Saying Goodbye

Letlhakaneng, North West Province. South Africa.
20. October 2012.

I didn’t bring a handkerchief, I thought to myself, as the casket passes by within arms’ length. Damn it. Though borne by six men, I could have slung the casket over my shoulder. Inside was the body of one of my grade 7 learners, a tiny girl by the name of Dipolelo.

Dipolelo died earlier this week, on Sunday. Lately she’s been absent from school, though no one seemed to know exactly why. I got the most specific answer from my learners: “She’s sick, Meneer Thabo. We don’t know what’s wrong. She’s sick long time.” Those words – sick for a long time – often mean HIV/AIDS. In South African English, however, AIDS is a four-letter word, and people will call it anything but what it is. The Disease. The Infection.

I would rather not make assumptions, though. In rural South Africa, poor nutrition and access to clean drinking water and primary medical care makes for a public health disaster. Despite Dipolelo’s continued absence from school, I am unused to thinking of the life of young people as being so fragile. I have always seen kids as models in resiliency: ten minutes after wailing over a skinned knee or wasp sting, they’re running around laughing with their friends.

During the school assembly called to make arrangements for the memorial, I listened with increasing panic, using my limited Setswana to understand the conversation. I tugged on another teacher’s shirt. “Phalatsi,” I asked, “What’s happening? What are they saying?” When he told me, I stood there for a moment in shock. I excused myself to the nearest classroom, falling into a chair at the back of class, on the verge of tears. Dipolelo was only fourteen. How could this have happened?

The assembly was adjourned and my grade 7s streamed back into the classroom. Seeing me at the back, they said, “Don’t be sad, Meneer Thabo. Please don’t cry.” Their pleas irked me. “I will be sad,” I said, “She died, and I don’t know why.”

I didn’t actually know Dipolelo that well, and I guess that’s part of the reason I’m so sad. I let her get lost in the mass of eighty plus grade 7 learners I teach. Now she’s gone. Somewhere between Learning Objective 3.2.4 and Assessment Standard 4.7.6, I forgot about Dipolelo the person.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was sharing my concerns about teaching with Jane, an older Peace Corps Volunteer serving out in the Northern Cape province.

“The students just aren’t getting the material,” I confessed, citing a litany of excuses for my students’ overall poor performance in maths this year. Their poor foundation in arithmetic. The language barrier. Learned helplessness. Internalized oppression. Bantu Education. Apartheid. “I just don’t know what to do,” I complained.

“Mine are struggling too,” Jane replied, “And I’ve stopped worrying about it. Just love ‘em. Just love ‘em! It’s all you can do.”

Dipolelo’s ability to simplify fractions and solve algebraic equations seems less important now.

The men loaded the casket into the hearse, followed by a mass of students from Lot Mashiane Secondary School. The learners worn their school uniforms, freshly washed and ironed, the girls in their red skirts and the boys in their black trousers, black shoes brought to a new shine. It was a poignant nod to their schoolmate, a touching stand of solidarity. Ma’am Mokgwatleng, a fellow teacher at Lot Mashiane grabbed my hand. I was grateful for the touch, and I followed her to her bakkie. We climbed in the cab with two other people and we joined the caravan.

At the cemetery, the men and women lined up on opposite sides of the entrance, flanking the hearse as it entered the cemetery. I’m never really sure of what to do at these things, so I attach myself to someone who fills more or less the same social role as I do and follow that person around like a puppy. In this case, I attached myself to Seeletsi, a fellow male teacher at the secondary school, and followed him inside. We followed the hearse to the grave, the teachers making a fuss of shepherding the learners into position.

Songs were sung and words were spoken and I understood very little of what was happening. The learners belted out the hymns they’ve practiced this week. Almost entirely student-led, they would have put any American school choir to shame. It was all too much for some of Dipolelo’s classmates; two of the female teachers walked a bevy of them under a shade tree to cry with together.

Eventually, the casket was lowered into the grave and the men take the to the spades. They form two lines around the grave, taking turns to shovel dirt over the casket. I turned to Seeletsi. “Is it all right if I take a turn with the spade?”

Seeletsi looks at me. “No, it’s fine Thabo,” he affirms, “Me also, I am going.”

I shoveled dirt over the body of my learner until another man took the shovel from my hands and said, “Thabo, let me help you.” I did not understand all the prayers prayed and songs sung that day. But the finality of a shovel, a pile of dirt, and a casket, I did understand.


5 responses to “Saying Goodbye

  1. In a data-handling assignment I wrote for grade 8 but it never got done due to the schedule being disrupted, I included a graph that shows the South African mortality rate by age. There’s a peak at the begging for infant mortality, then a trough in the teenage years, then the highest peak is in the 30s when AIDS takes its toll. Even in South Africa where people die young and no one will own up to the fact that it can be prevented, losing a teenager must be really tough. I feel sorry for you, man.

  2. Wow, Howell , what an experience.The sad thing is that this did not have to happen, this was not cancer or genetic disease. This was preventable disease and someone in the community is responsible for her death. That has got to be hard. I think that the older PCV ‘s advise. Just love them! God bless you in you everyday activities!!

  3. Thanks, everyone, for your heartfelt sympathy. Reading your words from across the world – Berlin, DC, Atlanta, rural Venda – makes me feel very loved. Thank you.

    I do want to respond to a couple of points.

    Firstly, I have no hard evidence that the cause of death in Dipolelo’s case was HIV/AIDS. I am simply making a conjecture based on statistics and the way people talk about things.

    Secondly, HIV/AIDS, like most killers in southern Africa – tuberculosis, malaria, malnutrition, etc. – is totally preventable in the sense that we know exactly what to do to prevent it on a case-by-case basis. Most of the times these measures even seem pretty simple. Wear a condom. Sleep under a mosquito net. Take a pill. However, implementing these apparently simple measures on a large scale can become very difficult because they often fail to account for peoples needs, wants, or circumstances. For example: wearing a condom is almost totally effective in preventing the transmission of HIV, but it’s also almost totally effective in preventing pregnancy. What if you want a child? Sleeping under a mosquito net greatly reduces your risk on contracting malaria, but it makes already hot tropical nights even hotter. Taking the right medicine can reduce your viral load if you’re infected with HIV or kill the tuberculosis bacteria, but only if you have food security.

    While these kinds of decisions are indeed matters of personal responsibility, we need to understand the social and economic factors that facilitate tens of millions of people to make the same kinds of decisions. Most notably with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, there is an exceedingly poor system of education that fails to disseminate information effectively or effectively prepare 25% (the official unemployment rate, though the actual number is closer to 40%) for the work force. Furthermore, the structure of the economy here encourages those that can find work to take contract jobs at far-flung places, breaking up families, changing social structure, and facilitating absentee parenting.

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