On the train station platform in De Doorns, South Africa, the midday sun is so merciless that Andrias Arnolt's plastic chair begins to wobble. Still, Arnolt isn't about to move, not until he gets his glasses, for which he has been waiting since 7 a.m. Finally a health-care worker emerges from the medical train now in the station and sets a pair of round-framed spectacles on Arnolt's nose. The transformation is striking. Not only can he see, says Arnolt, who has paid $6.50 for the privilege of sight, "they make me look much younger now. My wife is going to be very jealous."
Arnolt, 63, who earns $23 a week as a laborer at a nearby vineyard, couldn't have visited the region's only affordable optometrist because the office is too far away. "There is no time to go there, and I would lose much of my wage," he explains. Instead he is one of more than 700 people in De Doorns who have recently received eye care courtesy of Pbelophepa, the train whose name, translated from Sotho and Tswana languages, means "good, clean health." Another 238 have received dental care, 474 had a variety of health exams, and 57 met with psychological counselors. Educational staff from the train also have visited four local schools to coach students on general health.
Over the course of more than eight months each year, Pbelophepa crisscrosses South Africa, stopping at 37 rural stations for five days apiece and offering low-cost health care to thousands of low-income people, many of whom have never seen a doctor before. Officials praise the project as a key first step in developing a system of comprehensive health care. But employees such as pharmacist Christiaan Lindnaar say that with Lynette Coetzee, who is white, and Lillian Cingo, who is black, at the helm, Pbelophepa has come to represent social healing for the racially torn nation. "When people look at them as leaders of the train, they see that things can work out," says Lindnaar. "It gives them hope."
Once, they would have seemed the oddest of couples in a nation that only eight years ago rid itself of apartheid, but today, Coetzee and Cingo seem to be models for a South Africa still struggling to form a society in which blacks and whites not only work together but are bound in genuine friendship. In 1994, Coetzee, 48, an Afrikaner investment executive with Transnet, a huge transportation holding company, persuaded her employers to kick in $1.7 million to expand a modest three-car eye-clinic train into a comprehensive health-care deliverer. She would be the first to say that her savviest move was in hiring Cingo, 61, to manage the train and its 53 student volunteers and full-time employees. Playfully describing themselves as "terrible twins," they are bound both by friendship and one overriding precept—that all people, black or white, deserve adequate health care. "This train is about new beginnings," says Coetzee. Adds Cingo: "When we are ill, we need good medication no matter what our race. Sickness is truly color-blind."
At first not everyone was at ease with that idea. Some whites unaccustomed to lining up with blacks for services and being treated by black health-care workers balked. At one stop a white man refused to be treated by a black dentist. Cingo allowed the man to be treated by a white student, but the student had to call in the dentist for help. After successfully extracting the patient's tooth, the dentist shook his hand and left. "The following day this man returns to the train and he brings a box of oranges," says Cingo. "Sometimes you don't have to say things, you just do things."
Though Coetzee's late father, Johan Swarts, was a railway worker, there was little in her upbringing to suggest she would head such an ambitious biracial venture. Growing up under apartheid, she had no black friends, and her Dutch Reformed church vigorously supported the state's segregationist policies. "With a Bible in one hand, they tried to okay what they were doing," she says. "It completely sickens me."
After a minimum of formal schooling, Coetzee took a job at Transnet when she was 17, rising over time to become the company's first female chief librarian. In 1990 she took over the social-investments section of Transnet, where she was approached by a university professor who was looking for help in starting a mobile eye clinic. "When this train came, I saw this challenge before me," says Lynette, who had married electrical engineer Willie Coetzee, now 51, in 1977. "All of a sudden I had a chance to really change things." Coetzee herself ran the train for one year but soon realized she needed a medical expert who could live onboard for months at a time.
Few blacks were entrusted with the kind of responsibility that the multimillion-dollar train and its employees represented, yet Coetzee was instantly taken with Cingo and offered her the job the day they met. Hailing from a line of tribal royals in South Africa's Eastern Cape, Cingo's late parents were both teachers and encouraged her when she was young to help less fortunate villagers. She used her family's old clothes to make bandages for children and taught people how to make everything from soup to candles. Yet being black presented enormous obstacles. Her father barely escaped being thrown from a moving train after unintentionally entering a whites-only car, and one of her brothers died when he was refused service in a whites-only ambulance after being robbed and stabbed.
At 17, Cingo took a job as a nurse but wanted to specialize in neurosurgery. However, a white surgeon told her one day, "You have to leave. You cannot be trained here, you are black. It's the law." She left South Africa for what was intended to be a brief stay for schooling in Britain, but stayed on for 28 years, earning several postgrad degrees, marrying a black South African athlete (they later divorced) and raising two sons. Though homesick, she refused to return to South Africa until apartheid was abandoned in 1991 and Nelson Mandela became the country's first black president three years later. "I wanted to be part of the new South Africa," says Cingo.
At a party during a visit home in 1994, she learned of the health train from a Transnet executive. "This," she thought, "is where I belong." Coetzee, meanwhile, was desperately seeking someone with medical experience, managerial patience and social vision, "and here she walked right into my office." Cingo quickly won over the staff but faced hurdles in the field, where some clients refused to accept a black woman as the train's top authority.
Fortunately when frustrations mount, Cingo has consolations: a private tub in her quarters on the train and the friendship that grew between her and Coetzee out of their shared mission, long working hours and the months of comfort and support Coetzee gave Cingo when her father died. When Cingo returns from the field after a long absence, Coetzee often presents her with a gift of her favorite mango-scented bubble bath, and the two hug and giggle like schoolgirls. "We hold hands, it's natural," says Coetzee. "And then you notice that people are staring." Given the different worlds they knew before they met, Cingo finds an important lesson in their closeness. "Sometimes things do not happen because a government says so," she says. "Things like friendship come from the heart."
Bryan Alexander in De Dooms
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