IT WAS a blistering summer's day in 2019. Graaff-Reinet was in the grip of the worst drought in living memory. Dams were down to their last stinking, silt-choked 1%.
Corene Conradie remembers finding an unconscious woman on her office stoep. She had passed out from dehydration.
“While they were putting her in the ambulance, she gave me her address and asked me to please check on the ‘sick kids'. I went to the township and what I saw there was a complete crisis. It wasn’t one household. Everyone was sick from the water because people couldn’t afford to buy bottled water like the rest of us were doing during that time."
Corene says she couldn't look away after seeing what was happening. “I got donations, and then we delivered water for eight months, day and night. We used a mini water tanker to take water from people’s boreholes to the township.
“Gift of the Givers saw what was happening in Graaff-Reinet, and I will never forget that day in October when they arrived with their rigs and trucks to help us. Two weeks later, Dr Imtiaz [Sooliman] asked me if I would join the team.”
Corene resigned from her job with an insurance company, exchanged her corporate high heels for sturdy takkies and has been on the ground ever since in the green Gift of the Givers T-shirt she is so proud of wearing.
She now heads operations in the province from the hub in East London. “We’ve got a group of community liaison officers, we’ve got a warehouse, we’ve got drivers. And we work closely with the counselling team at our head office in Pietermaritzburg. So we’ve got a great team on the ground here. This work pulls at your heartstrings. I feel so grateful to be able to work for Gift of the Givers."
“Our hot spot areas are Butterworth and Pedi especially, where it’s so severe that the children die of hunger. We have seen cases where the children don’t die — they are murdered by their mothers who are unable to provide for them.
“We see many stunted children. Teachers report that these children don’t progress in school, and there’s a massive problem because there is no additional support for children who are stunted as a result of malnutrition. There is no hope for them in school.
“It crushes you when you begin to understand the extent of the crisis in our rural areas,” she says softly.
Toleni village, near Butterworth, is an example of this harsh reality — often concealed by the lovely facade of rolling hills and pastel homesteads so characteristic of the old Transkei.
It is a traumatised and impoverished settlement of mainly old people and children. In 2013, a serial rapist and murderer, Bulelani Mabhayi, was finally caught after he killed and raped nine children and 10 women. He targeted women who headed households and would break in, rape them, then hack everyone to death with an axe or panga. His youngest victim was 14 months, his oldest 79 years.
He tormented this community for more than five years. Then came the ravages of Covid and the lockdowns, which impoverished and traumatised the community even further.
“This happened everywhere”, says Corene. “The loss of jobs and income had a catastrophic impact on rural communities in particular.”
Village of death
Some people call Toleni the village of death, not only because of what happened but also because of what is happening.
Corene visited it after a mother killed her three children and then took her own life — because she no longer knew how to feed her family. The details are horrific. Bongeka Buso killed her children of five and eight with rat poison after she ran out of food. After stabbing her teenage daughter to death, she hung herself. In a suicide note found by the police, Buso said she had become overwhelmed by her burdens. A debt collector found the bodies on a Sunday morning when he came looking for repayment on a loan.
“We found a community in deep distress," says Corene. “The people said, ‘our children suffer from kwashiorkor’, which is not a term we use in South Africa. That is a term we know from other countries on the continent.”
Kwashiorkor is an extreme form of malnutrition due to insufficient protein. It is characterised by swelling of the extremities. A protruding belly is common. It usually affects infants and children. Kwashiorkor is a sign of starvation.
“The child grant just is not enough to sustain people," Corene says. “Many families say it lasts two weeks or less. After that, they just give their children water. We are speaking here of children wasting away from hunger. Children dying because they are not eating.”
Grannies and children
The hunger problem in the Eastern Cape is compounded by the fact that many adults go to the cities to look for work, leaving their children back home with their parents — usually the grannies.
“We see it everywhere in the rural areas,” Corene says: “It's children and grannies who bear the brunt.
“In one household we visited, a gogo sat with six grandchildren. We asked her about their parents. She said they went to Johannesburg to look for work. Many of these parents leave without a promised job on the other side, so they end up in the streets themselves and have nothing to send back home, leaving that gogo to fend for herself and those children on a social grant, which we know doesn't last through the month.
“We’ve entered child-headed households where the oldest is 16 and has to look after her siblings. The parents are gone, or the parents have passed away because we also have a high number of HIV and TB cases in the province as well. This leaves many orphans. And in the rural areas, there are no orphanages.
“Those have to fend for themselves. One household told us the only meal they have is the one they get at school. They go to school to eat then come home to wait for school again the next day to eat again. On weekends, there will be nothing to eat.”
I want to know from Corene why the epicentre of this hunger crisis seems to be around Butterworth.
