
Friday afternoon arrived and I set out to visit Doris with three of her co-workers who knew where she lived. They had told her that we were coming and I was told that she was looking forward to seeing us.
The tar road eventually petered out and we drove along a fairly good gravel road for a while. All around were wattle and daub houses, cattle lined the road and friendly children waved as we passed. Eventually I was told to stop the car and pull off onto the verge – here we locked the car, and started to climb up a steep incline towards a group of houses that were positioned behind a hedge.
Doris’ house was built in the same manner as all the others, but it stood out because it was painted a brilliant blue around the top and the most startling yellow below the windows. Her mother and a number of other ladies met us. Children played in the garden and I wondered which child was hers. She was a single mom with a daughter of five. We were invited into the spotless home and shown into the bedroom.
The room was long and narrow and a single bed was pushed into the very end of the room. Above the foot-end of the bed was a tiny window where the quickly setting sun was battling to shine through. Along the left hand side of the room was a three-seater upright wooden bench and along the right hand wall there were a number of chairs. As I approached her bed, her sister rose from lying next to her and moved away to let me speak to her.
In the three weeks since I had last seen Doris it was hard to believe that it was the same person. She lay in bed; each breath she took was a struggle. Her well-filled out body had shrunk to that of an emaciated old woman who looked anywhere between 60 and 100, and her eyes seemed to fill her face. She looked up at me with recognition and even managed a smile. I asked her how she was and all she could say was that she was very, very sick. We all spoke to her and gave her messages from friends at work, and then I handed the donation over to the Mother, and at the suggestion of one of the ladies that accompanied me, we knelt down to pray with the family.
I was at the head end of the bed with my arm around Doris’ shoulder. Her sister climbed back onto the bed and lay down next to her. I don’t know how long the prayers went on for, but all the women in the room joined in. Suddenly the tempo changed, from words being spoken, they picked up on a chant and this grew louder and louder. The sister started thrashing around on the bed and at that stage I knew that I had to get out of the confined room and get some air. On getting to my feet I noticed that the sister had a protective hand placed over Doris’ face – but thought no more of it.
Standing outside I was concerned about the ululating and screaming coming from inside. An old lady shuffled up to me and in broken English said, “Doris is dead”. I misunderstood her and said “No, Doris is not dead, but she is very, very sick” – whereupon the old lady once again said “DORIS IS DEAD” and I realised that it was not a question being asked but that she was stating a fact.
Still unable to comprehend what she was meaning I went back into the room and called one of the ladies who had gone with me. I tried to explain to her that, had I been ill and in bed, and all this noise was going on, it would not have comforted me – and perhaps it would be wise to stop it and go home. She wiped her eyes and took my hand and confirmed that Doris was in fact dead.
All of a sudden I knew what had happened. The protective hand, which had been placed on her head by her sister, had not protected her. It had smothered her. I was filled with such anger and guilt. How could I have allowed this to happen? Would this have happened had I not gone to visit her? Before dropping the ladies off to go their own separate ways, I asked them about what had happened and they all said, “It was God’s will that she had died”, but I could not accept this.
That night I was unable to sleep. At midnight I got back into my car and drove to the Alexandra Police Station and asked to speak to one of the Zulu Constables who was on duty. With tears coursing down my cheeks I explained what I had witnessed and asked him whether he thought this had happened because I had been there – or whether this was something that he had experienced before. He was a compassionate man. He tried to explain that euthanasia is performed in cases where there is little or no hope of recovery. He seemed to think that it was an honour that they had done it while I was there and that although it was not common practice, he was often aware of it happening in his community.
Well, fourteen months have passed. The facts have not changed, but at last I am now able to think about what happened in a more rational way. I have seen sick people with incurable illnesses linger for months while their loved ones sit at their sides and offer comfort but are unable to ease their suffering. Although I cannot condone what I experienced, I think I can understand why, with all the ululating and chanting making her adrenaline rush through her body, the sister was given the courage to perform an act of absolute love. This must have been the hardest thing in the world for her to do.