Sue’s Story – Numbers

By Sue Rehmus, January 2008

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I never have liked numbers.  My first visit to a place called Missionvale in Port Elizabeth, South Africa reaffirmed my seemingly life-long struggle to comprehend numbers.

  • 100,000 people
  • 80% unemployed
  • 60% HIV/AIDS infected
  • 500 families per day – bread & soup powder
  • 250 families per day – “additional” food relief
  • 200 students
  • 200 government assistance applications per month
  • 16 water taps
  • 4 teachers
  • 2 clothes parcels
  • 2 “social workers”
  • 1 nurse
  • 0 doctors

Missionvale, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  Started in 1988 under a tree by a rosey-cheecked Irish Catholic nun, Sister Ethel.

I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures for fear of making even one person there feeling some how exploited.  Besides, I was too busy, too intent on taking in every word my guide, Andre, the manager of the Township, said and on taking in the environment in its entirety – which was overwhelming from nearly the first second we turned into the Center.

Driving slowly through a sea of black faces lining up – for what I didn’t know at the time – I saw people old before their time.  Adults aged by sickness and struggle.  Children aged by having to become adults prematurely when their parents died.

I was embarrassed stepping out of the car in my slacks, dress shirt and shoes.  I couldn’t bear to make visible my digital camera when these people so clearly had virtually nothing more than the clothes on their back.

After greeting Tony, his old friend and one of the Township’s first trustees with a hug, Andre welcomed me with a warm smile and firm handshake.  It was obvious from our first step he had performed this tour hundreds of times as he led me back to the main entrance we just drove through.  He asked me to look out at all the colorful shacks as far as I could see as he waved his arm gently through the air.  He gave me the first two numbers: “100,000 people live in this Township – up to 80% of them are unemployed,” he said.  Corrugated tin roofs generally misfit atop either wooden or more corrugated tin walls.  Then Andre points to a small water tap on the opposite side of the dirt road we stood on and tells me the third number: “There is no running water – no electricity here in the Township except for the Center here.  So people come to one of only 16 water taps throughout the Township for all of their water needs including drinking, cooking, laundry and washing themselves.”

Already, my mind can’t compute such numbers.  I’m used to getting the answers wrong with any kind of mathematical equation and thought surely there’s no way I could be correct now.  100,000 people, I think to myself, 16 water taps.  That’s 6,250 people PER water tap.  And I’m not talking about one tap with several sinks or anything.  There are no sinks – no basins of any kind unless the people bring it themselves.  Even then it’s just a round plastic basin like we might use to clean dishes while camping.  I’m talking 6,250 people using one spigot coming up out of the ground about 2.5 – 3.0 feet.

My soul is already stirring and we’re just now moving away from the entrance.

As we walk back toward the Center, I notice something about the people standing in line I hadn’t noticed before.  Most of them are carrying plastic bags full of something.  Once we’re back to the Center, Andre begins to explain as he leads me into the “pantry” and introduces me to Melanie – a lovely plump black lady with her hair covered by a scarf and I couldn’t help thinking with no disrespect at all how she reminded me of the Aunt Jamimah syrup lady.

Behind the main counter where the people are waiting, Melanie stands among three things.  In the very back along the wall is a big wire basket about ¼ of the way full with loaves of bread.  Just in front of that is a small table with some binders which contain the names of all of the families to receive “food.”  In front of that is a pale blue garbage can with the top sealed tightly.  In front of the main counter, sit three more large garbage cans.  Andre tells me that in order for the families to receive the “food,” they have to bring in their empty tin cans.  This is a way to make them feel they are working for their “food” and an attempt to keep the Township tidy.

Then he lifts the lid off the pale blue garbage can revealing the “food;” a grayish powder with the same consistency of flour.  He tells me the fourth number:  “Every day, 500 heads of family bring in tin cans to receive a loaf of bread and one full scoop (like we might use shopping in a bulk section) of soup powder.”

“Soup powder,” I had to ask out loud just to make sure I’d heard him correctly.  “Soup powder,” he restates with emphasis and continues giving me the fifth number “has been fortified with enough vitamins and minerals that it alone can sustain life.  But with 60% of these people HIV infected, it too often does not provide them with the additional nourishment required by a weakened immune system.”

I’m looking in Andre’s eyes as he’s explaining this and I know he sees the tears in mine starting to well while my nose flares and jaw clamps trying to hold it back.

