Many stories don’t have happy endings, but usually they give us some sort of a closure at the end. Melokuhle’s story isn’t one of those.
I first learnt about eight-month-old Melokuhle through my friend Jacqui Muir, who’s continuously helping and assisting needy families in rural areas, especially moms with young children. ‘You gotta meet this child,’ Jacqui told me.
On the 4th of July Jacqui and I went together to meet baby Melokuhle. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw her. She was the tiniest eight-month-old baby I’ve ever seen, with an enlarged deformed head that looked unreal. ‘Who dropped the child?’ ‘Did someone hit her with a panga?’ [A South African machete…] Those were the first thoughts that crossed my mind.
‘She was born like that, with half of her brain filled up with water, Thandiwe, the mother, has told my friend Jacqui.
Jacqui introduces me to the family as a journalist who could write a story about Melokuhle and help to get donations towards medical treatments and specialised care for her future.
Her mother begins to tell me that the doctors at Stanger hospital couldn’t do much for her birth condition. Because she could not breastfeed, the hospital has given her free baby formula that needs to be fed via feeding tubes. These were placed in Melokuhle’s nose at the hospital, after she was born there last October.
According to her, Melokuhle was also receiving physiotherapy at Stanger Hospital to improve her condition.
It was heartbreaking to even look at Melokuhle, let alone take pictures of her. I knelt to the ground by the bed where she lay to be closer and to touch her. She felt cold, and her skin looked very dry. Her eyes didn’t move much, but when I reached to grab her tiny hand with my finger, she reacted to my touch and stared at my eyes. I saw a beautiful, sweet little girl trapped in a broken body.
I asked her mom to hold her for the picture; I could see she did not feel comfortable holding her child. According to neighbours, Melokuhle spends most of her days laying alone in a single size bed inside the house, and she is never brought outside by any of the parents.
After our visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about little Melokuhle, and wondering. How much was she aware of her surroundings? Was she in pain? Can her condition be treated?
At home I did some research on her condition and talked to some of my friends in the medical field. I shared with them some of the images I’ve taken of her, so they could help me understand more.
Melokuhle’s condition is called ‘Hydrocephalus’, also known as ‘water in the brain’. It’s a rare and potentially fatal condition that causes cerebrospinal fluid to build up on the brain.
The most common treatment for hydrocephalus is the surgical insertion of a drainage system, called a shunt. A flexible tube with a valve that keeps fluid from the brain flowing in the right direction and at the proper rate, giving a good chance of developing normally, provided the child’s neck muscles can grow strong enough to support the head.
But while trying to find more information on little Melokuhle’s condition so I could find ways to help her, a different story submerged, one that shocked all of us.
On the evening of the 4th of February this year, Melokuhle’s parents had an argument that quickly turned into violence. According to the next-door neighbours, Melokuhle’s mother has been abused by her husband before. They said that fearing for her life, she rushed out of the house taking her three-year-old daughter with her, but leaving baby Melokuhle behind.
They told me that Melokuhle’s father, in an act of vengeance and anger, took a plank and violently hit her head with it.
The story let me cold and speechless. ‘What kind of father, what kind of human would do that to a child, his own child?’
Doing some more research, I learnt that hydrocephalus can also be a result of brain damage caused by stroke or injury, and bleeding in the brain from a head trauma. ‘Was Melokuhle really born with Hydrocephalus after all,’ I wondered, ‘or was her condition a result of the injuries caused by the blow to her head by her father?’
As the neighbours started coming forward with more information, the full story was beginning to develop. I learned that police attended to the domestic violence call made by her mother, but her father was nowhere to be found. The police issued a warrant for his arrest while Melokuhle was brought to the Stanger hospital. I heard that it was then that feeding tubes were placed in Melokuhle’s nose so that she could be fed, and not after her birth as we were initially told.
After hearing all that has happened to Melokuhle, my friend Jacqui and I decided it was time to visit again and perhaps help Melokuhle’s mother and siblings to find a safer place to go to while while social services find a more permanent solution. But our efforts to help came too late.
On the morning we were planning to visit, only four days since I last saw Melokuhle, we were told she had passed away the night before. Now, more questions and more worries were raised.
Jacqui and I, together with our two local friends, went to pay our respects to the family and hopefully learn more about what had happened to baby Melokuhle.
Walking into the same home where just four days ago I had met Melokuhle, felt unreal.
A symbolic wake ceremony was held at their home, where a few of the neighbourhood ladies were gathered to comfort the mother on the loss of her child. In the meantime, Melokuhle’s body was kept at the hospital’s mortuary for a post-mortem to determine the cause of her sudden death.
According to Melokuhle’s aunt, who kindly agreed to chat with us during the ceremony, Melokuhle died while breastfeeding at 8 pm on the 8th of July. She stopped breathing and turned green, and that’s when they called the ambulance. According to the family, they called the police and ambulance but neither of them ever came. At about 11 pm that same evening the family used a private car to take Melokuhle’ lifeless little body to the morgue.
We will never know what really happened on the night of the 8th of July. Melokuhle’s head trauma and hydrocephalus made it difficult for her to suck, let alone breastfeed.
The decaying of organs makes the body turn green between thirty minutes and two hours after death. Malnutrition and a lack of food and water is usually needed for this process to happen so quickly, a condition that causes the organs to slowly and painfully shut down.
A combination of poverty, minimal education, unemployment and often alcohol and drug abuse, places many children at the risk of domestic violence. Melokuhle’s story is one of many stories of abuse against women and children in South Africa and other developing countries around the world.
Melokuhle is now free of pain and suffering. Those who briefly met her will always remember her and her story. It is a reminder to keep fighting against child abuse, and to protect those that are victims of senseless violence.