Meeting Isaac Hlengwa

In May, while I was helping a group of volunteers to distribute food parcels and other essentials in the Ilembe district, I met Isaac for the first time. He was leaning against a tree in the shade away from the other men in the community. Isaac’s eyes and his welcoming nod took me closer.

‘I was born on February 10th, 1920!’ Isaac said as he pulled down his face mask to sneak out a smile. He proudly showed me his ID and asked me to take his picture.

I was so excited when I looked at his ID. Not only was Isaac indeed 100-years old, his birthday was the same as my late father’s.”You have a very special birthday,” I said.

In a rush to carry on with the distribution of food parcels I didn’t have much time to spend with Isaac, so I quickly said goodbye.
Once home, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. My father passed away seven years ago. I miss him terribly and I think of him every day.

Two weeks later I decided to go back to see Isaac. This time I took my friend Bongani along so that he could help with any language and cultural challenges.

Isaac’s reaction when he saw me knocking on his door was much more that I had expected, his smile and open arms clearly showed that he remembered me.

Without having to rush this time I spent a morning chatting. With Bongani’s help I got to hear Isaac’s life story.

Isaac told me that he had had ten children, but only three are alive today. He also lost his only wife just over 30 years ago. When I asked him about grandchildren, he laughed and said he doesn’t know. “Too many!” he joked.

Isaac first worked as a merchandiser for a liquor store for many years. After that, he worked for most of his life as a guard for a white man. After retiring he continued to be busy.

“I never really retired,” he said, laughing, as he has now become a pastor for the Zion Church. As a gift on his 100th birthday, the church were just about to build Isaac a new home when lockdown started.
“I have lived in this same house all my life,” Isaac said. “All my children were born here.”

Isaac seemed very content. One of his sons, 50 year old Zuma, lived with him and looked after him.

“What’s the secret to looking so well and being a centenarian?”
“No stress, and no alcohol. I only drink tea!”

I left Isaac full of a feeling of gratitude. It meant a lot to me to spend time with this lovely man, born on the same day as my dad. The anniversary of my father’s death was fast approaching. June 22nd is always a difficult day for me.

LensTraveller - Photojournalist - Feature Stories
LensTraveller - Photojournalist - Feature Stories

On June 25th I received a call. It was a friend baring really unpleasant news. “Isaac has passed away.”
“What? How?” Was my shocked reply. “When is the funeral? Do you think I could maybe come and pay my respects to his family?”

With the help of the district council, Isaac’s family agreed for me to attend the funeral. Due to the national lockdown only 50 people were able to attend, so I felt very honoured.

At the funeral I learned that Issac’s last few days had been full of tragedy. His eldest daughter had passed away a week earlier, from diabetic complications, and two days later his son-in-law passed away too. Broken-hearted, Issac had buried his beloved daughter on June 21st and on the following day, June 22nd, Isaac had died in his sleep.

I was invited by the family to come inside Isaac’s home. On the day I had visited before the home had been quiet and empty, but now it was filled with Isaac’s extended family, his many grandchildren giggling and running all around.

That night I could not sleep.

Today 72-year-old Jack, Isaac’s only sibling and a spitting image of his brother, survives him. Jack now looks after all 50 grandchildren.

Sometimes life can be overwhelming. It is full of incredible opposites; happiness and sadness, twists and bizarre coincidences. It was hard to comprehend that Isaac and my dad were born on the same date, and died on the same date too, some years apart. I’ll always remember meeting Isaac, who now has a special place in my heart next to my father’s.

LensTraveller - Photojournalist - Feature Stories
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