Sister Mhaka estimates that 85% of her patients are foreign nationals. To her, this is not a problem. She simply sees them as people from the community who need help and advice. In her daily work, she embraces the fact that primary healthcare services are open to anyone, regardless of where they come from. Sister Mhaka offers words of hope and encouragement, but also asks that people are sensitive to the conditions that many nurses are working in.
Sister Mhaka works in a busy day clinic in a multinational neighbourhood in Cape Town. Although she does see South African patients, the majority of patients that come to her clinic are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Somalia. Working directly with “people in the communities”, no matter where they come from, is why Sister Mhaka loves her job.
From 7:30am, the clinic’s waiting room is buzzing with mothers, their babies and young children. Sister Mhaka describes herself as an “all-rounder” at the clinic, but working with the babies is what brings her the most joy. “That’s the one part that I wake up to come to work for. The babies are the best part of this work,” she explains.
Being a nurse in South Africa is not easy. Many clinics are under-resourced and under-staffed. Sister Mhaka explains how this leads to frustrated patients. “People get to the clinic and think ‘you need to help me now, I’m here now’, but they don’t see the workload versus the number of staff in the clinic. We need more help on the floor to get people seen quickly.”
Sister Mhaka is aware of nurses in other areas who do not want to go to work because of “swearing and shouting” from the patients. There is a feeling of not being appreciated. This is not the case in her clinic; “our clients are more thankful.”
“We don’t have patients who are difficult, but the language is a problem.” Many patients who come to the clinic for assistance are unable to speak English or understand the information being given to them. The clinic makes an effort to overcome this by asking patients to bring in a family member who can speak English or by asking another patient to translate.
Foreign nationals have access to all the services offered at Sister Mhaka’s clinic. It is a welcoming space where no one is turned away due to their nationality. “They are people. If someone needs help, you need to help them. So we help them with open hearts and we go on.”
Some patients come from countries where family values are more traditional. Contraception can be a taboo topic within the house. Some women face cultural pressures to have lots of children, but not all women want this. Sister Mhaka invites husbands or family members to the clinic to have conversations with them around family planning. She wants women to know their rights when it comes to their contraception options. “Even if it is difficult, we are willing to sit down with you and talk. If there is a language barrier, we have people coming in from Sonke Gender Justice and Adonis Musati to translate.”
Sister Mhaka firmly believes that you should “treat every person with the same respect that you would want”. She carries this belief in her daily work. While remaining cognisant of the problems in South Africa, she stresses that we are all human and all need help at some points. “At the end of the day, they are here and they need help. By turning someone away, you never know what might happen as soon as they leave the clinic. Check them out and see what you can do. If you cannot help, ask someone else to step in. That’s what we do.”
Sister Mhaka encourages nurses and medical staff across South Africa to help where they can and to not turn someone away based on their nationality. “We are here to help.” At the same time, she asks foreign nationals and South Africans alike to be understanding of the circumstances that nurses are working in – something as simple and small as ‘thank you’ goes a long way. “You get those patients who say ‘thank you’ and then you feel like, ‘at least I did something good today’.”