Aged 60 and caring for a sick husband, daughter and granddaughter, Palmira finds the “great suffering” of her existence “more than I can endure”. She manages to survive because the fertile soil where she lives enables her to “make some money to go to the hospital for treatment”, and the hospital and markets are accessible by public transport.
Once, when someone stole and burnt her belongings, members of her church, “not the community”, came to her rescue. The government also used to provide hoes and seeds, but this year “they have not given us those things yet…”
Palmira’s husband used to go to South Africa in search of employment but spent part of his earnings on other women while there. With the onset of his illness this money stopped and “then we could only cultivate the fields”. Now even that source of income is under threat, as the community’s right to farm is being disputed by an absentee landlord.
I was born in Gaza [district], I am 60 years old, but now I live here in Bobole, Marracuene. I have built my house here. It’s just me and my children here. Of my children, two got ill, with the same illness, a mental disorder. One – the male – died and I was left with the female, who is not improving. I go to the hospital to get tablets, she takes them, but she does not improve.
My son had a 10-year-old daughter, but it’s me who is taking care of her and who is suffering, because he didn’t want her. This child has suffered from anaemia twice and I went to the Central Hospital [with her] and was hospitalised with her. He refused to pay for a blood transfusion and to help treat the child, and now it is only me taking care of her.
I can no longer cope with hunger. There are times when I suffer and I can’t work, and I can no longer cope with this great suffering. This is my way of life. It is only me, my granddaughter and my daughter, who is suffering from this mental disorder. [My granddaughter] is studying. She is now going on to Grade 4 [in primary school]. Finding money for clothes and food is difficult, and we suffer when I cannot go to the field because of some disease…
I was taken from my parents and married, and the time came for me to bear children. There were nine of them, but two died while I was with my husband… My husband is suffering from the same mental disorder. We talked about going to another place to see if it would improve, because despite all the treatment it did not improve. He refused. I left to come here, to Bobole. Here [my daughter’s] illness is not showing any improvement either.
Here, the place where I am, is so-so, because I can always make some money to go to the hospital for treatment, and also we can cultivate the field when we have some time – we can harvest sweet potatoes, and that is important. But in the countryside, where I was living, we could produce peanuts and cassava, but there was no money to take the patients to the hospital.
“Life has been hard”
[My husband] went to South Africa twice until the time when he became ill and stopped going there. Then we could only cultivate the fields, and eat from them. On my own, I could not afford to feed the eight children I was left with, and to buy clothes for my husband and for myself. I was left alone. Those of my children who got married have gone, their partners have their own homes to take care of, and those who are left with me are the ill ones, plus their father, who is also ill. I just cannot afford to find food and clothes for all of us and live a different life.
The house I have is made of reeds and a zinc roof. The house is not good enough because when my ill husband wants to, he will break the reeds and go straight out, instead of using the door. You can repair the damage, but there comes a time when you get tired. But at least we don’t get wet when it rains.
Even [when he was going] to South Africa, there was no substantial improvement in his behaviour. This issue of his disorder would influence his life, because he would manage to get to South Africa… and would spend all the money on women, and after spending all the money he would come home and ask for money to go back.
He didn’t take good care of us. There was no peace, and I can even say that ever since I was taken in lobola (bride price) life has been hard for me, right up to today.
I was late going to school. I attended school until Grade 2 and I left when I got married at 22 years of age… At that time, it was not customary to let children go to school because you had to do some work. But the time came when you would be allowed to go to school, and [so I] started school very late…
Now… the government and the parents themselves are concerned about sending their children to school. In the old days, it was customary to keep you at home and put you to work, and they would say that you must learn how to work because otherwise you will suffer when you get married. Now it does not work like that.
