As I hopped over a brook of sewer, jumped over a pool of stagnant water, and accidentally stepped onto fetid garbage, my mind wandered to Pendo’s predicament.
I had met Pendo a year before in some youth empowerment programme. Pendo had been born and raised up in the slums of Soweto. Her mother had succumbed to lung cancer a few years back. Prior to her death, Mama Pendo had provided for her daughter by working with the railway cooperation as a locomotive attendant. The fact that she had died of lung cancer when she never used to smoke cigarettes was a paradox many failed to jejune.
After the death, Pendo was left with no option but to drop out of school for lack of fees. The only thing she inherited from her mother was their rickety tin house by the ever-busy railway line.
At the time of our meeting, Pendo was already a mother of a one-year-old baby, Tamar. As our Friendship grew, so did my love for Tamar and now at two years of age, I was the father figure in her life. For baby Tamar, growing up by the terminus deep in the slums of Soweto had been a tormenting experience. For once, she barely slept a wink as every few minutes; a passing train would rudely jerk her from her dreams by its loud hell-raising roar. But that was nothing compared to the deadly fumes that had made her contract asthma…
My train (pardon the pun) of thought was interrupted when I arrived at Pendo’s abode. “Where’s she?” I enquired about the whereabouts of Tamar.
“On her bed, she doesn’t respond to anything. I’ve tried administering the inhaler to no avail,” Explained Pendo with a twinge of desperation.
Tamar lay under the covers wheezing for breath; her life depended on it. Her asthma had exacerbated, and that could only be attributed to the foggy July weather that retained the fumes from the steam-powered trains in the atmosphere. She needed medical attention; now!
The nearest medical facility, Dr. Shah’s clinic, was twenty kilometers away. Getting Tamar to hospital would have been easy if we had a car, but we were deep in the Slum where the narrow paths around ostracized any vehicles from the place. Walking to the main road would take us a whole thirty minutes. And even if we made it to the roadside on time, the early morning traffic snarl-ups were sure to keep us grounded in the traffic jam for hours on end.
At the railway station the firewood-powered trains arrived every thirty minutes. A glance at my watch revealed that a train was due in a few minutes, so I instructed Pendo to strap ailing Tamar on her back and off we rushed to the catch the train.
Inside the smoke-billowing vehicle, I grimaced at the irony of using the same trains that had given Tamar the debilitating ailment to save her life.
One would expect that since acres of trees are fell to provide fuel for these trains, they should travel really fast. But the discombobulating factoid is that the iron snakes can barely crawl at 20 km/h. By the time we were alighting an hour later, Tamar was barely breathing.
At Dr. Shah’s clinic, A shaken Pendo handed her baby to the nurses on duty. Baby Tamar was pronounced dead on arrival.