This week made me understand why my project is so important. I have been looking at this project with a bit of selfish way up to this point thinking about how lucky I am to be traveling and photographing and not really truly understanding how life changing this work will be for a lot of people, not just for me. This week I photographed mostly undiagnosed people, living in townships and taking the time to actually hear their story before picking up my camera. For those who do not know what Townships are, they are areas of densely populated places where at one point, “colored” or biracial people along with black people were forced to live. Now, all over South Africa and other Southern African countries, people live there because they want to. I spent time in two facilities, the private homes of two families and with a traditional healer, or more commonly a “witch doctor” who explained to me an alternative way of treating Dementia. This week, I learned more about this disease and how it is cared for in rural areas. Interesting enough, due to the lifestyle choices, bad diet combined with alcohol abuse, with those in townships there is a rather alarming amount of people with this disease. The reason why I am doing this project is simply to educate the world on how people live with dementia globally, and this really helped me to understand dementia in a rural place
bloemfontein, the free state province, south africa
I was able to photograph in the Striata Retirement Village that had brick rows of houses with gardens and neat pathways that appeared to be a running track, but was more of a maze for scooters and walkers. There is a main home acting as a community center for those in the houses, and also a frail care center. most people there have quite broken english so i was helped by a interpreter, petra from alzheimer’s South Africa. There, I photographed some very special patients that had different levels of the disease. One woman nicknamed “spoke” in Afrikaans meaning “little ghost, as young as sixty-five that didn’t know what shoe to put on her foot but knew I had a Nikon. One man, was a professor of theology and while I was there, sitting in a wheelchair and barely moved and never spoke or took his gaze off the floor. On the other hand, I met some patients earlier in the stages of the disease and it was interesting talking with them and their families. It always intrigues me how normal they make their lives, keeping them in a routine and the little things like having their hair done.
I spent time photographing in Heidedal, which is a Township in Bloemfontein so it is essentially in the city. In this particular area in Bloemfontein, there is a high awareness of the disease and there is actually a wonderful facility called the Heidedel Service Center. They house mostly elderly, but also children. It’s a large community building surrounded my brick buildings with rooms that people reside in. I unfortunately only was able to spend a brief time photographing there so I did not get to speak with the patients very much.
Also, while we were in Heidedel, we photographed in the home of a woman who cares for her sister. The woman told us how her sister has had Alzheimer’s for some time and she has cared for her on her own. It has been so difficult for her, because she is incontinent and cannot care for herself. She says the rest of her family won’t admit her disease, and avoids her because of the stigma of Dementia. Alzheimer’s South Africa is trying to get the family together to discuss the disease so that they understand it is something not to be afraid of.
About a forty minute drive outside of Bloemfontein through rolling hills and farmlands is an area called Botshabelo. It is technically a township, but it’s different. Townships typically are packed with houses and people, where Botshabelo was more spread out, with roaming livestock and lots of vegetation. A couple years ago the 1066 Project, which is a group sponsored by the International Alzheimer’s Association to study Dementia in rural areas in the world, came and did a study of this area looking at Dementia populations in this particular area. For that, there has been a huge awareness of this disease developing government run elderly care and also some awareness. People in this Township speak Sotho and I was very fortunate to have a translator, Thakane from Alzheimer’s South Africa.
When I first arrived in Botshabelo I met Sello and Emily Mosekona, who lived in a quaint little house made of cement and a tin roof. With the help of the local Mental Health Support Groups and my trusty partner Thakane, I was able to find them and Sello was happy to invite me into their home. Thakane speaks fluent Sotho so she helped me to translate my project to him and he was very happy to have me photograph his mother. Emily had not been diagnosed, but has all of the signs of Dementia. When we came into the house, it had a burning smell because Sello made Pap, kind of like porridge/ polenta, and Emily wanted to reheat it. She put it on the burner and forgot about it almost catching it on fire. She was quite embarrassed to share the story and was busy wanting to clean the pot during our visit.
