At 41 years old, Fortunate Sithole is not ready to die.
It is said that life happens when we make other plans. Often in ways we could never conceive. Fortunate never imagined herself shrunk in bed in the Boland town of Franschhoek, unable to walk as she waits for ‘her day’. Fortunate is very ill; some say she has mere days left to live. ‘But, I have not written my novel yet,’ she counters. ‘What about the story I have to tell?’ Her eyes are big and shiny, her cheek bones pointed over a pearly grin.
In addition to severe HPV (human papillomavirus) sores across her lower body, Fortunate was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the Franschhoek Clinic in 2016. She started chemotherapy at Tygerberg Hospital, 60 kilometres away in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, traveling to the facility in province-funded HealthNET vans.
The Western Cape has ninety HealthNET vehicles for transporting non-emergency patients between home and medical centres.
‘Now the doctors say they cannot do anything else for me, no more chemotherapy,’ Fortunate explains. ‘But what do they know, the doctors? They have brains like me, they are not God. Only God knows, and he is with me.’ Her voice rises in challenge: ‘I will surprise them all!’
‘Oh, yes you will,’ smiles Tiana Leonard, a social worker at Franschhoek Hospice.
Fortunate pauses, then adds: ‘We could go to Groote Schuur, for a second opinion?’ But Tiana shakes her head.
Fortunate is propped against three pillows; by her side a curtain is tied back, letting in slivers of sun. Next to her is a tidy stack of tissues, sanitary pads, surgical gloves and an array of boxes with pills – provided by the clinic. She takes two oral MST morphine tablets a day. Near her right hand is a blue leather-bound notebook; a recent gift from the hospice organisation, for her to write her memories in.
Fortunate’s story starts in Zimbabwe, in a slum skirting the capital city of Harare. Here as an adolescent, she sold ice lollies to appease her mother. At thirteen years old she first ran away from home, sleeping on a bench in a city park. Two marriages later, and with a three-year information technology degree, she moved to Johannesburg to start a new life. But Hillbrow’s streets beckoned, and lured by quick cash – up to R2000 an hour – she turned to sex work, sending vast sums of money home to her sister Alice and two kids. For about 10 years she did sex work in Hillbrow, paying her children’s rent in The Avenues, a desirable Harare suburb. Four years ago, now with three children, Fortunate moved to Franschhoek for another clean start. She moved into a neat RDP house in Mooiwater, a township in the crook of the Hawequas Mountains, finding work as a waitress.
Here Fortunate is today, confined to bed with a wheelchair propped outside her bedroom; her voice deep and bright with resistance to her deemed fate.
She recounts her life, hands carving the air. Her fingers are bony like twigs, her nails immaculately groomed, short and painted with black lacquer.
‘I had a very good and bad childhood,’ she says. ‘So, a lot happened which lead to this, it’s all intertwined.’ Her hands sweep toward her lower body, which is covered under a yellow throw.
‘Harare, it is a beautiful place, but growing up I just thought I don’t want to be here. I don’t belong here, you know because of the poverty,’ she says.
Fortunate was born on June 1, 1978, the youngest of eight children, with only her father employed.
‘I did not have a good relationship with my mum,’ she says. ‘My mother started training us at a very tender age to sell stuff, like ice lollies. In Zimbabwe we used to call them “Freeze Its”. We were each given our own cooler box full of Freeze Its. And then you had to sell them, you had to sell them all. I didn’t like that, I hated it with a passion. My mother would bribe us: if you sell these and they’re finished, then you can get meat, maybe some chicken.’
Fortunate recalls her mother beating her with electrical cables. ‘She accused me of having sex, because I had a problem down there, you know, a fungal infection. But I was still a virgin, I didn’t know anything yet. I mean, I was just a child. So, when I was 13 I ran away from home, it was the first time I ran away; I slept in a park in town. I don’t know how many times I ran away from her, I don’t know.’
