Sisonke Msutu lost a close relative at the height of the first wave of the COVID pandemic in South Africa and it sparked some stigma in her community.
Sisonke (17) was born in WhoCanTell, which is a small farming town in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. Her birth was a unique experience for her family.
“I was born in the back of my grandfather's car on a rainy day. It was an old bakkie* with holes in the floor. My grandparents were rushing to take my mom to the hospital to give birth. My mother and grandmother were in the back. My mother thought that I was dead when she birthed me because I just fell to the floor and I didn’t cry. I was rushed to the hospital and they put me on oxygen. My family told me that the nurses started shouting that the baby was alive when I started crying loudly. My mom was so relieved.”
Sisonke spent the first 12 years of her life in the Eastern Cape.
“We stayed in a rural area though it had electricity and we had water in the house. I lived in a house with my mom, four siblings and at a later stage, two grandchildren who were my older sister's children. My siblings and I have a big age gap. The firstborn is my older brother – he’s in his thirties now. The other siblings are 28, 23 and 20 years old and I am the last born. My brother never lived with us while I was growing up because he lived with my dad, who worked in Cape Town. My dad would come to the Eastern Cape during the holidays to visit us. My brother lived with him while he was schooling in Cape Town.”
Both Sisonke’s parents were working.
“My mom was a teacher in the Eastern Cape and my dad worked in construction. My parents had a normal relationship, with petty fights but it wasn’t hectic. They lived apart most of the time. My mother used to complain about this but my dad couldn't get a transfer to the Eastern Cape. My mom also applied for work in Cape Town but she was only offered work in the Eastern Cape.”
Sisonke describes her childhood as nothing out of the ordinary.
“Growing up I had a very good childhood. My mother was very strict. We knew what time to come home after playing. I was my mom’s baby because I was the last born so my sisters did the laundry and cooking. I had no worries, it was great in my early years. There was always a meal on the table. We had a good family structure and we would see our dad during the holidays. For example, in the June holidays, we would visit him in Cape Town and in the December holidays he would come to the Eastern Cape.”
“I was the only one who went to a private school because my mom had a stable job by then, having been promoted from an assistant teacher to a full-time position. The private school I attended was in the Eastern Cape. I used to wonder what white people eat, so I got to know all of that and it was like, these people are just like us. I was at the private school for my full primary school. My grades were quite high and I did sport while there. I did long-distance running and got awards for that.”
“My sisters and I would fight a lot. It felt like they were so bossy but I knew that they had my back. As they were older I couldn’t get a word in. The first grandchild is a girl and was from my eldest brother. He had her in his twenties and she came to live with us. My mother took her as the sixth born. I was still young when she came to live with us, I was probably 9. Then when I was 12 my second-born sister had a girl who also stayed with us.”
Sisonke did part of her high school years in Johannesburg.
“In Grade seven I needed to find a high school for the following year. My aunt said I should live with her in Jo’burg for two years. I attended high school there. It was not a private school but it was a good school. The move was difficult because I was so used to my mom and my aunt was very strict. I used to cry every day and say I wanted to go back home. It was just my aunt and me living in a flat, so it made things very different. I missed being surrounded by people but I especially missed my mom.”
“It was also an adjustment living in a big city. In the rural areas, you don’t get kids smoking and in Jo’burg, you would see people in the streets smoking and there was this pressure from other kids to smoke and to go to parties. Because my aunt was strict I didn’t get a chance to do that kind of thing with the other kids. I stayed there for two years. Each school holiday I would visit my mom in the Eastern Cape.”
Living far away from her mother was hard for both Sisonke and her mother and they both wanted her to move back to the Eastern Cape. When Sisonke was about to start Grade 10 she decided to make the choice to either remain in Johannesburg or move to Cape Town and live with her father since ‘schools in the Eastern Cape were full.’
“My older brother and my two older sisters were already with my dad and so in Grade 10, I moved to Cape Town to live with my Dad. My fourth sister had finished matric, so she also came to live with my dad in Cape Town. It was fun to have my siblings with me again. So it was just my mom and by now, three grandchildren, left in the Eastern Cape.”
“I began looking for a school in Cape Town. We were staying with my dad in Philippi. We went to a few schools and Groenvlei said they would accept me. I started school and I immediately made a friend, I was like this is okay I can adjust. Then in March lockdown happened. My birthday is in March and it was in the middle of the lockdown. My mother called to wish me a happy birthday. Because everything was closed, I was just sitting at home.”
“In April when the regulations were relaxed a little and people could travel my mother insisted that my sisters and I go to the Eastern Cape. I remember my mom saying at the time that she wanted all her kids around her and that she misses us all. My sisters went to our mom, but I didn’t go. I don’t know why I made that decision. I thought that I would visit later.”
“I remember calling my mom on Mothers’ Day in May and singing her the song with the lyrics; ‘You were my strength when I was weak, you were my voice when I couldn't speak.’ She was so happy to hear me sing to her.”
In June, Sisonke’s mother became ill.
“My mother got the flu but she was fine. I remember my dad telling us that we should call our mother since she is feeling sick and we thought it wasn't that bad. My sisters and I were just like, our dad is ‘overreacting’ because it's just the flu – so we didn’t take it seriously.”
