Maverick Citizen

SPOTLIGHT WOMEN IN HEALTH

Sister Wattie, the midwife from District Six who heeded the call to nurse and deliver

Sister Wattie, the midwife from District Six who heeded the call to nurse and deliver
Patience Watlington, affectionately called Sister Wattie, was one of the nurses at the former Peninsula Maternity Hospital who delivered many babies in District Six before the forced removals. (Photo: Nasief Manie / Spotlight)

For decades, most stories from Cape Town’s District Six started with ‘I was born at Peninsula Maternity Hospital!’ The Peninsula Maternity Hospital was established in 1921 as a training hospital specialising in midwifery. It closed down in 1992. On the day of its closure, a group of nurses climbed up to the hospital’s roof to take a last look at Table Mountain and surrounds where they served so many. Among them was Sister Patience Watlington, or Sr Wattie, as many referred to her. Biénne Huisman sat down with the 80-year-old nursing veteran as she reflected on life as a midwife in District Six.

Now aged 80, inside Watlington’s home in Heathfield in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, the retired nurse’s spritely body is perched on the edge of a rust-orange sofa. Her eyes gleam and she touches her fingertips together before her chest as she relays moments from her career. Her words paint lively vignettes of bygone days in District Six, the residential and commercial inner-city suburb painfully torn apart by apartheid’s forced evictions.

One such memory is youngsters “smoking lekker dagga skywe [joints]” where the ambulances used to stop next to the hospital on Caledon Street. She also recalls triplets being born at the hospital. “We delivered triplets, [to] a black man and his wife,” she says. “And Raymond Ackerman [the Pick n Pay founder] gave that family everything they needed. He saw to all the needs of those babies.”

In the Peninsula Maternity Hospital wards – with names like Erica and Primrose – nurses in crisp uniforms brought many lives into the world, its corridors echoing with assured footsteps and neonatal cries. Deeply revered for their service, witnesses on at least one Facebook group recall how even so-called skollies offered to walk Peninsula Maternity’s nurses home at night, carrying their medical cases.

Sr Wattie of Bloemhof Flats

In many of these recollections, Watlington, or Sr Wattie of Bloemhof Flats, is a recurring name.

“Wattie delivered my daughter,” people say. “Wattie delivered all of my children.”

Sister Wattie

Sister Wattie in her home in Heathfield, Cape Town. (Photo: Nasief Manie / Spotlight)

By 1982, more than 60,000 people had been forcibly removed from District Six – according to the District Six Museum – and their houses flattened by bulldozers.

“Me, well, I never worried about apartheid,” says Watlington. “We never saw colour. We grew up in District Six with black people, Muslims, Indians, coloured people… I just took it as it came and whatever opportunity there was, I jumped at.”

Over the years Watlington worked at several healthcare facilities across Cape Town, but it is the memory of Peninsula Maternity that remains close to her heart.

“I spent 37 years in the nursing service and loved every minute of it,” she says. “But Peninsula was special. We were a small hospital. We were a little home. We were intimate – a family. It wasn’t a posh hospital,” Watlington recalls.

‘The most beautiful delivery’

Watlington raises her shoulders when asked how many babies she has delivered over the years. “It is hard to estimate,” she says. And what were her thoughts while delivering these babies? “I would think, here’s another life,” she says, gently. Then she adds with laughter: “And I would think, welcome to this wicked world! God forgive me.”

You have to be so strong in your emotions, in your wording. But sometimes there would be tears running [as hospital staff cried], we are all human.

Recalling her first breech delivery at Peninsula Maternity, her voice shakes. “The most beautiful delivery that I admire is a breech delivery. Oh, it is beautiful! Oh, it makes you wonder, is this even possible? A child whose whole body is outside the mother’s uterus, only the head is inside. Before you’re going to manoeuvre that head, the child is crying, and he’s kicking outside… That, to me, was the most beautiful delivery I’ve ever, ever witnessed.”

The former Peninsula Maternity Hospital where Sr Wattie worked as a midwife. (Photo: Spotlight)

The toughest part of the job, she says, is rare birth complications such as umbilical cord strangulation and having to tell a mother that her baby died during birth.

“So, it takes a lot of calming down. Sometimes we ask them, ‘can we give you something, a sedative?’ And you always put them in a separate room. We don’t put them where there are other mums with babies – babies crying, you know? In times like this, as a sister, you have to be so strong in your emotions, in your wording. But sometimes there would be tears running [as hospital staff cried], we are all human.”

I didn’t want maintenance. I was earning peanuts, but I survived. I was self-sufficient…

Born to Sarah and Emile Watlington in their home on College Street, opposite Zonnebloem College, and the second of 11 siblings, Watlington would learn later in life that her own birth had been an unassisted breech.

“Because now I discussed my midwifery with my mommy,” she says. “And she got to hear the terms. And then she said, but you were a breech delivery. So I said, who helped you? And she said, nobody. My daddy went to the hospital, but he lost his way. By the time the midwife got there, I was out. I was born. I was playing outside already. She just had to cut the cord. And I said to my mom, but didn’t I get any head injuries?” Watlington shrugs, laughing. “But I’m still alive, so I don’t think I got too much damage.”

