There is no line between laughter and tears in Mnyamezeli Mbongwa’s house. A 68-year-old grandmother, you wouldn’t know it to look at her as she moves with a joyful energy.
And the camera loves her. She has the strong features you might find in carved ebony. Her household is large and encompasses more than its fair share of tragedy, yet it is also one of the most laughter-filled homes you could hope to encounter.
In a large round room with a mud floor she bustles around tidying up and tending to Asiphe, her 13-year-old disabled grandson who lies on a mat on the floor. There is no sofa in this home, just a hard wooden bench.
Orphans of HIV
Mnyamezeli pauses for a moment, gathers her skirts and sits down to answer a question.
“I was young when I got married, I was 16,” she says. “I have three children, but one of my daughters died from TB. Later I realised she’d had HIV. She left three children who my husband and I now look after – my granddaughter Thozama who is 20 and has a disability, and my two grandsons, 16-year-old Siphosihle who is healthy, and Asiphe who is severely disabled and was born with HIV.”
Mnyamezeli gestures to a young woman sitting in the room breastfeeding her child and says: “We also have another grandchild, by my daughter who lives with us.”
Thembakhazi, South African Red Cross programme officer, is visiting the household today along with a couple of volunteers. They chat away with Mnyamezeli, coo over the baby and ask after Thozama who is doing the washing up.
Taking HIV medication
It’s time for Asiphe to take his anti-retroviral pills and his grandfather Nomzamo, picks him up and puts him in a small chair that the neighbour has brought in.
Asiphe struggles to swallow the pills, which are big and he chokes. His grandmother rushes to help him as he spits them back out. Thembakhasi shows Mnyamezeli how to break open the pill and mix the powder with some water so it’s easier for him to swallow.
Mnyamezeli continues to chat and laugh with everyone, though the tears are also falling down her cheeks.
A little while later, Asiphe begins to vomit. The volunteers rush to help care for him and clean him up. He is very agitated and Thembakhasi helps calm him down.
She then explains that they need to make sure he takes the medication and they have to try again. The volunteers help Asiphe have a drink and his grandmother jokes: “Yes, you have to keep them busy Asiphe.”
After he’s successfully taken his medication, Asiphe’s grandfather carries him back to the mat on the floor. Everyone helps out. The neighbour comes back in and mops the floor. And although Thozama, Asiphe’s older sister, can’t walk well it doesn’t stop her rushing to bring him a pillow and another blanket.
Mnyamezeli offers the Red Cross workers a drink. They say thank you but they’re not thirsty and Mnyamezeli cracks another joke about them not wanting to drink after seeing Asiphe vomit.
It’s time for the Red Cross volunteers to move on and visit another family, but the photographer can’t resist taking one more photo of Mnyamezeli, which results in another peal of laughter as her husband says: “I think he likes my wife a bit too much, perhaps she wants to go with him!”
The visit lasted less than two hours, but it was a privilege to observe this masterclass on living with absolute love and humanity.
Read more stories about HIV affecting people in South Africa