“But when she got worse and was hospitalised we took it very seriously. I remember she was admitted to the hospital on a Monday. Our neighbour took her. My dad got worried because she had never been in a hospital before. She had never even been to the doctor as far as we could remember because she had never had any medical issues.”
“Everyone was so shocked that my mother was in hospital. We were like; ‘Who, Mom?’ My dad called the neighbour who was with my mom at the hospital, and asked her about my mom’s condition and if she thought that she would recover. The neighbour was reassuring and said it was just the flu and that she was going to recover.”
On that Monday night, she was not supposed to sleep at the hospital. She was just supposed to wait for a doctor to run some tests on her to find out what was wrong. My dad called my other family members who stayed close to her and he also called my grandmother and told her that my grandmother should check on how my mother was doing, so my grandmother went to the hospital and she told us; ‘She is getting strong, we can see that she is even eating’.”
“The next day my dad called my mom because now we were all worried. I remember that my mom spoke to all of us. On that call, I could tell that she was not strong because while I was talking to her on the phone I could hear that her energy was low. She spoke with a soft tone.”
“I remember crying. I told her; ‘Mom, be strong. Everything is going to be OK and you are going to recover.’ She told me not to worry and that it was just flu. She said; ‘You know that I’m strong and I am going to get out of here.’ She offered me words that gave me hope.”
“After the phone call, my mood changed because it began to sink in that my mom was really sick. That night when I was about to go to bed, I didn't have any strength to pray. I just said; ‘Lord, my mother.’ That's all I said. While I was sleeping I had the feeling that everything was not okay. I was crying but then I told myself to stop crying because my mom is not going to leave me.”
“The following day was Wednesday. Usually. I wake up late if I know that I'm not going anywhere but that morning I woke up early. I did the dishes and was playing music and trying to be in a good mood. While I was doing the dishes I was thinking about my mom and I was thinking that she is going to be fine.”
“Then my uncle arrived and he came inside the house and switched off the music and I wondered why he had switched the music off but I didn't even mind him. Then my other two aunts came to the house and they sat down and I wondered; ‘Why is everyone here? Is there going to be a family meeting?’ I saw cars outside. It was just weird.”
“Usually my dad leaves money for us to buy bread in the morning but that morning he didn't. I was busy asking him; ‘Dad you didn't leave money for us to buy bread.’ He responded in a soft tone that I should wait. At that moment I knew the truth but I didn't want to accept it. I was busy offering the people in the house tea. Our other neighbour came and she was crying. I was like; ‘Why are people crying? My eldest sister came back from work. She was crying. I was carrying a pot and I just dropped it and went to her to ask her what's wrong and she said that she couldn’t afford to lose her mother and it’s not happening. I don’t know what happened because I just collapsed and cried and cried. I just cried. It was very emotional. I couldn't believe it. Me and my sisters were crying. I saw my dad had tears in his eyes. I never saw my dad cry before. People were holding me. I just wanted to run away, I didn't know what to do with myself. I felt like a huge part of me died on that day. It felt like a dream. Can somebody wake me up, please? I had never ever thought of losing my mother.”
“My dad left that same day for the Eastern Cape. It was like God, you took her away from me when I still need her love. I couldn't sleep that night. No one slept that night. It was very intense.”
The next day Sisonke left for the Eastern Cape with her siblings to prepare for their mother’s funeral.
“It was the first time that I had been back to my mother’s house and my mother was not there. I thought back to the last time I saw her, which was in January.”
It was never confirmed that Sisonke’s mother died of the Coronavirus, yet rumours had spread in the village that it was the cause of her death.
“People were convinced that my mother had died of COVID. It spread all over the village that my mother had COVID and that we should fumigate the house and go for testing. They said that we should not sleep there. We had to handle the funeral and handle what people were saying. We tried ignoring the people. We didn’t fumigate the house but my sisters and the grandchildren who had lived with my mom went for testing. They had slept with my mother in the same room and nothing happened to them and they had stayed with her throughout. Doctors did not tell us if it was COVID. They were silent.”
“My mother was a well-respected woman. She was known as a good advisor and for that reason, her funeral should have been a big funeral. But because of the pandemic, not everyone could come to the funeral and we couldn't give her the send-off that we wanted to give her. We couldn't have a tent because of the safety protocols which only allowed 50 people to attend. We were told that the funeral couldn’t last more than two hours maximum.”
“We made the best of the situation we found ourselves in but it took a long time before we could talk as a family about our loss.”
When asked about life lessons that Sisonke would like to share, she said:
“The grief of the loss of someone like your mom may never end. There are some days that are better than others… it’s as if a part of you is gone forever. My healing journey began with the work of forgiveness and acceptance. I needed to forgive myself for not going to visit her in the Eastern Cape when I had the opportunity and I needed to accept that she is no more. My solace is knowing that she still lives in me. That everything she taught me, the difference between good and wrong will continue guiding me through my life.”
Sisonke is a Leaders’ Quest participant.
*bakkie – a pickup truck