By Shelley Grieshop
FORT RECOVERY -- Ruth Matchett says she couldn't help hugging and cuddling the little infant as he lay alone in a hospital nursery in the northern region of South Africa.
It was 1974, and Matchett, a medical missionary and nurse/midwife on assignment, already had a reputation for taking in babies no one else wanted.
"He was so sweet, I picked him up and loved him," she says. "Then I heard a nurse say, 'There's the woman who'll take the baby.'"
She at first declined. She already had a houseful of babies, little ones she delivered then separated from their mothers who refused to care for them. But this baby's story tore at her heart. His mother had given birth and hemorrhaged at home. An ambulance was called, but by the time it reached the hospital the mother was dead and a strapping 8-pound boy was alone in the world.
"He had two aunties but they couldn't care for him. The doctor was trying to force them to do so because the hospital needed to release him," says Matchett, a Fort Recovery native. "So I agreed to take him. Days later he was mine." "Mom Ruth," as young Hudson Bodikwa called her, raised him until he was 14. At that time Matchett, who never married, retired and returned to the United States after 24 years of service with the Church of the Nazarene.
Bodikwa, now 32, still lives in the northern region of South Africa and is currently visiting Matchett, 85, who lives at the Brethren Retirement Community in Greenville. Although Matchett made a few brief trips to see her "surrogate" son since retiring, this is Bodikwa's first visit to the U.S., the pair said in an interview this week in Fort Recovery.
"When she left I was finishing up boarding school. Then I went on to high school," he says, as he grasps Matchett's hand in his. "At 16, I had to go live with my aunts. It was only then that I understood real life...I saw the difference in the way I was living before."
The mortality rate in Africa was high for infants when Bodikwa was born. Matchett, who delivered about 6,000 babies while in the northern province, says mothers often would cease nursing their babies and let them starve to death because of limited food supplies and cultural superstitions.
"After I arrived there, I found out women considered it a curse to have more than one child. Soon I realized it was a death sentence to send many of these babies home with their mothers," she explains.
At times she would bring milk to the mothers, only to find the babies had died before she arrived, she says.
The stories Matchett now tells of their life together -- some that Bodikwa is hearing for the first time -- are endless. She recalls the odd looks she received as she walked through the village of Tzaneen three decades ago. She was, a single, white woman with an African toddler tied to her back.
She recalls one day taking young Bodikwa into a cafe and offering him ice cream for the first time.
"There he stood, this little black boy with this white ice cream dripping down his black body," she says laughing. "It took a lot of napkins to clean him up."
Early on she discovered Bodikwa was quite clever and his intelligence helped promote him to better schools in the region, Matchett said.
Bodikwa was one of many children she took in and cared for while operating the small clinic and maternity ward in the poverty-stricken region. At times, she and helpers looked after as many as two dozen babies; some she tucked in with her at night while others lined grass mats on the floor of her home.
Matchett also raised a set of triplets, two boys and a girl, who became like siblings to Bodikwa. He recalls the group taking many trips together, such as one visit to a park 150 miles away. Matchett, always teaching, had the children count the bridges they saw along the way.
"It gave us something to do and kept us quiet," Bodikwa recalls with a smile. "On the way back, she made us do it again to make sure we counted right."
Matchett and Bodikwa, who coincidentally share the same Aug. 14 birthday, exchanged letters often since their separation in 1988. In one letter Matchett discovered Bodikwa was routinely leaving for school without food in his stomach so she sent him money to buy bread, she said.
By 1993, he began working at a chain of banks and today holds a respected position with the same company. He married in 1998 and has two children, a 7-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, whom he named Ruth.
Words can't describe how grateful he is for the life he now enjoys, he says.
"When I go back to where I lived and see the others I grew up with and how they live now, I thank God. I don't know how I would have turned out if not for her," he says, as he places his arm around Matchett and gives her hand a gentle squeeze.