Everyday miracles at CMR
I have struggled as to why I chose this story to tell when there are so many and all are heart breaking and shocking and tragic.
But I think I chose it because it is so ordinary and similar ones are being quietly played out every day. And I wanted it to be heard because every life matters.
The Bible tells us to speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. It says, Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor. Poverbs 31:8-9 CEB
And so I want to share the story of Nwabisa and Grace (not their real names).
Xhosa names have so much significance, beauty and hope and Nwabisa’s real name means Great Gift. Her daughter’s name means God is standing with us. Not sure to include this sentence as a Xhosa person could identify their real names : Siphokazi and Iminathi
In my church we love to talk about miracles. A miracle is defined as an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause. Such an event is considered a work of God.
At Christian Social Services (CMR) we see miracles every day: they may seem small in comparison to the headline catching variety, perhaps even insignificant or attributed to coincidence but in truth we see God’s fingerprints all over our work: He orders our steps and cares for His people.
In 2009 when I was working on a short contract with CMR, a young woman and her baby were referred to us by a community based NGO. We went to visit.
I remember it was a beautiful sunny winter’s day as we raced along the dusty roads of the area where I was working. Social workers are always in a hurry: so much work to do. I used to joke with Magda about the office cars repeatedly telling her we needed a 4x4 as our bottom of the range vehicles took a huge battering.
Nwabisa was sitting slumped on a chair painfully thin and weak. Her mom’s face, lined with bitterness, gave an indication of the hardships she had suffered. Her lips were pursed into a thin unfriendly line. But her innate good manners won over her hostility and she reluctantly offered us a seat on a rickety bench. We said we wanted to help.
We asked about Nwabisa’s six month old baby. We later discovered that no one knew who the father was as they had never seen her with anyone and we wondered if she had been raped. Baby Grace looked about 2 months old she was so little and weak. And she never cried.
Our first mission was to provide a food parcel and contact St Bernard’s Hospice to do a home visit for an assessment. There was a wonderful sister working there at the time, Sister Stephanie. All I had to do was call, and she would send people out the same day to check on the referral. We had only ever spoken on the phone but I later got to meet this angel in human guise.
A few days later we went to visit again to try to make arrangements for Nwabisa to get to hospital to see a doctor. I knew it was going to be a matter of time before we would have to be more actively involved.
And then the day I will never forget.
We had a new social worker who had just started and it was my job to orientate her in the community. I also had two young students with me who were doing their practical with us. I was to drop them off at a house en route where a granny was looking after her two grandchildren having lost her daughter a few months earlier to the sickness that quietly ravages communities.
When we arrived at Nwabisa’s house I took one look at Grace lying in the sun and knew that I had to get her to hospital. Gogo told us that Nwabisa had gone to get her grant. I wondered how on earth it was possible as she was so frail.
I didn’t want to take Grace without her mom but the baby needed urgent attention. Fortunately just then we saw Nwabisa getting out of a taxi in the distance and down the steep hill from her home. She stood for a moment doubled over – obviously at the last ounce of her strength. We jumped in the car to go and fetch her.
As we were driving back with her and the few provisions she had bought, my phone rang. It was the student social worker whose voice sounded frozen.
“Can you come over here?” she asked.
“No” I said, quickly explaining what was happening. “Why? What is wrong?”
“The other daughter is dead. She was found hanging from the tree outside the house this morning.”
“We will be right there.”
Fortunately our new social worker was a mature woman with experience.
Quickly explaining I asked her to go and support the family and the traumatized students. I don’t think that lady will ever forget her first day at CMR.
Meanwhile, we told Gogo we were taking Nwabisa and Grace to hospital and headed off via the other house. They would all eventually get taxis back to the office. On the way I picked up our auxiliary worker to help with Grace.
During the drive Nwabisa perked up a little and, smiling weakly, told us she had missed us. I was floored. After so little contact, she had missed us.
It reminded me again the power of the smallest acts of care and kindness.
We headed to Frere where I remembered a doctors’ strike was in full swing. There are very few privileges of being a social worker but in some places it can open doors. I jumped a queue by brandishing my profession.
