She was not highly educated. She did not live a life of affluence. She was just a normal woman, who went about fulfilling her life’s duties, as a wife, a mother, a sister and an aunt, among others. As soon as she discovered she had diabetes, she resolved to take action to make it look like nothing.
My mother was first diagnosed with hypertension and later diabetes. As she started medication for both, she changed her diet or rather the way she prepared her meals and stopped using cooking oil, for example. She made us believe that adding too much salt when cooking was so wrong that she instilled discipline that meant one would be expected to apologies well before supper time saying; “Mama ngiyaxolisa, isishebo sizwakala usawoti kakhulu” meaning “Mom I am sorry, the curry/stew tastes too salty because I added this and that.”
Naturally she loved gardening and she had a beautiful flower garden in the front yard of our four-roomed house in Umlazi, and maintained a little vegetable garden at the back yard, with small squares of vegetables like spinach, carrots, and beetroot to make things easy. She took control of, and lived her normal life. She was extremely religious about what she ate. In fact, she made the whole family to be part of how she lived. We all knew the dates for her next visit to the clinic for check-up and collection of medication, which were two consecutive months to the local clinic and the third month to King Edward VIII, Hospital for doctor’s consultation. She would come back and share with us what her urine and sometimes blood glucose readings were. Though it meant nothing to us because we did not understand but, we knew that if her levels were eight to nine for instance, it meant that she goes back to boiled, salt free food till “ushukela wakhe” her glucose levels went back to normal. We did not know what normal should be; that kind of information was not shared, perhaps it did not matter much to her, at least we knew the danger zone. Though she was on treatment for a long time, she did not have any self monitoring equipment like “Accu-check” so she had to wait for the following month’s check-up to know whether dietary modification had any effect in lowering glucose.
We knew nothing about hypoglycemia. I remember one Christmas afternoon; my father was away in Zululand. We returned from church, had lunch and mom was a bit tired so she went to her bedroom for a nap. I checked on her a number of times and found her sleeping, after a few hours I began to worry and we spoke about it with my sister. We reported the uncommon behavior to our elder brother and he went to ask to take her to hospital. One could not miss the worry on his face when he came back to tell us that Ma said no she will be fine, just feeling tired. Late evening she was still lying there and we were now panicking. Eventually, I managed to persuade her and we took her to King Edward Hospital. At that time she could hardly open her eyes or utter a word. We stayed at the hospital till dawn of the new day. No one cared to tell us what was going on. When she regained her strength and back to normal, mother explained to us that she was told her glucose was too low and she almost went into comma. I guess that is how much she was told; otherwise she was going to explain further. This brought too much confusion – why is she sick when her glucose is down because throughout her life she is doing all it takes for glucose not to reach eight or nine. In my mother’s case the family was there to offer support but not equipped with knowledge except the little information my mother had about her condition. This is the gap that raises concern, and should be addressed through intensive awareness campaigns.
We were to know later in our lives that our mother was just one of millions in our country, and the world, who lived with diabetes. She was blind at some stage and had both her eyes operated in 1984, even then she pressed on, and lived 13 more years taking only oral medication, she never was on insulin. One thing that kept her going was her commitment to her family especially her children. That gave her the zeal to strive. She casually uttered positive affirmations like “Ngeke ngife ngishiye abantabami ngenxa kashukela” in Zulu, meaning “I will not die and live my children because of diabetes.” What this has taught me is; that it doesn’t matter what challenge one is going through, no matter what the diagnosis is for any disease, what matters is how you react to it. Your reaction can make you or brake you. The other thing she stressed a lot was that “If you can’t make yourself happy, don’t expect other people to make you happy.” This has more meaning to me now than when I was growing up. It simply means happiness is a choice you make every day and has nothing to do with your circumstances. In spite of her simple lifestyle my mother’s life was rich not only for who she was or what she stood for, but for the lasting impact of her strength on the lives of all around her, including myself.
My late mother was also one of the millions of women in our country who traveled a journey of harsh and repressive laws which limited movements and curtailed opportunity. One of those opportunities many women, and all who live with diabetes, were robbed of, was access to information on diabetes specifically.
It is devastating to learn that approximately 366 million people live with diabetes worldwide according to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF). It is also estimated that 50% of people living with diabetes do not know that they have the condition. The case in South Africa especially in black communities in townships, rural and parry-urban areas is worse, where majority of the people do not even know common signs and symptoms of diabetes. I share my mother’s testimony at any given opportunity with the hope that people will take encouragement from her story.
The disease is spreading at a very high speed and the cost of treating complications could better be utilized in poverty eradication, infrastructure and skills development. Clearly, no single government, sector or civil society can single-handedly hope to prevent, manage and control diabetes. On my part, I have resolved to dedicate most of my time to educating our nation about diabetes. In this regard, in August 2010 I formed the Bongi Ngema-Zuma Foundation, which is a vehicle I am using to raise the bar and forge ahead with programmes that create awareness. However, it is important to locate all efforts within a broader development context, which emphasises education and rural development when one looks at South Africa. As such, my Foundation seeks to partner with government, non-governmental organisations, the private sector as well as regional and global organisations to have the effect we envisage in society.
My vision and we, as the Bongi Ngema-Zuma foundation have adopted the same which is: “To see a South Africa where diabetes ceases to be a killer due to lack of awareness.”
The bible simplifies it in Habakkuk 2:2 – 3, it says “….Write down the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie; though it tarries, wait for it, because it will surely come,” (King James Version).
We believe that prevention is better than cure and encourage people to screen regularly, eat healthy – more vegetables (spinach, cabbage, beetroot etc) and exercise, exercise – dance to your favourite Kwaito CD till you sweat, walk up the stairs instead of using a lift. The key is consistency.
I encourage you to join us in fighting the good fight of curbing diabetes and associated diseases. Together we can save unnecessary amputations and ultimately more lives.