It’s fitting that Wilhelmina Fredericks resides in the quiet Montreal neighbourhood of Notre Dame de Grâce (Our Lady of Grace), for she must surely be the most angelic person this writer has ever met. In the summer of 2001, Wilhelmina got on a plane to Kenya with thirty thousand dollars worth of AIDS medication and delivered it personally to patients in hospitals. She had no help from any government and paid for her own transportation. She brought what she could carry.
Since then, Wilhelmina has made three AIDS-relief trips to South Africa, the last in August 2002 to the village of Worcester, 120 kilometres outside Cape Town—the village where she was born. This time she brought sixty thousand dollars worth of the medication. Customs and civil service agents, suspicious of her intentions and with no qualms about confiscating her packages, have made each journey a struggle. AIDS medication is understandably a very hot commodity on the black market in Africa; sometimes only a fraction of what is seized gets returned. “In order to bring medication to Kenya, we have to be affiliated with a hospital in the region,” says Wilhelmina. “The doctors usually come to meet me at the airport to make sure all the paperwork is on hand so that the medication gets through.”
At sixty-three years of age, Wilhelmina is a lady of seemingly boundless energy. She possesses a disarmingly girlish smile and an infectious laugh. Oh, and she’s a hugger: I got a big, warm one during our interview—the first time we’d actually met. That day, the house was under siege by plumbers fighting a broken main, while volunteers moved to safety computers, clothes, foodstuffs and medical textbooks going to Kenya. “Don’t mind all the mess, dear,” she chuckles. “As you can see, my living room is now a storage space… Downstairs it’s the same thing, except going to South Africa.” This isn’t a house, it’s a goodwill container.
Wilhelmina’s journey from South Africa to Canada is a story unto itself. From her early teens into her twenties, Wilhelmina worked in a stocking factory to support three siblings and her grandmother. Her father had died when she was six, and her mother worked away from the family. “We saw her once a month and sometimes only once every two months,” explains Wilhelmina.
Her workplace, however, was not Dickensian—in lieu of holiday payment, it sponsored safaris to Kenya. During one such vacation, Wilhelmina met a sociology professor from Saskatchewan named Edwin Fowler. Though she was fifteen and he sixty-five, they became fast friends. Then Fowler contracted malaria; Wilhelmina stayed behind in camp to tend to him. It was during his recovery that Fowler made Wilhelmina an offer she couldn’t refuse. If she could make it to Canada, he would pay for her schooling. Wilhelmina would not forget these words. Over the next seven years, she saved enough money to tend to her familial obligations and called the professor and accepted his offer. “He said, ‘When you finish your education, you go back and share it with your people.’ And that has been my work ever since.”
Moving to Montreal, Wilhelmina worked night and day jobs while finishing high school and eventually graduated from Sir George Williams (now Concordia University) with degrees in English, sociology, library science and performing arts. “When I was a girl, I always wanted to know how the movie got into the camera. I would sit with my grandmother and watch TV and wonder how they made those images come alive. I knew I had to find out.”
Wilhelmina then founded Zerf Productions, a non-profit charitable organization that blends film, television and theatre with humanitarian missions. In 1999, Zerf videotaped classes of mute and hearing-impaired children at Worcester’s New Hope Center. When she played the tape back to the children, “they cried and climbed onto the TV and tried to get inside the set. The caretakers said this is one of the best therapy methods the children have ever had in their lives. They moaned and groaned as if they were cheering and shouting.”
Health Partners International of Canada supplies Wilhelmina with AIDS medication donated by pharmaceutical, biotech and other medical supply companies. She points to some boxes stacked in a corner and explains, “That sixty thousand dollars worth of medication will last about six months and will only help about five hundred people at a time. It’s why I go back twice a year to bring what I can.” Her trips are not without hardship. Last year a man dying of AIDS invited Wilhelmina to his funeral. “I met that man on a Sunday. He said, ‘I am hungry and going to die of AIDS anyway. Tell your people we are dying without dignity in the streets.’ Wednesday he was dead. I went to the funeral… There were three ministers blessing cardboard boxes… There were twenty-five boxes there that day. I just stood there and cried and cried and cried.”
Twenty percent of adult South Africans have HIV—a total of five million infected people, the greatest number in any single country in the world. In Kenya, the numbers are lower but still staggering: 15 percent or 2.3 million adults infected. In Wilhelmina’s opinion, the South African government has waged a campaign that targets sexual activity exclusively, ignoring the myriad other possible means of transmission. “It’s not something they even know to question. They are not made aware.”
Nor does it help that health workers are undersupplied and out of date when it comes to equipment and medical texts. Some doctors are as scared as their patients of contracting the disease. “There are two doctors out of all the staff at Eben Donges Hospital in Worcester who actually work with AIDS patients. The rest are afraid.”
“Apartheid law is no longer on the books, but apartness is still in practice,” she says, sighing softly. “It is easier for me, being a Metis [her grandfather was white], to enter and approach people in certain areas. The people trust me as one of their own.”
In February of this year, Wilhelmina received the Queen’s Jubilee Medal (from the Royal Commonwealth Society of Canada) for her charitable work. She continues to combat AIDS, travelling to and from South Africa and working with the many communities of Montreal to secure financial support and all manner of goods for the needy.
If ever this world needed to look for heroes, it need look no further.