The doctor said she could not help. “Just look at her,” I pleaded as my colleague wheeled Nwabisa through.
The doctor’s attitude immediately changed.
“Take her to that bed,” she said, and a young intern sprang into action setting up a drip and drawing bloods. Meanwhile my colleague had taken Grace to paeds and I went to see what was happening there.
Staff were working on her getting ready to admit her, and due to our shared trauma they spontaneously told us that a patient had died, probably of a heart attack, in a waiting area that day. “Imagine, he came here to get help and he was all on his own,” they were upset and speaking in hushed tones.
Nwabisa was admitted and I could go home. It was long after knock off time but I felt guilty that my colleague would have to catch a taxi home once Grace was admitted. But I was at the end of myself and did not have the energy to drive to and from the area where she lived.
I went to Gogo’s house the next day to report. She was as bitter and unresponsive as she had been on each occasion but I continued to pray for her. In fact she occupied much of my thoughts as I worked.
In the interim I contacted someone who had helped as a foster mother before: a woman born to care for babies and she took Grace when Nwabisa was later admitted to Nkqumbela TB Hospital in Mdantsane.
When we visited on several occasions we discovered she had moved beds: we were told she was trying to hide her meds, so they moved her closer to the nurse’s station. Thinking that it would help to encourage her to have Grace nearby, we took her to the hospital so mom and daughter could bond. On a subsequent visit we heard there had been able to see her as she was too sick.
So I got another foster mom and we went to collect Grace. But as we were about to take her the ward sister said she felt we needed to come back the following day after Grace had seen the doctor.
That night little Grace passed away.
We arranged the funeral. I did not want a pauper’s burial for this precious little mite whose life had been so short and lacking in comfort. I wanted something special. God had gone before us: we had a beautiful white baby coffin in our storeroom at work which reminds me of that scripture in Isaiah 65:24 that says before you ask, He will answer.
I asked my friend, Pastor Vuyani Bikitsha, who was at that time managing Daily Bread Children’s Home, if he would come and conduct the funeral. He accepted without question and I will be forever grateful.
On the day a few of the CMR vehicles went to fetch family and friends to take them to the Haven Hills Cemetery. Staff at our office made sandwiches and provided tea and coffee and these were also delivered to the home.
During the service at the grave side Ps Vuyani asked if anyone would like to give their lives to Jesus. With joy in my heart, I counted 18 hands.
Back at Nwabisa’s house after the funeral, I was shocked when for the very first time, Gogo smiled at me.
We went into the bedroom and spoke. She said she had seen my tears at Grace’s funeral. My tears had softened her heart. I later learned that she had also lost a son due to illness. She had built big barriers around her heart to protect herself from more pain and who could blame her. I had the opportunity to pray with her. Amidst all the sadness my heart was joyful.
A few days later Nwabisa, who had been too ill to attend the funeral, was admitted to Hospice. We went to visit again. The young student social worker who accompanied me took offence on my behalf when Nwabisa complained I had brought her the wrong flavored drink. Irritated, she was about to remonstrate with her but I stopped her. It was not the first time Nwabisa had reacted this way but what she needed most was someone who would not reject her no matter what.
Things got very busy and I did not get to see her for about 10 days. One Sunday after church I took a treat and went with my son. The sister called us into a room and told us Nwabisa had died a few days earlier.
She had been restless and shouted “I want to go home”. And God heard her heart cry and took her.
Another funeral was arranged.
That was September 2009. In December my son and I went to America on holiday and on my return I discovered that Gogo had passed away in hospital. Sister Stephanie from Hospice had visited her and sat with her. No family had been to see her. She died alone but the Bible says he will never leave or forsake us so I know she wasn’t really alone.
We see many miracles at CMR. Not the type that people talk about very much, but miracles none the less.
* CMR (Christelik Maatskaplike Raad) EL has served children and families in East London since 1955. In addition to child protection and prevention services, they also run a safe house for abused women and their children, Victory House, Place of Restoration, and run an extensive home food security programme sponsored by Wesbank. CMR has 13 branches in the Eastern Cape with the regional head office in Port Elizabeth.