Our Future Imagined: Sister Abegail Ntleko
2017 has begun with a country openly divided by political opinions and beliefs. At the same time, new discussions have emerged amongst people of different backgrounds and individuals who are attempting to self-examine their perspectives and biases. We at NAB would like to contribute to the conversation by reflecting with some of our influential authors who work as activists, economists, sociologists, religious practitioners, and healers. What can we expect from the rest of 2017? How can we create positive change in the coming year? What do we want our future to look like, and what can we do to help create it?
We begin our blog series in dialogue with Empty Hands author Sister Abegail Ntleko. Sister Abbe grew up in a rural village in South Africa where she put herself through school despite poverty and the expectation that marriage, not education, was the path for women. Through sheer determination, she became a nurse and used her skills to set up clinics in rural areas, often traveling to several remote locations a day and working until two or three in the morning. She attended to people with AIDS when the condition was still highly stigmatized and adopted dozens of children orphaned by the outbreak. Awarded the Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award by the Dalai Lama in 2009, Sister Abbe continues to raise children with the love and compassion she has practiced throughout her life.
NAB: In your memoir, you recount a number of obstacles you faced as a child (hunger, the absence of a mother, barriers to education) and as an adult (lack of resources and healthcare workers in rural areas). What kept you motivated to keep trying? What advice do you have for others in tough situations and those who are more economically privileged?
SA: As a child, I learned that life is not the same every day. If you are hungry today, you might have plenty tomorrow. Hope kept me motivated. Hope, trust, and faith can make life easier. Those in tough situations must know that situations change every day, and there is a learning curve for every challenge you face.
For the more economically privileged, they must learn to share with the less privileged as this will give them peace of mind and a feeling of being needed and useful.
NAB: The book describes villages that lacked electricity, running water, buses, and hospitals. Often churches and dedicated individuals such as yourself filled in the gaps by offering these services. Who do you think is most responsible for providing these basic needs: the government, churches, individuals?
SA: To serve communities’ basic needs, we need a multidisciplinary team where everybody is on board so we leave no stone unturned.
NAB: You portray a number of scenes where people from different areas worked together to provide healthcare: traditional healers, churches, farmers, laborers, the health department, and social workers. How did these different groups work together? What were some challenges and successes?
SA: I felt we needed each other in order to deal with challenges. As a team, we were able to tackle tuberculosis, leprosy, tetanus, measles, polio, and herbal poisoning. The challenge was training teams to blend Western and traditional medicine. This meant collaboration between politicians, government departments, authorities, and local healers at the grassroots level. By learning from each other and working towards a common goal, we were able to apply for five residential clinics, contain diseases, and increase hospital delivery through proper antenatal care. We were able to blend our differences.
NAB: What advice do you have for others who see an area that is being underserved in their community?
SA: I advocate the team approach. A multidisciplinary path is always successful. Respect each other regardless of color, level of education, or religion.
NAB: You came up against some racist attitudes within communities you were serving. How did you deal with these confrontations?
SA: I have dealt with racist attitudes by becoming cool, collected, and understanding. I did not retaliate, but showed love.
NAB: How did becoming Christian affect your relationship with people from other religions? What do you think is the most productive or positive way to interact with people from different religions?
SA: Our beliefs are unique and respect for other people’s beliefs is so very important. Being a Christian is my choice. I have still learned a lot from other religions.
NAB: You discuss the misinformation spread about AIDS, such as it being only a threat to gay people. How did you find out the facts and how did you share the true information?
SA: I educated myself by reading about it, attending trainings, and visiting hospitals around us. I always directed clients to referral forms so that I could get feedback about their experiences from them.
Sister Abegail’s descriptions in this interview and in her memoir address racism, sexism, and severe public health crises through simple steps—demonstrating that one individual really can create change through determination and collaboration. Her wise words and experiences inspire us to do more and allow us to recognize just how much human kindness can accomplish.
Empty Hands is the inspiring memoir of Zulu nurse and healthcare activist Sister Abegail Ntleko. Growing up poor in a rural village with a father who didn’t believe in educating girls, against seemingly insurmountable odds Sister Abegail earned her nursing degree and began work as a community nurse and educator, dedicating her life to those in need. “Her story tells us,” says Desmond Tutu, who wrote the foreword to the book, “what a single person can accomplish when heart and mind work together in the service of others.”