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Working for a living . . . and the dying

Gretchen Wilson Nov 30, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: World AIDS Day is tomorrow. It’s the 19th observance of the fight against a disease that’s killed more than 25 million people. In South Africa about one in five adults is HIV positive. Five million people, in all. A report today in Cape Town said HIV/AIDS will kill half of that country’s 15-year-old children. So many people are dying that funerals are a constant. Hundreds every weekend. For South African women. preparations have turned into a second full-time job. Gretchen Wilson reports from Soweto.


GRETCHEN WILSON: It’s Friday afternoon. Ellen Tsotetsi just finished another 40-hour week at her job cleaning an office building in Johannesburg. It’s time to knock off, and she’s packing her bags.

TSOTETSI: Yeah, I’m going home now. I’m going home to have a rest, because I’m tired.

She can’t rest for long. Like many women in southern Africa, Tsotetsi comes home Fridays only to stay up all night, cooking for the funeral service of someone who’s passed away during the week.

Every day, an estimated 900 South Africans die of AIDS-related causes. And unpaid funeral work has drastically cut into weekends, which used to be time for worship and rest. It’s just one way AIDS has changed people’s daily lives here.

TSOTETSI: Sometimes we have to do because sometimes it’s, like, your neighbor. Maybe like we are friends.

Funerals here are community events that usually take place on Saturdays. Families often want to provide a big meal for the entire neighborhood. So, starting Friday afternoon, local women stay up preparing a huge feast for hundreds of people. It’s not easy.

TSOTETSI: To those funerals — hey! — sometimes I don’t feel like going there. Huh uh. They make me miserable those funerals! Because they’ve got too much job! Sometimes you’re not interested to go and work.

But in her community, women have traditionally played this role at funerals, and they’re supposed to participate even if they’ve joined the modern workforce. That’s nearly half of South African women today. And all the housework that women traditionally did on Saturdays now has to be squeezed in around church on Sunday.

TSOTETSI: Then Sunday, going to church, then finish.

WILSON: And then back to work on Monday.

TSOTETSI: Back to work on Monday, going to start again.

It’s a tough schedule, and getting tougher. Recently in South Africa there have been so many funerals that they can’t all be held on Saturday, so they’re spilling over to other days of the week. And that cuts in even more to family and leisure time. But no matter how stressful it gets, many women says that they make the sacrifice out of compassion, as well as a strong sense of tradition.

THOKO ZULU: It’s expected of them. Like in the African culture, if you are a woman, you’re expected to help out.

In Soweto, south of Johannesburg, Thoko Zulu says women are taught from an early age that funeral work isn’t really negotiable.

ZULU: You have to know that you have to be strong for your family and for yourself and for everyone around you.

WILSON: So, even if you work, you should still be able to do that.

ZULU: You should go. It’s expected of you to do that. And you’re supposed to do it. And you’re gonna do it. ‘Cause you know that one day you’re gonna need help and people are going to break their backs to come and help you out — so why not do it for the others?

In this part of the world, the AIDS pandemic shows no signs of letting up. And more and more women are breaking their backs to meet the competing demands of tradition and the working world.

In Soweto, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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