We’ve come to Phuthaditjhaba in the high mountains near the border with Lesotho in what used to be called Qwa-Qwa. Nowadays, it’s part of the Free State. We’re here to run a free eye clinic for Reach4Sight, but it turns out to be an eye opener for us too.
The free clinics for underprivileged people are run with sponsorship money and we don’t get paid for our services. This time it’s the Anglican Catholic Church MDSA that’s come to the party, looking to grow its membership in the town.
Through the church, one of Phuthaditjhaba’s more privileged ladies, Elsie Thwani, has offered us the use of the double garage at her daughter’s house, opening their garden to the hundreds of patients who flock to the clinic.
‘The queue started this morning at around five o’clock,’ she tells us when we arrive three hours later.
What a gem she turns out to be. She makes us lunch on the first day, brings juice and apples on the second, and hands us two mammoth jars of homemade preserved peaches from her own garden as a parting gift.
We quickly fall under the spell of her warmth and generosity, and take further pleasure in her granddaughter Nthabiseng, a bright little button of nine who already speaks five languages. It’s testament to the melting pot of cultures that is Phuthaditjhaba, which means ‘the place where people come together’.
Christina Moloi, our helper and translator, is another gem we couldn’t do without – a quiet and reassuring presence who quickly learns to anticipate our needs.
The Anglican Catholic Church’s man on the spot here is Father David Mpheshia. On the first day, decked out in dog collar and six-inch crucifix, he takes one look at sloppy old us in jeans and woolly jackets and wants to know if we’re going to change into our doctor outfits!
On the second day, he dresses 'down' in a cream long-jacketed suit with silk-like pinstripes and a floral tie. Very flash.
Loud but willing, able to talk non-stop in English or Sotho, he doesn’t mind which, he spends much of his day trying to ‘organise’ us, but every now and again, he goes outside and hops onto a beer crate to do a spot of recruiting for his church.
If people show any sign of being swayed, he’s determined to be the man to convince them.
Phuthadithaba itself is huge and very interesting. In our two days here, there hasn’t been another pale face in sight, but the town is a study in contrasts of all other kinds.
Educated and illiterate, rich and poor, fancy new shopping mall with a Woolies and Pick n Pay, cheek by jowl with tiny faded buildings, rickety shacks and shipping containers that house businesses like hair salons, funeral parlours, even a Communication and Technology Centre and ‘Tuckshop & Phones Hallo’.
It’s vibey and noisy and busy and colourful. But Christina tells us there's a problem with alcohol abuse among youngsters, while theft and rape aren't uncommon – again the youngsters causing most of the mayhem.
There's limited employment in the shops and one or two factories, but I suspect unemployment and poverty may be at the root of many of the social problems, as elsewhere in the country.
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