Andre turns to Melanie asking her to show me the binders.  They are sectioned by days of the week.  “Each day,” Andre gives me the sixth number, “250 heads of family receive additional food relief which includes some vegetables, potatoes and, if we have it, some meat.”

As I struggle to understand and keep from crying, we walk out of the pantry and start walking to another building across the way.  Without breaking his stride, Andre points back to a group of women sitting side by side on a bench outside the main office – about a dozen or so.  “These women are waiting to see Sister Ethel,” Andre tells me.  “They are going to try to convince her they are the neediest of the needy.  If Sister Ethel agrees with them – which 99 out of 100 she does – then we ‘adopt’ that family.”  It’s not a legal adoption through the government, but when a family is adopted by Sister Ethel, that family receives food relief, school fees and supplies are paid for, job assistance and a clothes parcel.

Like a well choreographed dance, just as Andre says “clothes parcel,” we step inside the clothing room.  Very clean, well organized room, shelves running the length of the building and four or five high are filled with nicely folded shirts, pants, underwear, socks, some coats each labeled “Boys 1-4,” “Girls 6-10,” “Men/Women S – XL” etc….  Boxes of shoes on the other wall just as well organized.

The seventh number:  “Once a family has been adopted, they receive 2sets of each piece of clothing for every person in the family, plus school uniforms for the kids,” Andre states while swiftly walking past the rows of shelves.

Imagine – only having two tee-shirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of underwear, two pair of socks – imagine.

Just outside the clothing room Andre pounds his fist a couple times on a large metal shipping container transformed into a work room/office.  Two people emerge with curious smiles on their faces.  I meet Carol and Ashton while Andre gives me the eighth number:  “Carol and Ashton are our social workers.  The 2 of them, former residents of the Township and coming from families adopted by Sister Ethel, made it through school, became educated, and now help the other adopted families apply for various government assistance grants,” Andre explains as a beautiful blend of pride and humility can be seen in the pair’s smiles.  The ninth number as Andre continues:  “They complete 200 applications each month, take photo ID’s of those people applying and coach them on how and where to submit the application.  They also are working on creating a photo ID for every resident so they can begin to look for work.”  Carol and Ashton are real success stories and I’m battling back the tears again.

As we walk to the school, Andrea proudly points out some new construction just underway and is sure to point out the large sign above marking the development’s sponsorship by General Motors.  The buildings are long and narrow, absent the walls facing the little courtyard where some children make use of the playground equipment while most others chase each other and a rugby ball.  I hear Andre telling me the school teaches grades Primary through second and have been trying to be recognized as a Chartered school by the government for years – unsuccessfully.  Given one invalid excuse after another to avoid subsidizing the effort, even though Missionvale uses the same curriculum and testing standards as the government.

I look inside the first classroom and almost miss the tenth touching number as about 40-some smiling little faces look at me, say “hello,” and wave at me as if I’m some long, lost friend.  They are clean and in sharp uniforms, polite and obedient to their teacher as she walks to the entrance to greet me.  “Belinda is one of teachers here,” Andre introduces.  Belinda is about my height with small, but twinkling eyes and one of the most genuinely friendly smiles I may have ever seen.

She tells a story of one of the boys who didn’t turn up today.  She suspected he’d taken her too literally yesterday when a different boy hadn’t turned up and she’d said, “We must go in search of him.”  The children, as children do, started to talk among themselves and to quiet them Belinda simply turns and says, “Thank you children, thank you.”  Instantly, they quiet down.  Andre takes this opportunity to jump back in the conversation with the eleventh number:  “We have 200 students,” and before he can continue I interrupt with “But didn’t you say Belinda was one of four teachers?”  Andre smiles knowing I’m connecting the dots.  “Yes, we generally have 50 children per classroom.  Let’s move on to the medical clinic.”  As I do my level best to maintain composure in front of these youngsters, I feel my soul changing right in front of them as we smile and I tenderly while they enthusiastically wave good bye.