Since I have been in South Africa I have been intrigued by “witch doctors”. In my mind, I always imagined some crazed older person covered in paint and would throw bones on the floor and believed that they could cure any ailment from cancer to being jobless. When I came to the Free State, Thekane taught me quite a bit about traditional healers and that there are many different types. Now, there are some traditional healers that do believe those things, and also believe that people with mental illness are always cursed. They even believe that people with dementia are cursed so badly that they are witches and even have them burned alive or cast out of the village or township. It is absolutely heartbreaking, that with a little information these people could discover that Dementia is real and is a disease. I had the pleasure to meet John Seliane, who is a traditional healer, but refers to himself as a traditional prophet. He told me, “I’ve worked in a medical office, I know when to send someone to receive western medicine. My purpose is to heal by offering natural remedy and giving support, love and prayer.” He was quite an interesting man, and was not at all what I was expecting. He told me his treatment for Dementia is a taking “Poho Tshela” what looks like a wood chip and make it into a pulp. He then puts it into the nose, ear and makes it into a drink so the patient becomes drowsy and sleeps. When they wake he ask them questions to try to help their memory. I was not able to have the opportunity to photograph this process, yet. I will be returning to Botshabelo in a little over a week to photograph him as well as other traditional healers and together we are going to rural farms to spread awareness about the disease. An initiative of Alzheimer’s South Africa is to go to these rural places and work with these traditional healers and you can see the impact just by the little time I spent with this man.
This has been a really amazing week and I couldn’t ask for a better wrap up in Cape Town! I spent the week at two locations, NOAH (Neighbourhood Old Age Homes) located in Woodstock. it has a couple patients in the earlier stages of the disease. Also at Robin Trust, which is situated in the breathtaking Oude Molen Eco Village. NOAH was so interesting because its not only an old age center, but also a center that does a lot of work for the elderly in Cape Town. The home consisted of two traditional “Cape Dutch Architectural” houses that were connected, to create this harmonious center filled with natural light and to the delight of the patients, visiting Pigions. Not only was the facility beautiful, but you could tell the care that goes into giving a quality of life is huge. From the church services to being able to wander around the house and courtyard gardens, these people were living.
Robin Trust was different and similar is so many ways. Robin Trust is situated in this incredible Eco Village with breathtaking views of the backside of the iconic Table Mountain. It relies on sustainable living, and Robin Trust is no different. It was originally an insane asylum turned into a rehabilitation center for patients that needed extra care before going home after surgery. That part of Robin Trust makes it so it can run as a nonprofit and around twenty three Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients along with other disabilities, live there. The level of care has been just amazing, as I arrived for tea time the Carers were all dancing with the patients and singing and you could tell that as much as the patients were not mentally all there, some were really enjoying themselves which is a rare sight. Photographing at these two special facilities I believe reflects the fantastic level of care here. Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients do not need lavish living areas and white duvets with gourmet meals, they need love and constant care. The other thing that really made an impression on me was in a country so racially divided in ways, that wasn’t even apparent here. Black care takers to a white patient and vice versa, it just shows that love prevails in the end.
A very special thank you to Alzheimer’s South Africa and Jill Robson for making this possible!
NOAH Woodstock, Cape Town
Robin Trust “The Nest” Oude Molen Eco Village – Pinelands, Cape Town
This is the first official week of me working on this incredible project. I was in Durbanville, a suburb outside of Cape Town. I got to spend the week with two very special couples. Zelda’s husband cares for her on his own even though she has very advanced Alzheimers, she is unable to speak or walk so he created his own system for caring for her carting her around on a trolley that is the height of her chair and her bed. I then photographed Jeff, who is in the early stages of the disease. His wife takes care of them and is so kind and patient with him. He was very insistent on showing me his garden. I couldn’t have asked for a better week to get started!
Jeff and Elisabeth
Ted and Zelda
© Something Different-Leah Beach 2017