A pair of legs for Sisi
As the car pulls up all we can see of the little girl is the bright pink sunglasses perched on top of her head. But curiosity soon gets the better of her and she sticks her head out of the window to grin at us.
Siphosethu Ncandana looks like any other Grade 2 girl but as soon as she gets out of the car it becomes clear she’s anything but ordinary. There’s a wheelchair waiting for her and without much ado she nonchalantly makes her way towards it, maneuvering herself adeptly on the stumps of her amputated legs.
With her bright pink T-shirt, seven-year-old Siphosethu – or Sisi, as everyone calls her – stands out like a flower among the red fire trucks at the KwaNobuhle fire station in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape.
As soon as she’s settled in her wheelchair she makes a beeline for Alton Senekal, the station commander.
“Hello Sisi,” he says with an affectionate smile, softly touching her arm. Her grandmother Pinky Ncandana also takes a step closer. They’re here to tell us how, after years of struggling, Sisi recently got her first pair of prosthetic legs – and how Alton and his colleague, Lungile Mni, moved heaven and earth to make it happen.
It’s early days and she still needs lots of help from a physiotherapist, but the two men are confident that one day soon the little girl will be able to take her first steps using her new prosthetics.
“It’s still difficult to put them on,” Sisi tells us. “But it’s so much better since I got the pair of legs.”
“There were times when we really thought it wouldn’t happen,” Alton (44) adds. Lungile (62), who’s sitting next to him, nods vigorously in agreement. “But when she got the prosthetics it felt like a chapter being completed. It was such a satisfying ending.”
Alton vividly recalls the first time he saw Sisi. It was a moment that made him sit up and ask himself a few tough questions. It was 27 October 2015 and he and Lungile were driving back to the station after responding to a house fire.
“Lungile had told me before about this child who lives on his street, but it hadn’t totally sunk in with me. When we were driving back that day we saw her playing in the road with the other kids. She was very small but so energetic.”
He couldn’t help wondering if her stumps became sore as she dragged them across the hot tar. The little face stayed with Alton, whose daughter, Soné, was two at the time.
“My brother has a son with cerebral palsy so I know how challenging it can be to raise a child like Sisi. I just thought to myself, what kind of future does she have? Who’s going to help her?”
It didn’t take him long to figure out the answer to that question. The next day he and Lungile set to work and formulated a plan. They started by visiting Pinky (71) so they could ask for her advice about how best to help the child.
Even if they just got her a wheelchair, they were determined to do something. Pinky welcomed the two firemen with open arms and filled them in about the family’s sad story. Sisi’s parents died soon after her birth and Pinky was left to single-handedly look after Sisi and her brother and sister, Sinovuyo (13) and Aphelele (11).
This was no small feat because by the time Alton and Lungile met Pinky she was almost blind. One eye had been pierced by a thorn when she was a baby and, compounding the problem, she’d developed cataracts in her old age and had barely 10% eyesight left.
Pinky explained Sisi had been born with legs but they didn’t develop properly at the knees. Her upper legs would develop properly but she wouldn’t ever be able to use her lower legs, doctors told her. For this reason her legs were amputated below the knees when she was two.
It broke the men’s hearts when they heard that Sisi, who was due to go to Grade R the following year, had been turned away by a nearby school because it didn’t have facilities for kids with special needs. That meant her only option was to go to a school further afield.
Pinky tells us she was especially concerned because unlike the other kids Sisi wouldn’t be able to walk to school when the bus didn’t show up. She would never have managed,
Lungile chips in, clearly moved by Sisi’s plight. “The tar roads here are far too rough.”
After hearing all this, he and Alton decided they had to do something to make things easier for Sisi and her family. It was a long process that took a great deal of determination. At first Alton helped Pinky to apply to the local clinic for a wheelchair for Sisi, which she received four months later.
Then Alton and Lungile decided her granny also needed help. They made arrangements for Pinky to have her cataracts removed at a provincial hospital.
The operation was successful and Pinky regained 80% of the sight in one eye. Then Alton approached a paediatrician and asked him to help get Sisi’s name on a waiting list for prosthetics.
It was a long wait but last year they got the green light.
Before Sisi could get her prosthetics she had to undergo a second amputation at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth to shape her stumps so her artificial limbs would fit properly.
“Only after that could they begin measuring her,” Alton says. “It was a time-consuming process because we were so dependent on the state hospital’s subsidy and whether they had funds for Sisi’s prosthetics. You don’t just walk in and get help – there are long waiting lists for appointments.”
Alton and Lungile were in constant contact with the provincial hospital to hear how things were progressing. They helped Pinky with all the documentation and made time between their shifts to drive Sisi and her grandmother back and forth to the hospital for appointments.
“In the past two and half years we’ve probably been to the hospital between 10 and 12 times,” Alton says.
As we chat a fireman brings Sisi a tub of yoghurt. A short while later another brings her a packet of chips. Later Sisi slips away quietly and goes to play catch with our photographer.
The sweat drips off the laughing child’s forehead as she plays with the ball. Although Sisi can’t walk with the prosthetics just yet, she’s due to start working later this month with a physiotherapist who’ll teach her to use them.
Although it will be a while before she can walk the two men couldn’t resist helping Sisi, a learner at Stephen Nkomo Primary School, to make one of her biggest dreams a reality: owning her first school shoes.
Now they can’t wait for the day she walks in them.