Walking away, I’m afraid I might lose it.  My eyes are misty and I try to take a few deep breaths to keep it together.  We don’t go inside the clinic.  Andre stops just outside of it where a seemingly endless line of people stood waiting.  Women ranging from as young as 10 or 11 and as old as, well, I don’t know to be honest, stand in line with infants swaddled in a sheet tied around their chest and backs.  Before I know it, and so far beyond my level of comprehension now, Andre gives me the final two devastating numbers:  “The government continuously denies our requests for doctors so we operate with a (meaning 1) nurse who administers general antibiotics.”  For clarification I asked, “So how many doctors do you have at the clinic?”  Andre matter-of-factly says, “NONE.”  “None?” I gasped.  “ZERO,” he said with a sad emphasis.  I covered my open mouth with my hand and looked down the line of mothers and care-takers with babies strapped to their chest or back, old men and women weak from this meager existence and ample disease; children too young for such scarcity; children who perhaps won’t make it to be called “old,”; children caring for other children because their parents have died.  As I look at the faces of these people who stand quietly, calmly, patiently, unassumingly, hopefully – I know instantly that I have been changed.  Unlike at the classrooms, I leave my sunglasses on to hide the tears that now easily fill my eyes.

We walk away from the clinic – past Carol and Ashton making ID’s and filling out forms, past Melanie distributing bread and soup powder, past Belinda and the other teachers with their full classrooms of 50 children, past the main office where women are still sitting side by side waiting patiently, persistently to see Sister Ethel and I know immediately the woman I see walking toward us must be her.

About 5’1” with short, stylish white hair, beady brownish-green eyes, pale skin and rosey red cheeks, she embraces Tony with a smile and envelopes his wide shoulders in her tiny arms.  When Tony introduces me, I can hardly speak – barely even say hello without that quiver in my voice and my eyes filling up again.  We hug as if we’ve known each other for years – and perhaps something in our hearts is very familiar.  Sensing I’m on the very brink of bawling my eyes out, Sister Ethel starts telling us of a church in the UK she recently visited.

Smiling wide and laughing practically through the whole story, Sister Ethel told us she got in front of all of them and said she’d heard so much about the need for people to get fit and lose weight so she was there to help them do just that.  Tony asked, knowing the punch line was coming, “How do you mean?”  Amused with herself, Sister Ethel recounted how she’d said to them, “What better place than church to shed a few pounds?!?”  With this she slapped her hands together and threw her head back with laughter.  Said she’d raised a few thousand pounds for Missionvale that day.

Holding Sister Ethel’s hands, I look her in the eyes promising I’ll be back to help in any way that I can.  Her lips and eyes smiled as she gave me gentle hug and a “Thank you dear.”

Andre said he had more to show me as we started to walk away.  But I didn’t know how much more I could bear.  We walk to a garden as Andre explains that people who apply to be a farmer and are approved are given some starter seeds for a variety of vegetables.  “But they have to do the rest with the incentive that whatever they grow, they can keep for their family.  Now we’ve installed the new drip system which we suspect will help us grow a lot more and a lot more quickly, so eventually, we’ll ask them to keep 50% and donate 50% to the pantry.”

Ahh, helping the people help themselves and each other…..nice.

We move to the Community Center where celebrations can be held like school graduations, birthdays or weddings.  In a small room to the side we find about 15 ladies sewing things.  Some on machines, some by hand.  They sew pillows, aprons, table clothes, placemats and move into basic clothing like simple shirts and pants.  The women sewing by hand are wearing some kind of support on their hand to push the heavy (in a strong, durable sense) needle through.  Now I see why.  It is a very thick, rubbery material and Andre shows me the label “Grasshopper.”  It doesn’t register with me so he tells me, “shoes – they are sewing shoes for the company Grasshopper and may eventually go to work for them.”

And finally, the last stop, the church.  Very simple, very elegant.  A proper alter, christening thingy (I don’t know what they’re called).  The environment is warm, soothing, welcoming with cobblestone and soft red accents.  Grayish plastic chairs are lined in perfect rows and clearly placed with respect.

I sign the guest/visitor book before we leave – again promising, this time in writing, to be back to help.  There was one more significant number shared with me that day:  20 – the number of years Missionvale has been in existence.  20 years in 2008.  I’m confused by feeling happy and sad about this all at the same time.

We climb back in Tony’s truck and he apologizes for not preparing me a little better before we began the tour.  For a moment, I hold my hands to my face, palms pressed together, fingers pressing the bridge of my nose in a final attempt to prevent free-flowing tears.  Tony respectfully acknowledges this with his silence.  With little success, I simply put my sunglasses on and quietly wipe the tears as they fall.  Breaking the silence in the car with my composure somewhat regained I say, “You know Tony, anyone who knows me at all knows that I never have liked numbers.”



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