July 13, 2013

hospital the previous day

When mother is snatched away, Gogo picks up the pieces

"She left me with so many children," says Sophie Hlophe*, as if thinking out loud. The 69-year-old is sitting in the living area of the two- bedroom RDP house in Katlehong, a township east of Johannesburg, that she shares with her husband and five grandchildren.

"What will I do with all these children? I can't even scold them – children nowadays are very naughty. They need someone who will be patient with them. What will I do?"

Four years ago, Hlophe was standing in front of the sink in her small kitchenette mixing formula powder with hot water in her grandson, Themba's* bottle. The infant was agitated because his mother had been admitted to Natalspruit hospital the previous day.

Before she could tend to the restless bundle squirming on her bed in the room just a few steps away, Hlophe's cellphone rang. It was a nurse from the hospital: "Your daughter is dead," she said.

Hlophe was shocked. The 37-year-old Sonto*, her youngest daughter, was fine just a few days before.

"I had no idea how this could have happened," she says.

Sonto had not had any health problems and seemed to be recovering well from her baby's birth.

But, three weeks after having Themba, she developed a cough that only got worse. Three days later, her brother and a relative who lived nearby offered to take her to the hospital in an old white bakkie.

With Sonto's toiletries packed, they helped her into the back. Hlophe and Themba joined them. Sonto's four other children stayed at home with their grandfather. The old car rushed through the crowded township streets to the nearby Natalspruit hospital where, Hlophe expected, her daughter would get well soon. Instead, the phone call.

Four years later
Today, on a cold winter's morning, Hlophe's home is filled with the sound of cartoons on the television and her grandchildren lazing around on the worn-out couches: Sonto's children are now four, nine, 12, 13 and 22 years old.

Putting on a brave face, Hlophe leans back against the rest of the steel-framed chair in the modest living space of her home.

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