Thousands of South Africans are currently awaiting a life-saving organ transplant, yet the chances that they are actually going to get the necessary organ are slim, as it remains a difficult task to convince rural black communities to donate organs due to their cultural beliefs.
According to recent statistics published by the Organ Donor Foundation of South Africa, a mere 0.2 % of South Africans are registered to donate organs while there are in excess of 4 300 individuals awaiting organs. This is a massive problem, especially in South Africa where the majority of citizens are either of African or mixed descent, because many individuals will not donate because of their religious or cultural beliefs.
Organ donation is giving an organ to help someone who needs a transplant. Kidneys, heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and the small bowel can all be transplanted. Transplants are one of the biggest achievements of modern medicine and can save or greatly enhance the lives of other people. However, they depend completely on donors and their families consenting to organ or tissue donation. One donor can save the life of several people, restore the sight of two others and improve the quality of life of many more.
Organ donations can be made by either living or dead donors, as long as they are a perfect match for the recipient. Living donors are often a close relative but may also be a partner or close friend of the recipient.
Thembelihle Ggogqoni (65), an elderly community member and also a traditional healer, says it is against black culture to remove the organs of a deceased person as it is believed their spirit continues to roam and will not be accepted by ancestors.
“As a traditional healer I have a strong belief in the existence of ancestors and I directly communicate with them. If I die and have missing organs I will not be accepted by my ancestors. The body of the deceased has to be treated with respect,” he said.
“At times we hear that some families donate the whole human body to be used for studies. However, that contradicts our cultural beliefs. Families should consult the dead in their graves when a need arises,” he said.
“As traditional healers we condemn the acts of witchcraft done by bogus traditional healers who use body parts claiming that they heal”.
Samantha Nicholls, CEO of the Organ Donor Foundation, said the organisation is keen to increase their registered donors:
“We will be conducting a volunteer program where we encourage the public to come for training and they will be taught to educate and encourage the communities regarding organ donation. We launched the ULUNTU Project at the end of 2016 which focuses on education graphics levels for rural and township communities. We plan to conduct research surveys in the province as we have only conducted them in the bigger cities previously. Our volunteers will visit healthcare facilities educating people about organ donation.”
Meanwhile, the Eastern Cape’s Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) Chief Zanemvula Nonkonyana says organisations such as Organ Donor Foundation should work closely with traditional leaders in order to gain access to communities.
“Concerned parties should engage in talks to convince our people of the need for organ donations to save lives. If they try to directly communicate with people, especially in rural areas, they will not succeed in their endeavours. The foundation needs to send its representatives to traditional councils to convey their messages through traditional leadership.”
The Lucky Ones
Vukile Genu (54) of Bityi Village in Umtata was diagnosed with acute renal failure in 1973 and he had both of his kidneys removed. Genu has been living with a donated organ for more 35 years and is the oldest person living with a donated kidney in Africa.
“I urge our communities to think about the people like myself who would like to be given a second chance in life because of donated organs. I, myself am a rural man who believes in ancestors. However, I doubt that my ancestors could punish me for doing well by saving a soul. I am pleading with my fellow South Africans to please donate their organs and those of their deceased family members. I am happy to be granted another chance to live. I am a married educator with five children living a normal life thanks to the anonymous person who donated a kidney for me.”
Professor Evance Kalula, who works at the University of Cape Town had his heart transplant on December 19 2012. Now he spends some of his time volunteering for the Organ Donor Foundation.
“I had heart failure, I collapsed on December 12. Luckily, within a week a donor was found. I had a stroke in 2002 but I had recovered fairly well from it in 10 years.”
He said raising awareness of the importance of organ donors was very important.
“It is a message of faith and of affirmation. I’m lucky to be alive. That generous family, at a dramatic time, allowed the heart of their loved one to be passed on to me. That is a gift that is invaluable. You can’t put a price on it.”
He said some of the fears and misconceptions about registering as an organ donor came from traditional and cultural beliefs.
But, he said: “I believe that my ancestors would applaud and approve somebody who is good enough to let another human being live. My message to all people out there, regardless of religious beliefs or tradition, is that being a donor is helping somebody else. It’s central to our common humanity and the higher being, I think, would approve.”