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Access & Impact
By: Niki Kapsambelis
November 16, 2023
Growing up in Soweto, a southwestern township of Johannesburg, Lindiwe Mkhize never thought of herself as poor.
Her name, which means “waited for” in Zulu, signals her status as a much-cherished daughter in a family of loving women: her grandmother, two aunts and – when she was not working – her mother. On the streets, she would play with other children until the sun started to go down, then hurry home. She never recalls a Christmas where she did not receive new clothes.
Today, as the nurse in charge of a small clinic in Soweto, Lindiwe channels the love she felt growing up, and she tries to pay that good will forward as she works within the community.
“Caring is a big thing for me. Kindness is a very big thing for me. You cannot be a nurse if you don’t have kindness,” she said. “If you don’t love people, if you don’t have empathy, don’t even think about it.”
Hear Lindiwe’s philosophy on the importance of compassion in nursing.
In addition to treating patients at the clinic, Lindiwe also helps her aunt run an informal soup kitchen out of the house where she grew up. She pays school fees for some of the children in her neighborhood, including one whose mother just died. She collects and donates clothes to people in need. If a patient is hungry, she shares her lunch.
Looking back, she could not have guessed that her journey toward economic empowerment would have begun with nursing. In school, she hoped to become an accountant, but she was crushed when her application for financial aid was denied. She worked in retail, including a boutique where a customer recommended that Lindiwe apply for a nursing program through the government.
Lindiwe was skeptical. Like one of her future mentors, Sister Thandi Mcgina, she was terrified by the sight of blood. But after taking a test, she was accepted, and her career began.
“I was told that I have a gift of a healer,” she said.
It wasn’t always easy. She can still see the face of the first patient she cared for as a student: a prisoner who had fallen gravely ill and died with his eyes open. When she was sent to clean his body, she screamed and ran away. Biology was challenging; she worried that she hadn’t studied it thoroughly enough in high school. But tutors helped her gain confidence to move through the program.
She fell in love with the profession when she began specializing in midwifery at a clinic in Soweto from 2015 to 2021.
“I’m the first person who sees this baby – before their mother, before their parents,” she said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
Also like her mentor, before she starts work, she prays that her hands will help the people she touches: “You are the one who is supposed to make this person feel better, even before the medication,” she said. “The way we treat people is very important.”
After the Soweto clinic, Lindiwe worked for a year for the city of Johannesburg. When that contract ended, she joined the staff at the newly opened Rhiza Babuyile Clinic in Diepsloot, another township of Johannesburg. The clinic was built through funding from Viatris, which partnered with Rhiza Babuyile, a South African-based NGO, on the project.
There, she came under the guidance of Sister Thandi, the clinic’s manager, who helped her broaden her approach to incorporate leadership skills. A year later, in the summer of 2023, she became head of her own small clinic back in Soweto, which she will eventually own. Also partially funded by Viatris, the facility is – appropriately enough – called the Mpathy Clinic (pronounced “empathy”), and is part of a planned model to establish a network of sustainable, low-fee private health care while also creating entrepreneurship opportunities for the nurses who run them.
“It’s really a dream come true, even for my family, taking them out of the poverty that we come from,” Lindiwe said.
When the clinic opened, she thought of her early dream of becoming an accountant, and her disappointment when she learned she would not get financial aid for her studies. Now, years later, the path she would not have taken -- nursing – has become not only her passion, but also has taken her back to that dream.
“I have the world in my hands, and I can do whatever I want to do,” she said. “It was a moment where I felt like I’m Superman.”
Photos by Finbarr O’Reilly