Haunt­ing shame of Ishmael’s deadly ne­glect

He was slowly starv­ing to death

Saturday Star - - SPICE - SHEREE BEGA

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.

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