“I want to sew. I want to sew clothes, to have my own business to make things to sell,” she said in her broken English as we had her and other members of the Self-Employment Workshop introduce themselves. Her speech was broken up with chronic coughing which does not sound good, as if she may have pneumonia.
We also had Cikizwa in a previous class where we were trying to help her develop better communication skills. When she came to that class, she was very timid, reserved and quiet. Her voice is naturally low and raspy, making it hard to understand. She always dressed in jeans, shirt and a jacket even though it was summer time, making one wonder why she was cold. But because of her cough, it was supposed that she did not feel well due to a cold.
She is a short, small framed lady who wears her years of poverty and despair. She is an unwed mother with a 2 year-old son who lives with her, unlike most in her circumstance who give their child to a grandparent to raise.
“Have you had any experience in sewing?” “What have you made sewing?” I asked.
“I have sewed pillow cases and made quilts with other ladies at the church,” she responded.
“Do you have a sewing machine?”
“Yes, but I don’t have any electricity in my flat.”
“Why don’t you have any electricity?”
“They shut it off last December because I could not pay my bill because I don’t have any income”.
“Don’t you have prepaid electricity like everyone else? How can anyone shut off your electricity; just go buy some more and put it into your meter.”
“Yes, but the people who lived there before never paid their water bill so now the municipality can block my electricity meter so that I cannot put any more in it until the water bill is paid.”
“So, how much is your water bill?” She produces a utility bill that shows she owes R17,600 which is about half what a person makes in a year in South Africa with a moderately good job.
“R17,600, how can you possibly pay that much off? What can be done?” I asked. "That bill is not your fault.”
She replied, “I called a man last week who said he could maybe help me. He told me to meet him in Uitenhage and so I went to meet him, but he never came.”
“I was supposed to meet him at 3:00 but he was not there so I called and he said he was coming. I waited until 4:00 and he did not come so I called him again and he said to wait, that he was driving and would be there soon. But, I waited until 5:00 and had to leave so I could get home before dark.”
The distance from her house to where she was to meet the man is about 5 miles and because she has no money for a taxi fare, she must walk. It is dangerous to walk in the townships and surrounding areas after dark. Muggings, rape, and robbery is expected by those on the streets during darkness. Women are especially vulnerable. So, she must hurry to walk the 5 miles back to her house, with no source of light, before it gets dark outside.
“What do you intend to do now? “You have to get electricity if you are going to start your sewing business. What can we do to help you?”
“I will have to go see him again sometime, but I have no airtime to call to see when he will be there.”
“Use our phone and call him now. Let’s see if we can go talk to him today.”
She makes the call and is connected to the man who claims to be able to help her. He is available if we came right away, so we get into the car and drive from the township into town to see him. She asked if I would go with her to speak to him because she feels intimidated by him.
On the way into town, I asked her if she had gone to the doctor about her cough. She then proceeded to tell us what her real problem is – she is HIV Positive and has had the cough for a long time. She learned in her late teens that she was raised by an older couple who was not her natural parents (they both died in her current home last year). She located her natural parents, only to find out that her mother is an alcoholic and her only response to Cikizwa finding her was to beg money from her to support her habit. Her siblings don’t want to help nor associate with her because she’s only a “half-sister”. And her father doesn’t want anything to do with her because it will upset his current family. Her child’s father claims the child isn’t his son. So she lives alone with her son. The nights are especially long since she has no electricity for lights. Food is sparse and sometimes lacking but somehow she gets by and does not utter a word of complaint. She tells the story in a low, monotone, matter-of-fact voice with no animosity, directed blame towards anyone for her circumstance nor any indication of “woe is me.”
It turns out that the gentleman we went to see is simply an individual who has no authority with the municipality but knows the system and volunteered to go talk to the municipality council to see if they would consider eradicating the past water bill so that Cikizwa can purchase electricity for her meter. There were no promises made, but at least something is being attempted to help this lady receive light in her world of darkness – darkness beyond that which can be solved by flipping the light switch.