Haunting shame of Ishmael’s deadly neglect
He was slowly starving to death
THE LAST time that Cora Bailey saw Ishmael Ntlhoro, the skeletal teenager weighed little more than 17kg.
With his tiny gaunt face and his bones protruding from his hospital gown, the 15-year-old looked like he was on the brink of death.
But Bailey hoped the mentally disabled child would get the care and medical treatment he needed at the small Koster Hospital in the North West. He had already been re-admitted to the hospital several times this year.
She knew the staff “loved” him and were trying their best to keep him alive. “We’d brought him some colouring books, story books and toiletries,” says Bailey, a grandmotherof-two, who had previously delivered food parcels to his impoverished family.
“Some friends had donated children’s clothing to Ishmael in hospital, but even though they were for small children, he was so thin, they just fell off him.”
But it was too late. A few days later, on February 26, Ishmael was dead, his frail body wasted by HIV-related disease.
“We were infor med he had developed full-blown Aids. He started to get better and then he crashed again. There was a drip in his head,” says Bailey, the founder of Community Led Animal Welfare (Claw).
To her, Ishmael’s death, though not unique, is symptomatic of the destitution that characterises the infor mal settlement of Syferbult, here on the dejected outskirts of Magaliesburg. Residents struggle without basic services and little access to health care.
A mobile clinic visits once a month, or intermittently. “Poverty, lack of intervention by social workers… There are so many obstacles for the poor,” she says, of the teenager’s death, remarking wryly: “Apparently a statue of (President Jacob) Zuma will be erected in Groot Marico in the North West but there’s no transport for a social worker to get to a rural village. So much is wrong here.”
For years, Bailey has visited Syferbult, first to help its animals, but more and more to help ease the human misery that spreads across the area like a curse. She believes “at the end of every leash is a human being”.
She encountered the ailing Ishmael in Syferbult last Christmas. “We were delivering presents and when we saw Ishmael he looked critically ill, just awful. He was so thin I thought he was 10 years old.
“We were told he had been taken to the local clinic and was given medication for chronic diarrhoea. Then, he was sent home. I made sure there were food parcels for his mother to feed him.”
A few days later, he was admitted to Koster Hospital. “We were told by the nursing sisters that his mother had not given him his antiretrovirals and antibiotics. I knew he couldn’t return home if he survived.”
Bailey launched an appeal, asking friends and various NGOs if they could help find a home for him. Ishmael’s mother, Christinah Ntlhoro, agreed.
But she knew social workers had to be involved to assess his conditions at home and possibly move him. Despite her frantic pleas, none ever came.
“He was brought home after several weeks in hospital in January. We brought him a cake and he looked so much better than when he had gone in. But then he was back in hospital again soon after. He was not getting the medication and slowly starving to death.”
Days before his death, the North West Social Development department had held a three-day children’s summit, declaring that children should be held in “the highest esteem” and be allowed to grow in a secure environment.
Bailey believes, had provincial authorities intervened earlier, Ishmael’s life could have perhaps been saved.
“We tried to get in touch with social workers through the hospital. I had such a battle. My first contact with the social worker was just before he died. The social worker, after agreeing to meet me, told me she couldn’t get to the hospital because she was having transport problems.
“Ishmael was admitted so many times. My question is at what stage is there a red alert, where people think something is wrong here. You can’t keep sending a child like that home. The system is so sick. “
Yesterday, following enquiries by the Saturday Star, the North West Social Development department held a meeting to discuss how better to help the “forgotten” community of Syferbult.
It’s a “microcosm” of other poor, forgotten communities across South Africa, says Bailey. Jim Morupisi, who lives in Syferbult, remembers how his family, too, tried to help Ishmael. “He stayed with us for a little bit because we could see that boy didn’t look right..
“He didn’t get the right medicine at the clinic and he started to look so bad, so thin. Even our small children’s clothes were not fitting him.”
A few kilometres from Syferbult, Ishmael’s Christina Ntlhoro sits under the shade of a fig tree on the lonely, isolated farm where her grandfather laboured as a farmworker.
Flies swirl around her face as she weeps. “I miss my son a lot,” says the 42-year-old.
She tells how last year, she buried her husband and Ishmael’s older sister. “I tried my best to get Ishmael help but I didn’t know what to do.”
Travelling to the nearest clinic costs R30 and it’s as much as R50 to get to Koster Hospital. “It’s money we don’t have. No one in my family works, except for my brother. He earns R95 a day working on the farm.
Her room is dark, lit by a single candle. There is no electricity here and Ntlhoro pays R5 for a 20 litre container of water.
She pulls two worn photos of a younger Ishmael from a dusty bag containing his crumpled birth certificate.
“There was nothing wrong with him then,” she says, almost longingly. “He got an emergency disease and he died... I thought he would come alright at the hospital but he never did.”
In Syferbult, stigma over HIV/ Aids persists, believes Bailey.
“People aren’t getting the support they should and aren’t talking about this illness enough and how it can be managed. It’s like Aids has been forgotten.
“Why isn’t there a motorbike taking ARVs to the people? Why is it if they don’t have money to get to a clinic, or hospital, they can’t get help?”
Bailey stops her car on the battered, dirt road leading out of Ishmael’s home, admiring the colourful cosmos flowers that grow abundantly on the roadsides.
She decorated Ishmael’s coffin with these flowers at his funeral two weeks ago.
“Aren’t they beautiful,” she says, smiling sadly.
‘When we saw Ishmael he looked critically ill, just awful’
The family of Christinah Ntlhoro live just outside the impoverished community of Syferbult in North West.
Christinah Ntlhoro, whose son, Ishmael died from HIV related disease and neglect.
The skeletal child a few days before his death.