The hills around the villages of Mafefe in the northern Transvaal look like lions, sleeping under the hot African sun. Their backs are long and brown, with long ‘manes’ of small trees and bushes running down the sides.
But the hills are like animals in another way too — if you look closely at some of the rocks, you will see hair on them! The people of the village have a name for this ‘hair’. They call it Lentsweboya.
Lentsweboya is shiny and tightly packed — and it is buried deep in the hills of Mafefe. Lentsweboya has been used by people for at least 100 years. We know it as asbestos.
It is used to make many things — like heaters, car brakes and ceilings. Asbestos changed the lives of the people in Mafefe.
For many years companies mined asbestos in the area. At first, the people of Mafefe thought it was a good thing. The mines gave many of them work. At that time, the people did not know that they were paying a terrible price for their jobs.
GASPING FOR BREATH
Asbestos dust causes diseases of the lungs — like scarring and cancer. This dust does not harm you immediately. It can take as long as 20 years, sometimes even 30.
There is no cure for diseases that are caused from asbestos dust.
In Mafefe, the problem was worse for the people who worked in the asbestos mines. They breathed in the deadly dust every day.
The companies have now gone — but asbestos dust is still in the air and the water of Mafefe. The people breathe it in every day of their lives.
Asbestos has killed hundreds of people in the area. Nobody really knows how many — but the graveyard is full of people who had to gasp for their every breath before dying a slow, painful death.
THE DUST OF HISTORY
Bauba Thobejane is one of the community leaders. He is an old man now, and he remembers the days when the mining companies were there. Bauba lifts his hand to his grey beard, and tells the story.
“The asbestos waste that the companies could not sell was dumped in the valleys. This is where the people live. These asbestos dumps were left open and uncovered. The companies also dropped the asbestos dust on the roads to make the surface smooth. The people used it to plaster and to make bricks for their houses.”
Bauba does not smile as he remembers how the companies came, made money and then left — without worrying too much about what they had done to the health and well-being of a poor, rural community. For a long time, the government did nothing about it.
The people of Mafefe were left only with the knowledge that they themselves had to do something about improving their lives and health. And that’s exactly what they did!
EDUCATING THE PEOPLE
It all began when a young, fresh-faced medical student by the name of Marianne Felix visited Mafefe five years ago. At that time she was interested in the diseases caused by asbestos.
It turned out to be a long visit — the community took her by the hand and didn’t let her go. Together they started a project to educate the people about the dangers of asbestos — and to learn about the damage that has been done.
Right from the start the project was run in a democratic way. It is controlled by the community and has the support of all the people in the village. Perhaps that is why all the hard work is already beginning to bear fruit.
The first goal — educating the community — has almost been reached. There are not many people in Mafefe who do not know about the dangers of asbestos and the harm it can do.
THE SECOND GOAL
“All the people who work on the project come from the community,” says Dr Felix. “We think they are the best people to do the job because they can explain to the other people in the community what we are doing. They can explain in a way the people will understand.”
The people of Mafefe have now pushed ahead with the second goal. This means action. Matime Mabiletja, who has worked on the project from the start has been measuring how much asbestos is in the air.
In July last year, a team of 25 ‘people’s educators’ from Mafefe went to Johannesburg. They made the long trip south to learn how to test people for lung diseases — and how to help their community understand what the tests mean.
The team has done a survey to find out how many people have got an asbestos disease. The survey will help the project workers to plan how to help those people who will suffer in the future.
HEALTH WORKERS AT WORK
In Mafefe, Learn and Teach saw the health workers at work. Some of them were interviewing people, while others were taking X-rays and testing blood in a big caravan.
Nearby, in a cool, dark room, there was the sound of people having their lungs tested — ka ntle..ka gare..ka ntle..ka gare (breathe in..breathe out..breathe in..breathe out).
Thomas Nkoabela and Erasmus Rathaga worked together helping people to breathe into one of the machines. This machine is called a Vitalograph. It tests if people’s lungs are working properly.
“This project is important to our community,” says Thomas. “Since we were born we never thought there would be a thing like this in our village. It will be good if it continues — if it grows into something that can help our community and others too.”
Samuel Maatshehla is another health worker. His job is to explain the project to the Mafefe residents, and to bring them for tests. “I feel very confident and happy, because to be trained for the project means a lot to me. I learned that everyone must do something for their own people.”
Samuel’s friend, Johannes Thobejane, is also proud of the work that they are doing in Mafefe: “My aim is to stay with the project till it ends — till I go out on pension. We can carry on by helping everyone who is suffering. We as a team can search out other diseases. There are still more people suffering in Mafefe.”
Johannes and the other health workers would like to see a hospital built in Mafefe one day. “Many of Mafefe’s people die on the way to hospital, because it is so far away.”
THE END OF THE BEGINNING
Dr Felix is happy with the progress of the project — and she is deeply thankful for the way the community has taken her in and made her part of the ‘family’. But she knows her ‘visit’ to Mafefe is still not over. There is still much to do.
“When we have the results from the survey, we have to go out and inform the people about the size of the problem. Then we have to start cleaning up Mafefe and rid it of asbestos once and for all.”
Bauba nods his wise old head in agreement. “Yes, it would be a good thing if the health workers and the people of Mafefe know in their heads and hearts that we are only at the end of the beginning.”
The people of Mafefe still have a long way to go before they win their battle for a healthier life and a brighter future. But they are on their way — and the time will come when the children of the village will be able to breathe without worrying about the poison in the air.
We at Learn and Teach salute you all. You have shown what can be done when a community comes together and works together. You found yourself in a bad situation — and you did not despair. You came out fighting, with courage and hope. You are an example to us all!
The villagers of Mafefe have taken the porcupine as their symbol. Like this animal, the people are soft on the inside, but beware if you threaten them!
NEW WORDS a project — when a person or a group of people work on something a survey — when you do a survey, you ask many people for information about something