A mother before she was a child

In 1956, when Watlington was 14 years old, her family moved to 163 Bloemhof Flats. There, in a small kitchen, they kept jelly and meat in a corner cupboard until later when they could afford a fridge. On a paraffin Dover stove they cooked beef lung stew – bought at Mr Harry’s Butcher on Hanover Street for sixpence a lung – which they served with mealie rice, since regte rice was a luxury reserved for Christmas.

For decades, most stories from Cape Town’s District Six started with ‘I was born at Peninsula Maternity Hospital!’ Sister Patience Watlington was one of the nurses delivering the babies. (Photo: Spotlight)

From an early age, Watlington raised her siblings. “I cared for the children who came after me as my mother had a child every year. I was a mother before I was a child,” she says.

During her years at Trafalgar High School, over weekends Watlington would volunteer at St Monica’s Maternity Hospital in Bo-Kaap, running errands. In Grade 11 she left school. “My mother sent me to the shop that day and I decided to look for work, ending up in the queue at Ensign Clothing Factory [then in Woodstock].” After six months at the factory, fortunately, she was awarded a Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital bursary to study general nursing through Cape Town’s Nico Malan Nursing College. After three years, she specialised in midwifery at Peninsula Maternity.

Watlington relays how she fell pregnant at 27. Her own son, Jerome, was born at Peninsula Maternity on a Saturday afternoon in 1969. At the time, she simply crossed the road from Bloemhof Flats to the hospital, accompanied by her aunt. She decided not to marry her boyfriend of five years, opting to raise their child alone. “I didn’t want maintenance,” she says. “I was earning peanuts, but I survived. I was self-sufficient and today we have a wonderful relationship, me and my son. What more can I ask for?”

One of the photos from Sister Wattie’s time as a nurse. (Photo: Spotlight)

Watlington and Jerome moved to Heathfield when he was 11. Daily she took the train to the city, leaving home at 5.40am to make her 7am shift at the maternity hospital. Routine is important to her, Watlington says. Routine and respect for all humans.

Towards the end of her career, Watlington was promoted to a managerial position – zone matron – overseeing hospital administration and also training young nurses. She says it was a sad day when Peninsula Maternity closed down. She then moved to Mowbray Maternity for five years before retiring in 1998. She recalls a post-retirement highlight – a trip to Saint Thomas island in the Caribbean to visit distant relatives she had reconnected with in 1999.

Signs of life and nurture

Outside Watlington’s whitewashed home, flame-hued succulents line her porch. Everywhere outside and inside her home, there are signs of life and the fruits of nurture. The word “Je-Pato” is mounted against an exterior wall. “This is short for Jerome and Patience,” she says. Today, Jerome is a navigating officer at sea; married to Karen. They have two children.

Watlington asks Spotlight not to divulge too many details of her personal life. Every so often she pauses mid-sentence to dictate. “Don’t write that. You’re not allowed to write that!” Then, eyes crinkled with laughter, she relaxes into an anecdote again.

Three years ago… Watlington served Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stew and koesisters.

When she celebrated her 80th birthday party in 2022, she says her five siblings, who are still alive, grew teary. “They were saying to me that they feel bad for not always appreciating me enough, the way I raised them. So, I said to them, why so emotional? Please, I’m not dead yet!”

As a child, Sister Wattie lived on College Street, opposite Zonnebloem College, and was the second of 11 siblings. (Photo: Nasief Manie / Spotlight)

Inside Watlington’s lounge, swathes of greenery protrude from pots. Against an orchid, a note leans bearing a bible verse: “She is clothed with strength and dignity and she laughs without fear of the future. Proverbs 31:25.” Watlington is a member of the Heathfield Trinity Methodist Church where she volunteered at the soup kitchen until 2022.

During our interview, inside the adjoining kitchen, a microwave beeps intermittently, announcing that her dinner potatoes are ready.

Sister Wattie studied general nursing through Cape Town’s Nico Malan Nursing College. After three years, she specialised in midwifery at Peninsula Maternity Hospital. (Photo: Nasief Manie / Spotlight)

A framed photograph hangs in Sister Wattie’s house of the day she served Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stew and koesisters at the District Six Homecoming Centre. (Photo: Spotlight)

Heeding the call

Watlington is closely involved with the District Six Museum, and her family’s beef lung stew featured in its 2016 Huis Kombuis Food and Memory Cookbook. Three years ago, at the museum’s Homecoming Centre, Watlington served Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stew and koesisters. A framed photograph on her lounge wall attests to the moment. “Prince Harry was eating so many koesisters, sommer without a serviette,” she says.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘That iron suitcase saved my life’: 90-year-old nurse and midwife reflects on a lifetime of service

Where Peninsula Maternity once stood, the District Six Community Day Centre opened in 2018. Outside, on the wall of the new facility, a large stainless-steel flower is now mounted, overlooking Caledon Street. Watlington explains that the artwork by Donovan represents the flower of Maryam – also referred to as the hand of Fatima – which was used by many women in District Six to indicate when a woman in labour was ready to give birth. The dried flower was put in water – its dilation indicating a woman’s cervix softening and opening up too. “It was like a time clock. As the plant dilated, the woman’s cervix opened up too,” says Watlington. Talking about the art installation, her voice is warm. Her manner tells of satisfaction at a slice of history, remembered. 

For Watlington, nursing and nurture had been a calling, one she answered with relish. “I thank God for every single day,” she says. “Really, what more can I ask for?” DM

This article was published by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.

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