At 16, she ran away from home again. This time she moved in with a man. ‘I lost my virginity to him; I saw that he had warts, which I contracted from him. I didn’t know what was going on, I was just a girl. I moved in with him, as I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I married him and stayed with him until I had my son, my first born, when I was 18. I had two miscarriages before then. The miscarriages were due to me trying to commit suicide. See he was very abusive, he was also beating me. So I took poison. I would take two packets of malaria tablets. Also, there’s this poison that’s pretty common in Zimbabwe that you put on plants to kill lice. After my son was born, my husband left me, he was no longer working. He passed away a few years later.’
Aged 21, Fortunate met her second husband, the father of her second child; a good man who supported her studies in IT. ‘But four years later, he passed away too. That was when all hell broke loose.’
In 2004, at Harare’s New Start Centre, Fortunate tested positive for HIV. She started taking anti-retrovirals; and a year later boarded a bus to Johannesburg.
Here, job-hunting endeavours lead to Hillbrow. ‘The sex work, it was good money, I mean about R1500 to R2000 an hour,’ she says. ‘I could afford a good life for my kids back home; they were staying in town in an apartment in The Avenues with my sister. Rent there was like the equivalent of R6500 a month. So I could pay that apartment and manage to buy food, I could send them to school. Everything was sorted. I did that for years and years, traveling between Harare and Hillbrow, probably 10 years.’
Fortunate’s family never knew she did sex work. She gestures toward her nether regions again. ‘In that time, these things were escalating. I had operations; I tried to get them healed, but nothing was working. I did safe sex, I would put on two condoms. I hated it, it was so sore. I used to pray: “Lord, help me, I want out.” Then one day, I did get out. I started working as a maid, around Germiston and Boksburg, around the eastern parts of Joburg. But the money wasn’t good. You can imagine working for R150 a day, and you’re not even working five days a week. It was really bad for the kids, because I could not afford that lavish lifestyle anymore. But at this point I decided to put my own life first.’
A friend advised her to move to Franschhoek. ‘I had a friend who didn’t like what I was doing in Joburg. So I told her that I was working as a maid, and she said: “Come this side, to Franschhoek. There are restaurants here with lots of money; you are strong and can work hard, you could take good care of yourself here.” So that’s when we came here.’
At present, Fortunate’s three children, aged 23, 17 and eight, are at home in Franschhoek with her, while her sister Alice and brother Anton are visiting from Harare to help her.
‘Alice came earlier this year,’ she says. ‘Initially I was still okay though, I could walk and so on. But it actually got worse. When my sister came, that’s when I started deteriorating.’
The Franschhoek valley is known as a bastion of local and foreign capital, with lush farms curling up vineyard-cloaked foothills. The town’s quaint centre is home to some of the country’s top restaurants, with bougainvillaea spilling over white-washed walls. This postcard pretty facade belies a fraught underbelly: townships with absent fathers, grandmothers raising youngsters, unemployed youth and drug scourges, notably ‘tik’. Franschhoek Hospice has their hands full caring for the area’s sick and dying.
Nursing service manager, Sister Susan Swanepoel, says they provide free care to 160 palliative patients, of who sixteen are terminal, and about fifty are children – mostly living with TB or HIV, or malnourished. Their staff of two nursing sisters, a social worker, and nine community health workers, between them, try to visit each patient once a day.
Driving through Mooiwater, social worker Tiana Leonard’s white hospice van is widely recognised. Next to the road a man waves at her, and she screeches to a halt to speak with him.
In October last year the hospice organisation started caring for Fortunate, too. They found her through the Franschhoek Clinic.
‘The thing is, despite all that is happening,’ says Fortunate, ‘I am an aspiring writer and motivational speaker. This is something I’ve been thinking about actually; I have a story to tell, one which I know will help a lot of women out there. I want to tell women to take note, to take care of their bodies. I want to tell mothers to listen to their daughters, especially when they speak of their bodies. That was my hope. Ja, things have not gone according to plan.’
Outside Fortunate’s home in Lavender Road, election posters tied to lamp posts show politicians promising a better tomorrow.
But writing in her notebook, Fortunate is not pondering the future. She is reliving the past, capturing lessons and stand-out memories; fragments of her story, the story of Fortunate Sithole.