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Mpho celebrates her 21st on December 7

By unknown | Sep 10, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Andrew Molefe

Much like reproductions of "The Last Supper", the picture of Mpho and Mphonyana has for the past two decades become something of a pop icon, adorning millions of working-class township and rural homes.

Seeing how Sophie Mathibela, the mother of the Siamese twins, struggles to survive, you can't but wonder how things would have turned on had she got just R1 in royalties for every picture sold. But that's a moot question now. Isn't it?

As I write this piece, I'm sitting in the dining room of a family home in Itsoseng, a blighted township near Lichtenburg.

The iconic picture hangs on the wall. In the photo, Mpho looks sideways, a huge smile creasing her face, while Mphonyana looks at her in wonderment. They must have been about a year old when the picture was taken, just weeks after they were separated by a 40-member medical team headed by the famed professor of neurosurgery, Robert Lipschitz, and the equally-famed Professor Sam Mokgokong.

For 16 months, the twins shared the sagital sinus, a major vein that drains blood from the brain, as well as a section of skull and a large amount of brain tissue.

It was touch and go. Professor Lipschitz had previously given the twins a less than 50-50 chance of surviving the operation.

The world followed the proceedings with bated breath as the team entered the theatre. Seven-and-half hours later, they emerged triumphant, to the applause of a waiting nation.

There was dancing in the streets. Baragwanath Hospital could now stand shoulder to shoulder with other major hospitals. The self-esteem of everyone involved went through the roof.

Mpho will celebrate her 21st birthday on December 7. She will cross the threshold of womanhood alone, without her Mphonyana, literally her other-half who didn't survive past her third birthday.

I was tempted to ask her about her feelings on the loss of her sister as I sat chatting to her at the family's Joubertina home in Klerksdorp. But I thought better of it. It was her mother who later shed some light on this.

"It's not everyday that Mpho thinks or talks about Mphonyana. She does that only when she comes across their picture together in magazines or photos hanging in homes."

That may explain why, of all homes, the Mathibelas' modest home does not have the prized picture on its walls.

Mpho, whose name means "a gift," is carrying into adulthood that huge smile she had in the first picture after their separation. She's looking forward to her birthday with the exuberance of someone who has been given a second chance in life.

"I want many, many clothes for my birthday present," she told me in Setswana, her home language.

"Sowetan must throw her the biggest party ever," said her mother expectantly.

"Sowetan was the guardian of Mpho and Mphonyana from the beginning."

I couldn't help wondering about previous clashes Mathibela had with the late Sowetan editor, Aggrey Klaaste, initiator of the Mpho and Mphonyana Trust.

Back then, Mathibela was seen as overly dependant on the trust and was demanding, which Klaaste saw as petulance.

"Yes, I had many disagreement with Ntate Klaaste because I wanted what was right for my children," she added.

That's water under the bridge now and Mathibela expects this newspaper to carry on Klaaste's legacy.

An unemployed mother of three, Mathibela makes her living selling food outside the gates of a local school. When we visited her on Friday, she was preparing herself for a trip to Soweto the following day, to attend the unveiling of Klaaste's tombstone.

In between the preparations, she had had to take her only granddaughter, five-year-old Kegomoditswe to a local doctor.

Meanwhile, Mpho was at home. She said at her school, Fridays were non-school days. She attends the Daphney Hill School for the handicapped in town where she spends most of her time learning "colouring".

Other children at the school learn trades as diverse as basket weaving, sewing and pottery, but these are just too complicated for Mpho who suffered brain damage during the separation.

The medium of instruction at the school appears to be Afrikaans, judging by the way she manages small talk using the language. And it's no wonder that her favourite television programme is the Afrikaans soapie, 7de Laan.

But she can't recall which of the actors are her favourite. That's too complicated for her to grasp. As we shook hands, she pleaded with us to attend her birthday party in December.

With that huge smile, who can refuse Mpho's invitation?

Mpho has joined other twins like herself in the history of successfully separated conjoined twins born in the 1980s.

They include Fonda Michelle and Elaine Beaver of North Carolina, US, who where separated in 1981, Claire and Emily Taylor of Madison, Winsconsin, Hassan and Hussein Saleh of Sudan who were separated in London in 1986.


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