Jobless, homeless, pregnant & HIV positive

I pull up at the long black gate, situated in northern Johannesburg, with very high walls that didn’t give anything away about what lay inside. I am waiting for a Roman Catholic sister to open the gate for me and lead me inside.

A friend of mine, who is a nurse, had called me to say I might want to go and have a chat with the ladies at this house. So I went. The sister leads me inside the house and there are five women. Two of them have new-born babies. One was born prematurely and has difficulties sucking. She is just over a week old. Her tiny face looks so precious. Her mother is holding her wrapped in a rough drying towel and a blanket. The other baby is just a day old. He breast-feeds continuously during the my stay at the house. I am there for about an hour and a half.

The sister informs me that this is a small temporary shelter for desperate and homeless women. Four of the women are from Zimbabwe and one is from Malawi. I am interested in the woman with the premature baby, because she is the one my friend advised I should see.

Her name is Mary*. She is dressed in a dress made of very thin material, a small jersey, worn-out Tommy tennis shoes and has a small, thin wrapper around her waist. It is bitterly cold and that’s all she wears. Her face is blank. She keeps rocking her baby, who is asleep, perhaps instinctively.

She tells me her story. Mary has been in South Africa for a while and got impregnated by a man she hardly knew. Soon after telling him she was three months pregnant, he cut her off, disappeared and she has never seen him again. She found out she is HIV positive. With no job and nowhere to go, she was begging on the streets while pregnant.

When she was eight months pregnant, still living on the streets of Johannesburg, someone gave her the number of the Roman Catholic shelter and when she called them and explained her situation, they came and picked her up from where she was.

The night she arrived at the shelter, she went into labour and she was taken to a free government hospital. Her blood pressure was too high and she was immediately operated on. It’s a miracle that both mother and baby survived, the doctors told later her. Mary spent three days in intensive care, after which she was discharged.

As we speak, she continues rocking her baby. “They can’t keep us at this shelter forever you know,” Mary said. She said she is contemplating going back to Zimbabwe, but she doesn’t know what she would do. She says staying on the streets in Johannesburg is no longer an option for her and her new-born baby. She has relatives in Binga, where she comes from and it that seems her next best option. For the following few days, she is thankful she has a roof over her head and is eating warm meals daily. For now.

I thank her for talking to me, ask for her number and promise to keep in touch, and I will. I leave and she continues rocking her baby, staring straight into the walls, her gaze steady and her eyes not blinking.

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