Hlehle finally finds peace

One of the first things my journalism lecturer drummed into my head as a first-year student was: "You are a journalist; you tell people's stories but you NEVER become attached to the story or, worse, to the people in the story."

One of the first things my journalism lecturer drummed into my head as a first-year student was: "You are a journalist; you tell people's stories but you NEVER become attached to the story or, worse, to the people in the story."

That was three years ago, but I remember those words as if it were yesterday.

And now I have to confess that I have failed to follow my lecturer's advice - and it is a failure I gladly accept.

I have followed the story of Nobuhle Ndlebe, pictured, for almost two years. I've worked on it long enough for it to stop being "just a story". The woman in the story, Nobuhle Ndlebe, stopped being just Nobuhle Ndlebe, a childless woman, to me. Instead, she is "Hlehle": determination made alive.

"Hlehle" is my nickname for her and to this day her response when I call her is always sisi .

Hlehle is a 35-year-old woman from Makausi informal settlement in Primrose who gave birth to twins at a hospital in Ekurhuleni in October 2005. Her boys, Lindokuhle and Lindelani, were born prematurely and died shortly after their birth.

Lindokuhle was involved in a mix-up at the hospital, which led to his body being given to a woman from KwaZulu-Natal. This was the beginning of a long and painful road for Ndlebe, and for me.

Ndlebe's pain infiltrated me to the very core without me knowing it until I was completely sucked in. If the agony had asked for my permission, I would have turned it away at the door.

What worsened the ordeal for Ndlebe was that for almost six months the hospital denied that there had been a mix-up and on four occasions tried to pass off other children as Lindokuhle. But Ndlebe was not fooled.

She had carried Lindokuhle in her arms for six days before he died. She had studied his tiny face. Hlehle later told me that she saw herself every time she looked at his angelic face - the bond between a mother and a child, I reasoned.

After three months of being given the run-around by the hospital, Ndlebe decided to take matters into her own hands and contacted Sowetan.

She first visited our offices in March. A former colleague spoke to her and wrote the first story. That colleague left Sowetan later in the year and someone else had to take up the story.

When I was assigned to it I was reluctant to accept, but if there is one thing you should know about being a journalist it is that when your news editor says "Please phone her" he actually means "Phone her now!" - let's just say it wasn't a request.

When I met Hlehle she was working as a cleaner for a packaging company in Germiston. She wore a blue overall and in her hands was a small white cloth. She put it down and beckoned me to sit next to her: "Hlala phantsi, sisi," she said.

There was that word again, sisi. I remember thinking to myself: "I am only 21; she is far older than me. Why is she calling me sisi?"

I later learnt that this was out of the respect she had for me. Respect that, to this day, I'm not sure I've earned. She had great faith in me and knowing that kept me up some nights. I would lie there and imagine the look on her face if I failed her.

One of my most painful moments with Ndlebe was during our visit to the Boikhutsong mortuary two weeks ago, where Lindelani's tiny body had been kept for more than a year. Ndlebe had refused to bury Lindelani without Lindokuhle and so the tiny body had to be kept in the mortuary.

Lindokuhle, buried in Bergville, KwaZulu- Natal, in June, was to wait for the remains of his brother, Lindelani, to be returned to Johannesburg. Lindokuhle was exhumed after the hospital finally admitted to the mix-up.

We visited the mortuary on January 30. Having known Ndlebe for as long as I have, I had seen her cry and break down numerous times, but nothing could have prepared me for that day.

She phoned me on January30 at about 7am and asked that I go with her to the mortuary. She had last seen Lindelani in December 2005, when she took his body to the mortuary and was told by the undertaker that his body was badly decomposed.

On Tuesday morning my phone rang. It was her.

"Hello, sisi. I am going to the mortuary today. Can you please come with me?"

We slowly walked into the mortuary.

Lindelani's tiny body lay on the edge of a big mortuary table. Ndlebe edged closer to the table and broke out in a shrill cry: "Oh my God, is this what remains of you, my child? What have I done to you?"

At that moment burning tears rushed down my cheeks. Everything in me screamed for me to be quiet, but the tears would not stop.

All I could do was hold Ndlebe, who was now sobbing bitterly. Her body was shaking uncontrollably. This time, I not only felt inadequate - I also felt weak. I had become attached, I had become involved.

After a few more days and more fights with the Gauteng Health Department, the funeral arrangements were finalised. The twins were to be buried in Mzimkhulu, in KwaZulu-Natal, on February 3.

The funeral was on Sunday morning. The service lasted only 15 minutes, but the look on Ndlebe's face at the last "amen" more than made up for the seven-hour drive to her home.

I went to her to say goodbye. She was sitting on a mattress in a small rondavel. Here was a woman who had lost so much and come so close to giving up, a woman who had been battered but refused to give in - and she was thanking me for keeping her strong?

Something powerful happened within me in that room that morning, as we looked at each other with the tears streaming down our faces.

For the first time since our first meeting, I felt adequate.

I had failed my journalism tutor, I had lost my professional detachment - but seeing Hlehle after the funeral made it all worthwhile.