Two Ladies of Zambia
Jennifer and a group of women, dressed in their blue and white Sunday church choir uniforms, were waiting by the side of the road at a track leading to the village of Pemba. On sighting our car, they whooped and ululated their excited welcome, and led our 4X4 to the village, singing all the way. The track was winding and bumpy but after a few minutes we arrived at an opening where around fifty people awaited us.
David and I had been in Zambia about a week. We had stayed at St Francis Mission Hospital near Katete in the Eastern Province, where I am attempting to initiate an ambitious project to overhaul the sanitation at the hospital complex. We moved from there to Lusaka and thence onward to Pemba. As a new trustee of HATW, this trip was planned to give me first hand experience of typical HATW projects. It was not until I arrived at Pemba that I came face to face with the reality of the challenges the people of Zambia, and by extension, HATW face.
Every one of the fifty people gathered to welcome David, Chris (Our Man in Monze) Barrell and me is HIV positive. Jennifer, stick thin and also HIV positive, has performed miracles in her community, with support from HATW. Across 62 villages in a vast area, two hours drive from Lusaka, Jennifer has organised HIV/AIDS Support Groups. Whilst anti-retrovirals have certainly arrested the pace of the epidemic, the scourge is still very widespread, much more than I knew (and more than the average UK resident is aware). Orphans and parent-less families constitute a large part of Zambian rural society. Jennifer has rallied a small group of resolute women in the villages to take the lead in providing support to their communities.
As guests of honour, we were sat down on a resplendent three piece suite under the thatched roof of an open-fronted structure. The choir and children sang songs of welcome. Each child stepped forward, shook our hands and then told us of their plight. The harrowing stories included becoming orphans, the suffering and treatment of the disease, and the responsibilities of caring for their siblings. Tales of hunger, tales of no shoes, no clothes, no books, but never without hope. Jennifer's tireless efforts have instilled cautious optimism, even though this was the dry season, the most difficult time of the year, when food is in very limited supply.
Sat under the thatch roof were three elderly men. One, an eighty year old headman, in faltering English, but with immense dignity, explained he has lost all his eight children, his wife, and all but one grandchild to AIDS. This degree of tragedy is impossible to comprehend.
Jennifer explained tearfully that often when she visits the villages she finds a very sickly person in need of hospital treatment. Until recently she travelled around by bicycle but it had fallen apart. She is now faced with walking sometimes 20kms to a village and can't visit so often. What she really needs is a new bicycle with a trailer to transport the patients to town.
Lack of food was plain to see and they looked expectantly at us. We couldn't make promises at the time but some steps have been taken on our return to remedy the situation. It is, however, particularly difficult at present due to the severe problems raising funds.
We left Pemba after sipping a local fermented maize drink made especially for us. It was hard to accept this hospitality knowing that so little maize is available.
The next day we met a second impressive lady of Zambia, Mrs Veronica Sianga. Quietly spoken and reserved, Mrs Sianga has somehow taken care of over 500 orphans in the town of Monze. Her care consists of two schools, one infant school for 144 kids in what was her family's shop, and a secondary school for 250 kids on land just out of town. HATW has provided the land and built PIZZ secondary school. In addition to creating the schools, Mrs Sianga and her band of women helpers provide supplementary food to around 150 malnourished orphans with the help of a generous Italian family.
We visited the schools but as it was a bank holiday we did not see the children. Mrs Sianga explained that the government school inspector has stated that the infants school is too small, has no playground and insufficient toilets and therefore must be replaced. She appears unfazed by this prospect but clearly looks to HATW to help.
In the afternoon David and I are taken by Mrs Sianga and two of her companions to visit the homes of some needy neighbours.
Sixty years old Deirdre has HIV, TB and other complications. Her condition severely affects her speech, rather akin to a stroke. Her younger sister cares for her. They live in a tiny two room house with almost no natural light. We squatted on the floor and listened to her tale of how she lost four daughters and her husband to AIDS. She is left with one daughter who works in Lusaka, who not only supports her mother, but all the orphaned grandchildren. Despite this Deirdre was able to guffaw loudly and make jokes at times.
Next we visited Mabel, a thirty five year old mother of four, widowed by AIDS and suffering badly herself. She has been on anti-retrovirals for two months and apparently has improved much but she couldn't walk more than 20 paces unaided. David determined that Mabel was very anaemic and in need of hospital treatment. However it was a bank holiday again and the hospital was not open for out-patients. In any case Mabel did not have the money for a taxi to town. Much to my surprise taxis are London prices in Zambia. We gave her money enough for a taxi after the holiday and to buy some fish for her family.
Next door lived a family of children David had visited on his last trip to Monze. At that time the widowed mother and her four children lived in the small house. She died a few weeks after David's visit and since then the oldest boy has been the breadwinner and head of the household. We met this very dejected and depressed 17 year old outside his house. He earns his living collecting plastic bottles.
Our last engagement at Monze was the distribution of the supplementary food to the deprived orphans. In a dark, cramped schoolroom the volunteers weigh out the flour and ground nuts. Outside the crowd of kids is building from early on this Sunday morning. Mrs Sianga allows a few in at a time for their sacks to be filled. She obviously knows each and every one, welcoming them warmly and listening to their tales. The young, slightly built kids struggle home with the heavy sacks of maize flour and nuts. Often the sacks are taken from them on their way home. Even if they make it safely home there is no guarantee they will benefit from the food. It is the tradition in Zambia for uncles to take in the children of their brothers or sisters but it is hard for them to resist giving the extra food to their own children first when food is generally in short supply.
Meeting Jennifer and Mrs Sianga brought home to me the enormity of the challenge still faced in the developing world. I have witnessed poverty up close before but the first-hand stories from these two remarkable women provided an unforgettable focus.
Official statistics state that ten percent of the Zambia population is HIV positive. Given the scale of the problem I witnessed in just two locations, this must be far from the truth.
I became involved in HATW because, perhaps naively, I believed that my extensive international business experience could be put to some direct use on my retirement. Business experience does not seem particularly relevant when faced with the obvious, basic needs and aspirations of the less fortunate. Practical application of one's concern for fellow man is probably more useful.
Zambia Trip Report July 2011
Jim OliverLast Updated: 28/05/2012 Updated By: David