Introduction

The Oral History Project

Recovering Voices From
the Distant Past

Oral History Excerpts

Oral History Collections

Stigma, Identity and Human Rights
Conference on Robben Island

Oral History Guidelines

Terminology

Books Written by People Who
Have Had Leprosy

Contact Information

Oral History Excerpts

Rebecca Msimanga
South Africa

Rebecca Msimanga singing a hymn.  Photo take from video interview

I was born in 1927, the 23rd of November in  Potchefstroom.  You know, at that time, there were no incubators.  I was premature, 7 ½ months premature, and my mother told me that I was wrapped in cotton wool and put in a shoe box.  And I was just continuing crying, I was a crying baby.  They had to supplement me with donkey milk.  And when they took me to the doctor, he said I would never live.  But, God is so great.  I just progressed in growing, you know. 

I started schooling when I was ten years old and I went well in schooling.  I ended up in, at that time we’re calling it Form 2.  I couldn’t finish because unfortunately my father left my mother and she had to look after me.  I later applied to Petersburg Hospital and there I trained in general nursing in which I was not successful.  That was from 1948-1953.  Then I left, we had to leave, those who failed we had to leave the hospital.  I went home and in 1954, I went to Holy Cross Nursing Home in Pretoria.  It’s a Roman Catholic convent training for midwifery.  That’s where I obtained my midwifery training, 1954 to 1955.  I was unsuccessful the first year.  I had to continue but I completed in 1956.

I started at a nursing home, doing deliveries there for a year and from there I went to Saulsville.  There I practiced for six years and my mother died.  I had to come back to Pretoria.  That’s how I worked in Saulsville Clinic for five years.  From there I went to Westfort Hospital in 1974.  They used to call it Institution, but as it advanced in medicine, they found out that they should call it a hospital.  So, even there, I was catching babies because women were getting pregnant there because of the long stay in there.  Those days when I started working there, the treatments were not so advanced so people used to stay there for a long time before being discharged.  Then ultimately they fall in love there and get babies.

There were more than 300 patients there at that time.  People had to go to Westfort Hospital when they had leprosy.  People from Lesotho, all these, we used to call them provinces, had to come too.  They used to refer them from all places, Cape Town, Orange Free State, Transvaal, Northern Transvaal.  And even outside.  They once admitted a lady from, I think, Kenya.  She came by air. 

And then, during my practice there, patients used to go home and come back, readmitted, and they used to tell us the way they had been treated at Westfort in the past.  That people would avoid them, that the nurses used to stand at the door and just give them the medicine, throwing it, and nobody would greet them with a hand.  At that time the nurses were Europeans only.  I don’t remember the time when they employed black nurses, but it’s then that those nurses used to greet people, sit next to them and let them feel that there’s nothing wrong with them.  Most of the patients at Westfort were black.  It seems that the whites were sent somewhere else.  There was a Chinese patient, they happened to transfer him somewhere in the Cape, so it remained a place for blacks and a few whites.

So from 1974 up to 1985, I was just working there and helping too in the general wards.  I delivered babies there.  At the present moment I cannot tell the number, but there were quite a number of babies delivered in there.  When the babies were born, they were kept separate but the mothers would keep breast feeding them.  The babies were in a separate house with cot beds and we used to look after them.  They would stay as long as the mother is there.  It was a bit complicated.  You couldn’t understand it all sometimes.  Some would say maybe the mother would infect the baby.  Then there was a Dr. Brown, he is dead now, and he used to say that during pregnancy the baby cannot have leprosy.  So when the baby is born, the mother just has to breast feed them and stay away from them. [Laugh]  But when they discharged the mother, the mother ultimately goes with the baby.

The labor room was not so well equipped.  So if there was any complication, we had to refer the patients to Kalafong Hospital.  We didn’t have a suction machine as now of late.  There was an instrument which you had suck on to extract all that mucous.  Then with one lady who delivered, I had to suck this mucous and some went in my mouth.  I took it very easy, I didn’t report it.  But now when this leprosy started in me, I just remembered how at that time there had been some irritation in my nose.   

Now, at the end of 1985, due to transport problems getting to work, it was strenuous.  I had to wake up very early and sometimes be late on duty, so when they opened a children’s home near Mabopane, I asked them for a transfer and I worked in a children’s home, still looking after abandoned babies and HIV babies.   I worked there for seven years and then I went on pension at the end of 1992.  Still then, I didn’t discover that I’ve got this disease.  In 1994, I started being in denial, because they used to give us lectures about leprosy.   My radial nerve used to be very painful but I said to myself, no I cannot I have leprosy.  I was attending monthly check-ups and now I started discovering that I’ve got those patches.  I went to a doctor, he said to me, “Oh no, don’t you worry, those patches don’t mean anything.”  

When I got home I told my daughter that I suspected that I’ve got leprosy.  She said to me, “No Mama, don’t think of that.  Perhaps it’s just a skin disease.  Then, my nose started irritating me.  I went to an ENT doctor in Garankuwa Hospital and he immediately referred me to a dermatologist.  That dermatologist doctor told me that I had leprosy.  He asked me have you got any in the family who suffered from leprosy?  I said no.  So he told me to immediately go to Westfort Hospital.  When I got there, they admitted me and they did a biopsy and it came back positive.  So I was admitted and was given treatment for three months.  I was admitted in the ward for three months.  Then they discharged me with the treatment and told me to come after every three months.  So I never defaulted.  I continued for three years.  They tested me again and found that I am negative.  They put me off of leprosy treatment.  Just continued with treatment for high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. 

But through the grace of God, you know, here am I.  I’m living just like anybody.  You know, I accepted everything.  It was a shock at first but, as time went on, I accepted that I am a leprosy patient and I will get well.

So today I’m well and just like anybody.  Well, those who avoid me, I don’t worry about them.  There’s one thing I know and that is that God loves me.

-- Interview by Anwei S. Law, Johannesburg, South Africa, January, 2005.  Copyright  2005 by    Rebecca Msimanga and Anwei S. Law.