Poverty beyond endurance
Poverty is about leading a life of difficulties and suffering – diseases, hunger, shortage of clothes, lacking someone to guide you to do the things that are good and lead to improvement. And [it is] lack of rain, because even if you cultivate your field you will harvest nothing for your survival. Thus you are living truly in poverty. This poverty I am talking about – I am living it…
Poverty means that I am suffering, because of illness, hunger, having nothing to wear and living without any inner peace because of looking at what I lack. Some days you go to your brother’s fields and you get nothing; he tells you, “I have nothing for you to cultivate.” You come back home and sit down and think: what am I to cook, to eat today? And you find that you have nothing…
Sometimes you look dirty because you have no clothes to change into, you have no place to sleep and when it rains you get wet. This is poverty for me. This is what is happening to me. This is painful for me because it is more than I can endure, and I see some people leading a good life…
I cannot say that it is me alone who is suffering here in the community, or in the country. There are those who are suffering more than what I have told you…
Support from the church
One day when I went to the field someone took all my clothes, burnt my motorbike and the jerry cans (large metal containers) for water. Because I go to church at the Assembly of God, when I told them they helped me with clothes, another jerry can, maize, groundnuts. And these children of mine who I have mentioned [also] helped me. My belongings were burnt and I feel pain – because while I was in the field the person found some matches and did all that.
I can say that I found that a person is helped when they are suffering or when disaster strikes. I saw that happen. These people I am talking about belong to the church, not the community.
The importance of transport
The way we live here in Bobole is a bit better [than in Gaza district]. If you find a good place, even if you live alone, you can build a cement house, and because of the low-lying land everything you plant will produce and you can sell this. This is accompanied by a good life. Whereas in Gaza you may plant and cultivate a lot of cassava to transport and sell in Xai-Xai, [but] that town is very far away… To harvest ground nuts in the field… and transport the harvest to the selling point where you will beg for a small payment, it is so very far, and all you get is something to eat, but you don’t get money, and money is the most important thing, because with it you can do anything you want.
[When I was in Gaza], I could not afford to go to a distant place, where you wait for a long time to sell [your produce]; transport is very expensive. And if you are [away for] a long time many things will get out of control [at home], and animals will spoil your fields, and this does not help at all. I say [Gaza] is a good place, because you have everything you need – cashew nuts, cassava, ground nuts and fruits – but what is bad is that it is far from the hospital [and market].
There is a problem [over land ownership], since these fields used to belong to some white people, but now we have the fields, they are ours. I say that because here, where we are cultivating, it belonged to Hoy (a settler of Chinese origin, probably from Portuguese Macau, of whom there were many in Marracuene during the colonial era) and he still wants this place, after leaving it long ago. When he left it we took over and now he wants to push us out, and we have already registered ourselves with an organização de camponeses… They told us to continue working, but we have not yet demarcated [the land]. It has to be the government [that does this], because this is not our problem alone, it is also the government´s…
When we have problems in the community, we report to the local chief – and everybody knows their chief… If he can solve [the problems] himself, he does so and it is over; otherwise he reports to higher authorities, who will meet with those involved and find a solution. If there is a verdict, it is solved; otherwise, the case will be taken further.
Practical assistance better than money
There was a time when the government used to help us. They told the chiefs that we should register our names, and after registering our names they called us to give us donations; we have received hoes, seeds… This year they have not given us those things yet…
Money [alone] is no good, because some people are poor but they like liquor or nice things, and the money will easily be used up. It is better to give people clothes, and just some money to keep them going. Money is good, but money is a temptation. Money is a good thing, but sometimes it makes people think that they are more important than others. When somebody has money, he may see another person suffering and act as if that is nothing…
“We are going backwards”
We are not developing, we are only regressing. We are going backwards, because people are being decimated by death and are not leaving any children after them, because they lose their lives when they are young… It is people who do not agree to do what they are told to do [that cause the problem]. It is not because they are not being taught; they are taught.
In the past we were like blind idiots. A person would remain in a group until the age of 22, 23, 24, 25… not knowing what a woman or a man is. But now you will not find a child of 10 who does not know [about the opposite sex], because you will even see that the way this person is dressed is not of the best – they wear very short skirts, blouses that expose their backs – and if you look at what they do… we did not do that…
Now people are dying because they will not listen. They are being told, but their ears will not listen… There is [prostitution]…
The problem of not working encouraged theft… In our fields they steal [produce] and go to sell it in the market. If you see them selling you cannot say that this is your produce, because you did not catch them stealing it. They even steal goats and cattle because they don’t want to work…
I can say [I was happiest]… when I was still a child with my father and my mother. I lived well. I may say they helped me a lot – because our brothers are dying of disease; they go around looking for the AIDS disease… I know I may die of other diseases, or when God intends to call me, but I will not go around looking for death, not unless somebody bewitches me.
This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.