“Butterworth is surrounded by vast rural areas, and there’s no economic activity in these places. People are still using pit toilets, there are few shops and people have to travel far to get to towns. In the deep rural areas, there are no roads to drive on. People have to walk long distances. And there is no employment. Clinics are far. Schools are far away. And people have to pay for school transportation, which is not cheap. And that comes from the child grant, leaving less money for food. Everything is a struggle, so people go searching for better opportunities. They leave the children and the older adults behind to try and cope as best they can.
“Children are dying of hunger every day in this province. Last year, it was nine children in one month that died in the Butterworth hospital because they were admitted too late. And that tragedy was a privileged case because many of these cases go undocumented. Children die from malnutrition, which is not part of the stats."
Mothers killing children
Then Corene tells me something that surpasses all the horror of what she has already sketched.
“Something we see on a large scale is mothers just simply abandoning their babies because they cannot look after them.
“Sometimes they will leave them with a neighbour or a family member. You will go into a home and you will hear the people say, ‘you know, this child is from that person. I have taken them in; we don’t know where the mother is'.
“But sometimes they have nowhere to leave them, so they abandon them. Or kill them.
“The police pick up so many of these children’s remains in open spaces or abandoned buildings. Nobody can, of course, say for sure that a child was murdered or abandoned due to poverty. But you can think for yourself that these are the cases of desperation. Many mothers in Ntoleni and Ndabakazi and in the Port St Johns area have told us that they would rather die than live in poverty.
“We are working with a family for whom we now have a plan in place to supply food for 12 months. When we found this family, the mother told us how often she considered just ending it all because every day she had to watch her children waste away because she had nothing to feed them. There are many similar cases. And these are not households where there is no income. These are households that receive social grants, but the grants are insufficient to make ends meet."
Humanity is a single nation
Corene explains the approach Gift of the Givers has taken to address what can only be described as a starvation crisis.
“We’ve got various pillars. One is our hunger alleviation programme, for which we get funding from multiple sources. We have established almost 50 feeding schemes across the Eastern Cape in poverty hot spot areas — as far away as Rosmead, on the other side of Middleburg. It was once a flourishing town but today there is nothing there other than an abandoned railway station and hopelessness. Our feeding scheme feeds 200 families a day."
The requests come thick and fast. Sometimes by email. Sometimes by phone. Often by Messenger via the Gift of the Givers Facebook page.
“People beg for help,” says Corene. “For every case, we do an assessment, and we inevitably find enormous need throughout the community or village. And then we follow our protocol — we find donors, we make a plan.”
Apart from hunger, water remains a crisis in the province.
“We have our water trucks that are circling every day. We’ve got Fort Beaufort, Alice and Adelaide. And we’ve got Gqeberha. Although the dams there have filled up nicely, there’s still a crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay. We’ve got water tankers driving every day to deliver water to communities. Fort Beaufort is also still very severely affected. You find this in most rural areas where people depend on streams and rivers and little dams. And in small towns, poor municipal infrastructure has led to issues with water supply. We have sunk many boreholes because the demand for clean drinking water is enormous.
“As an individual, dealing with these cases is hard,” Corene admits. “But to have walked away from these cases knowing that you cannot do anything is even worse — knowing that you leave people to this hopelessness and emptiness. With Gift of the Givers, we can bring hope, restore dignity and fill those empty bellies. That is what keeps me going. That is what keeps us all going.
“And I love to do it," she says. “I love to be able to enter these households. To sit with the people, call a community together and hear what they need.
“Gift of the Givers is the largest disaster response NGO on the African continent, and our aim is always to uplift the dignity of people. And Dr Imtiaz Sooliman will always find a way. If you identify a problem on the ground, he will find a way to get people the help they need. Food and water are a lifeline — food and water save lives."
Gift of the Givers is now looking at more long-term solutions for impoverished communities.
“Food parcels and feeding schemes are short-term solutions. We are now looking at agriculture, gardening, household gardens and community gardens. We are looking at small-scale farming, like goat farming and chicken farming. We are kicking off with a pilot project in Ntoleni village this month.”
One can hear the excitement in her voice.
“We are sorting out the water issues there. We are looking at drilling a borehole, and we are going in with Jo-Jo tanks so they can, in the meanwhile, do rainwater harvesting for their gardens. We will give them equipment, provide them with training and provide seeds.
“We need to look at sustainable projects. When you leave a community or village, that food parcel will run out at the end of the day, but when they’ve got vegetables in their garden and they’ve got a chicken running in their yard and a few goats, that person won’t go hungry.
“Dr Imtiaz always says humanity is one single nation. And when you look at people you don’t look at their race, or what religion they follow, you look at a human being and you look at the needs of that human. That is the approach that we have learned from him."
♦ VWB ♦
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