Imagine a Swiss nurse, an Afrikaans doctor, their two daughters, a little blonde girl and a small smiley Zulu girl all living in a stone house on the top of a mountain in rural Zululand, KZN. I had the most amazing day with this family, The Hamiltons. Their Scottish surname is terribly unsuited to such a multicultural family.
Tanned Afrikaaner dad Hennie, his blonde Swiss wife Sylvia, little Zulu two-year-old Anna, blonde, four-year old Esther and her black baby doll are warm people, deeply caring and very rural. They stay in a house in the middle of nowhere, on top of the Ingwavuma mountains 20 km from Swaziland. Their house was built by community members who agreed at a tribal council (a real one, not a Survivor episode) to give them land. It is actually not completed so for now the family is staying in their guest bungalow. They are surrounded by beautiful bush and the sounds of silence punctuated by birds’ tweets. Two Solar panels on the bungalow roof power a camping fridge, one light and still offer enough power to charge cell phones.
It costs five rand to charge a phone at the local grocery store so having a neighbour with solar power is a bonus. While I was at the house for lunch, two neighbourhood children popped by to fetch charged phones for their grannies. The area has no electricity.
The Hamilton’s lived inside Mosveld hospital where Hennie worked for seven years, before moving to their new house this year. They acquired land the traditional way, finding a piece of land in an area where they knew the neighbours and would be welcomed.
The Nduna (a woman) and the chief above her met with the Hamiltons and some 50 people who live near the land. The chief asked the community members how they knew the Hamiltons. The community answered that they knew then from the local church and the hospital. Then the chief asked all the people if they were happy with the Hamiltons coming to live on the land. Everybody agreed. So then the land was demarcated with rocks and bushes and beer and juice were drunk. Beer is part of the Zulu land giving ceremony.
And that is how the rural doctor and his family acquired land with the most amazing view of green plains in the valley. Their garden is magnificent: filled with indigenous vegetation, rocks, moss, and cacti. They will never technically own the land and so could not get a mortgage to build their house and would have difficulty selling it.
Sylvia always wanted a stone house and noted that a neighbour had built a small house with stones set beautifully in concrete. The neighbour’s house (about 500 metres away) even has the words World Cup 2010 built with stone into the walls. This same man helped build her house. The neigbours help Sylvia with life and apparently laughed hysterically to hear that a 41-year-woman had never owned chickens before in her whole life. One of her neighbours has agreed to slaughter the chickens because Sylvia says she is not going to go that far. She did grow up in first world Switzerland after all.
Sylvia says their oldest daughter Esther loves rural life playing freely in the gardens, befriending the Zulu children and staying with the Zulu neighbour once a week. Anna also plays freely in the open bush. The girls speak Swiss German with their mom and Afrikaans to their dad. They hear English when their parents communicate and learn Zulu from the children around them.
Sylvia is a stay-at-home mom expecting her third child, while her husband is a highly experienced rural doctor. He is one of the few who stay for years in a rural area and dedicate their lives to healing rural people. Less than 15 percent of all South African doctors work in rural areas. But 43,7 percent of SA people live in rural places. This country needs more Hennies.
What is even more amazing is that Hennie learned to do cataract operations at Government hospital, Edendale, and then got many eye machines donated from insurance company Discovery and people in America. He started doing eye operations a number of years ago on people blinded by cataracts.
The waiting list for a cataract eye operation at the specialist hospital that services the Northern KZN rural hospitals is a year. But for the past few years locals have been able to get operations done by Hennie. They wait anything from a day after their first appointment or a month for help.
But one of his machines is broken and it’s been six months waiting for a new one from the government so all operations have been on hold. Bureaucracy now practically prevents donations from America or anywhere really, so Hennie has had to wait for a new machine from Government.
But Hennie believes he is where God has called him and his religion inspires him to make a difference in the community and not too get frustrated. He and his wife say the best doctors and nurses in rural areas have a calling – religious or not- to be there. And that calling helps them cope with the difficulties in rural life like delayed pay, and bureaucracy. Hennie was not paid for the first four months he worked at a rural hospital back in the late nineties but he didn’t care as he was living his dream. He knew he would be paid eventually.
The Hamilton’s are very interesting people. Sylvia used to do home based care for people too sick with Aids to get to hospital. She also did lots of HIV testing and counselling- a Swiss nurse in Zululand. It’s not surprising their local Zulu community have welcomed them into their bushy, green neighbourhood. Neighbours keep their phones on when Hennie has nights of work at the hospital and when Sylvia is alone at home. They come with mielies and pumpkins to visit, giving generously with what they have and they are welcomed in return.
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