Saving Children Orphaned by AIDS in South Africa

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There may be many secrets to happiness. Here is mine: Every night I empty my hands. And every day, I try to fill them with love and then spend all the love until my hands are empty again.

—Sister Abegail Ntleko


Title: Empty Hands, A Memoir: One Woman’s Journey to Save Children Orphaned by AIDS in South Africa

Author:  Sister Abegail Ntleko

Publisher: North Atlantic Books

Publication date: September 1, 2015

Price: $12.95; paperback, 176 pages

With the development of the multidrug highly active antiretroviral therapy regimen and concerted prevention initiatives, the devastation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been largely curtailed, especially in Western industrialized nations. Given the success on the awareness and therapeutic fronts it is difficult to comprehend the grim mortality facts coming out of South Africa, sub-Sahara’s most industrialized country: The leading cause of yearly deaths among men and women is HIV/AIDS.

This human tragedy is compounded by the clinical reality that the country’s leading cause of death is preventable. As in many human catastrophes, children are the innocent victims. A compelling new memoir called Empty Hands, A Memoir, by Sister Abegail Ntleko, tells her journey to save children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa.

In the book’s forward by Desmond Tutu, the South African Anglican bishop and social rights activist who rose to worldwide prominence as an early opponent of apartheid, he writes: “We sometimes accomplish great things regardless of where and how we grew up, regardless of what we were told was possible…. The life and work of Sister Abegail Ntleko show that.” After reading this slim, powerful memoir, Desmond Tutu’s praise of Sister Abegail Ntleko is an understatement.

The Simplest of Language

“I always loved the smell of fresh cow dung. Some families preferred mud, but we always used dung. To keep our floor tidy, we would rub in a new layer each week,” so begins Empty Hands, A Memoir. This opening brings the reader into a wildly foreign land, and it also speaks volumes about the narrator’s character. You want to read more, and you should.

The telling of this remarkable story is done in the simplest of language: so simple that the reader might find it off-putting, but that judgment will quickly fade, as the author tells of growing up in a poor, rural village with an alcoholic father who did not believe in educating girls. In the face of brutal oppression, Ms. Ntleko earned a nursing degree and became a community nurse and educator, dedicating herself to those at the lowest station in life.

Overcoming Poverty, Racism, Sexism

In chapter three, “Hands to Hold,” the author writes: “I was 32 and just shy of 3 years into nursing school when something unexpected happened: I fell in love with a child…. The little girl was only a few months old, a beautiful mix of an Indian mother and a black South African father. The poor little one was an outcast before she could even walk.”

The girl’s father had become mentally ill and began horribly abusing the mother. The mother, being Indian, retreated to the “colored section” of town but she couldn’t bring her daughter because she was black. The poor child is tossed about and finally discarded, until the author adopted her—hardly a common occurrence at the time for an unmarried woman to have a child. Reading this story is a sobering experience, as it should be. After overcoming poverty, racism, and violent sexism, the author becomes a mother, a nurse, an Anglican Sister, and a savior for children orphaned by AIDS.

Reading about the early days of the African AIDS epidemic is riveting. The author writes: “Over the course of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the flames of distrust and blame were further fanned by racial tensions underlying the Apartheid policies. Rumors and conspiracy theories were rampant; blacks thought whites were deliberately infecting them.”

The Indomitable Human Spirit

And in the epicenter of this surreal environment, Sister Ntleko not only keeps her humanity intact, she turns hate and craziness into a positive way forward, developing a program to help the frailest of all: disposed children. “Many of the children who came to us had suffered greatly. They had been through the death of their parents, abject poverty, and all kinds of abuse, including sexual,” writes the author in this sliver of a book that celebrates the indomitable human spirit.

In 2009, Sister Abegail Ntleko received the Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award from the Dalai Lama, which Sister Abegail Ntleko graciously accepted. However, her words at the close of this fine book tell more about her than any award could: “There may be many secrets to happiness, I don’t know. Here is mine: Every night I empty my hands. And every day, I try to fill them with love and then spend all the love until my hands are empty again.”

This 121-page saga drills down into the heart of disease, the people the disease affects, and those who fight against the disease and its victims. Empty Hands, A Memoir is recommended for readers of The ASCO Post. ■