A train is stopped at a station in the dry heartlands of South Africa. A line of people, hundreds long, waits in front of it. Many of them will get on the train, but they won’t go anywhere. The train is called Phelophepa, and its sixteen carriages are there to provide medical attention to South Africa’s most needy: people living in rural locations who have waited twenty years for a pair of glasses, who share one toothbrush between ten. A woman gets out of the train and speaks into a microphone at a measured pace that carries an urgent gravitas. She is Lillian Cingo, and she is one of the train’s two managers, along with Lynette Coetzee. They are an unlikely pair, Cingo a black woman, and Coetzee a white Afrikaner. They are an image of what should be the norm in South Africa, aware of but unaffected by race.
Cingo is practised at this, but her speech has the confidence of familiarity, not the flatness of routine. After giving instructions to the crowd on where to go for what type of care she breaks the news that not everyone will receive help. There is not enough time and not enough staff to help everyone who has come. Care is provided on a first come first served basis, and the train will leave after five days. The staff work from 6am to 8pm, and need to sleep in order to provide proper care to those who need it. It’s difficult but it’s the reality of the situation: in order to help as many as possible, some people will be left out.
Cingo is a person who seems unable to reserve her energy for herself. Her life has been a story of caring, of giving her talents and deep, deep reserves of energy to those in need. One on one, she speaks in a soothing tone, just above a whisper, when she’s emphasising a point. It’s magnetic: she has a gentle confidence, a certainty that her words are right.
In spite of the seriousness of Cingo’s calling she carries a sense of joy, a levity that breaks out naturally and easily. It’s crucial to her ethos as a healer: “Laughter is crucial. You heal by laughing. Sometimes you don’t even need treatment because you smiled and as you smiled I give you my smile and in my smile I give you health.”
Caring is in Lillian Cingo’s blood. When she was a child, she would help her mother boil her family’s old clothes, to be used as bandages for people who did not have access to medical supplies or know how to dress wounds. Her mother, a teacher, would depart on horseback to villages in the area, providing medical services to people who did not have access to soap or bandages.
The lessons that she learned assisting her mother have informed Cingo all through her life. Reflecting on her mother’s influence, she notes “as I grew older I realised I took a lot from my mother and that my mother had the right concept in looking at health in such a very basic, fundamental way. And I think also for me it’s so simple. If people can just eat, wash, prevent, that sort of thing, it is not so expensive. She did a lot of that. Subtly, I absorbed it.”
Wellness means being healthy on a number of levels – physical, emotional, intellectual – and education, about staying healthy and preventing illness, is crucial to being well. A key example of the importance of education is the prevalence of hypertension and diabetes in South Africa, and the number of people who die as a result of those conditions. “That is unbelievable considering that with just a change of lifestyle and maybe getting to a clinic and getting a few guidelines and education you could be ok”, says Cingo.
One of the health train’s most essential purposes when Cingo was in charge was educating the local communities, and reviewing and providing suggestions for the existing healthcare infrastructure – if any existed.
She stepped down as manager of the train in 2008 – she worked on it from 1995 – and went on to serve on the board of Noah, an organisation that enables communities to care for vulnerable children who have been affected by AIDS. During her time in charge of Phelophepa she saw the train grow from three carriages to sixteen, travelling the country from January to September in the tight confines of its cabins.
While Phelophepa is her most prominent contribution to South Africa, Cingo’s achievements span her entire life. Working as a young black woman in apartheid South Africa, she was named best nurse in 1956 and best midwife in 1961.
Apartheid closed off further opportunities: staying in South Africa was not an option. She couldn’t receive the training she would need to specialise as a neurosurgical nurse in South Africa, and landed in icy London in 1966, alone and determined.
There she continued to do what she had always done: excel. She was presented to the Queen as the best neurosurgical nurse in London in 1975, and nominated twice as the nurse of the year during the same decade. A Master’s degree in counselling psychology and a diploma in HIV/AIDS counselling were added to her list of qualifications during her time abroad, and she returned to South Africa after the end of apartheid, in 1994.
What was meant to be a short time away turned into an exile of almost thirty years: she left as a young woman and returned with the wisdom of a life spent helping others. Knowledge and strength, earned after a lifetime of service, went into the train, to teaching the students who travelled with her, and to helping the communities she visited.
She is a person who gives freely of herself, whose entire existence is philanthropic. It’s hard to imagine anyone who has given more, with less fanfare: her efforts have none of the noisy self-promotion that so often accompanies ostensibly altruistic work. Instead Cingo epitomizes selfless commitment, honesty and genuine goodwill.