For the past few months, we have been training health builders in a squatter shack settlement in Cato Manor. I have yet to shake a mild sense of claustrophobia when I go down the narrow corridor separating the shacks and enter the one room home of our hostess. Dirt shows through the broken parts of heavy plastic covering the ground. On this day, I wonder how I would react if a rat ran through the shack built from odd bits of discarded wood, metal and plastic.
We start our session by continuing our Bible study with our students. A neighbour wanders in and joins the study. Like most of the people in the area, she practices a blend of traditional African ancestral worship and Christianity. This day we study Deuteronomy 18 and what the Bible says about spiritual powers. While discussing these things, we can hear a number of voices mumbling together from a nearby shack so I ask what they are saying. Our hostess explains that her neighbor thought that there was a Tokoloshe in her shack last night and was terrified so people are praying this morning. A Tokoloshe is an evil spiritual being which looks like a small hairy man and is widely feared by Zulus. On our visits to Zulu homes, we have commonly seen people’s beds propped up on bricks in order to deter the Tokoloshe. People who are thought to possess spiritual power are paid to pray over things like water, salt and thick black cleaning fluid that are placed around homes to ward off evil spirits. Today is hot and humid and I see beads of sweat form on the visitors’s forehead.
After the Bible study, we teach the students how to measure blood sugar and keep medical records. Thandi confesses that she feels shaky. We encourage her and explain that it is normal to feel some level of anxiety while learning new skills. The students screen some of the neighbours.
Thandi has lived here for five years and hopes that the government will soon provide her with a small house. Many residents have left children, wives and parents in rural areas so that they can find work in the city. Diabetes, heart disease, stroke and AIDS are widespread and loved ones are commonly seriously ill or dying. The inhabitants have no bathrooms, refrigerators, stoves, washers or dryers. Lately, it has rained on most days which results in a thick slimy mud which covers children when they play outside. In the windowless shacks at night, no electric lights can be quickly switched on to investigate mysterious noises. I wonder how people can cope with all of this as it takes far less to discourage me.
Thandi has to wash some clothes for her neighbours and do other chores so we only stay about an hour and a half. Before we leave, we give Thandi a Zulu tract. A smile lights up her face as she reads the title, “Ungesabi.” We remember that it means, “Do not be afraid.”