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Dominic: valuing tradition

Dominic: 'There is poverty that comes because you have tried and failed'

Dominic describes a harsh childhood. His mother became lame in 1964 and his father left when the children were very young. “Most of the time we went without food,” he says. Dominic had to leave school early and married young in order to help his mother “since she wasn’t that able to cope on her own”.

Now the village secretary, Dominic values traditional Tonga customs and regrets the fact that young people belittle them. He says that there was greater unity when conflicts were resolved by traditional means within the community rather than going to the police and the courts.

He says farming was better in his parents’ time when the government provided start-up inputs and there was a greater variety of crops and plentiful harvests. He admits that men don’t want women to get too good at farming, so “we suppress them a bit”.

[In my childhood] we survived by eating wild fruits and roots because the family could not manage to grow enough food… [My mother] became lame in 1964… My father had left us when we were still very young… When my mother fell ill, we remained at my father’s place. It was difficult staying with my father’s other young wife. Most of the time I slept on an empty stomach…

I managed going to [primary] school through rough and tough… I was supposed to go to Rusangu Secondary. I didn’t because of [financial] problems. I felt very bad… I had the desire to continue, but when I saw that there was no hope of sponsorship…these desires disappeared slowly as the years passed…

I have two children that have already completed to high school level, and I am still struggling to send the others through school… Some [of my children] think that my failure to continue with education is a lifestyle [choice]; they don’t understand that I had no one to pay for me. When they see me doing some casual work, they want to help me and forget about school…[but] some of them really are interested in education.

Farming “is life”

Farming in those [early] days was very good… when I failed to go to school I went back to the land. It was really good. You would receive some fertiliser from the government as a start-up… You go and learn on the Muzenge (community programme) and then after some time they would give you bags of fertiliser for top and basal dressing and they would also give you the seed…[We grew] the Tonga variety of maize, Hekural King.

When hunger appears, whatever little you had put in [the grain bank], you would go and withdraw. The headman had a record of all the contributions made by the households to the community bank. This was to prevent selfishness by other people, who liked hiding produce from others… [But today our children would] question why their produce is taken away from them for the bank.

My parents grew millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes and maize… there would be pumpkins, cucumbers, groundnuts and all sorts of crops. But these days these things are not there… They also had cattle and goats… there are very few people who still have cattle. Those that still have cattle use the manure for farming.

Farming is profit to a person. This is life to a person. This is life to the country as a whole. I say so because if you are hard working in farming, and have failed to go to school, you are supposed to get rid of all your problems through farming…

Declining production; rising costs

What has made the change is that we can no longer afford the fertiliser, and the seed has become expensive… I used to grow crops to the capacity of the field. I could sometimes get 200 lots of 100 kg bags of maize. When I did badly I could get, say 150, 120 bags. This was because you could get a loan, say from the bank. These [days] this is not possible because of the expensive farming inputs.

They still [give loans] – even the government is doing something through what they call ‘down payments’. This helps us in some way… Ploughs are available in shops, but the money is difficult to find. Fertiliser is also available through the down payments scheme. Those that have the money do buy, but as for me I have failed…

We are grateful for the government programme of down payments, and the cattle-restocking programme, but we request them to continue with such good policies…

“I do not have enough farming tools”

There is poverty that is brought about by oneself and there is poverty that comes because you have tried and failed. Mostly poverty comes in because of not working hard to help yourself. [1] am affected by poverty in that I do not have enough tools, such that I do not work as I would want to.

There are people poorer than I… Some become poor because the parents, like my mother who [was] sick, have no source of income. They may be sick and disabled and this may bring about poverty…

What has brought this [poverty in my life]? First, the time the cattle started dying. It was also the time when I was getting weaker. And our children also grew in number. Money was being spent in a lot of areas…

The problem in the village is the dying of cattle, so no more draught power. You would find a strong person who really wants to do some farming, but you know us Tongas, we are used to and we grew up with cattle… What has really killed us is the lack of tools. Laziness has always been here, you will always find such people. It’s not the main cause of this problem…

‘We suppress women a bit’

We do not give [women] that much freedom. We would [not] like to give a woman a chance to farm better [than us men]… God put it that they are helpers… Now, if your helper is doing better than you are there is that natural feeling of…you know. Whenever you have a dispute with her, she would say to you’Give me back my blanket or something. It’s me who bought it.’ That’s why we suppress them a bit…

Development: disease and other problems

These days there is what they call conservation farming, where we are encouraged to dig holes to plant different crops such as oranges, maize and others… At the dam there is a project brought by Choma people connected to agriculture. At least 30 people are involved in the irrigation project. There’s a poultry house at Haabuluba.

The contractor did a very bad job [building the dam]; he didn’t dig deep enough. As such it doesn’t collect enough water to last the whole year. We still need help on this dam. Of course [we are affected by water-borne disease].

I have chickens, guinea fowl, goats and cattle… The major problem is the disease that affects the chicks. They are already infected and I have some problems in getting the medication. I also have a problem with goats. They also have a disease that troubles them a lot… You go to the Vet’s office and they tell you to go the following day and again just like that, until the disease spreads and worsens in the animals.

When we come to cattle, even with them there are some problems. We are advised to dip the animals… We are stuck because of the difficulties we have in acquiring funds to buy the drug to add to the tank to make it effective…

Traditional Tonga customs

The main idea for the Nkolola (coming of age ceremony) was to give advice. This is where a girl got proper advice on how she shall carry on with her lifestyle wherever she is going [upon marriage]. [The Nkolola ceremony was] to show that someone has matured…showing others that you can”eat or harvest” from that family now…[that] there is someone of marriageable age now…

To a Tonga the kalumbu (bow with string) is a nice musical instrument. One, it gets rid of loneliness. Two, it sends a non-verbal message to your parents. Because it was a taboo in those days to tell your father in person that you want to get married.

It’s not like the way you do it nowadays, where you can talk to your parents about condoms. We never talked about such things in front of people. Playing the kalumbu was sending a clear message to your [father] that”Please, I would like to get married”…

[Nowadays] the children…refuse to take part in [these customs]. They would say that this is [the] old model. The kids have become clever. They have started using English.

Wider communication

[Communicating with the government?] You take [your message] to the ward councillor, then he takes it to the MP. When we complain, we notice that the message bearers do not take the message right to the end, they just leave it on the way. The problem here is…the same people we send are the ones that put our messages under the carpet.

We receive information through Radio Chikuni. We are really lucky to have such a station. I might be featured on tonight’s news [laughs]. We are delighted to be receiving information through them… [it] is good. In most cases you talk to someone face to face over an issue and then that person discusses that through the radio. It has really worked well.

Some things have become easier. We no longer waste time going by bicycle to deliver a message to different people. When it can be aired [on radio], it becomes much easier… [However,] there are a lot of things happening in the villages that go unreported.

Fading hope

I am not the kind of person who just sits. I sometimes go to the vegetable garden; I mould bricks to sell so that I may help my children… You need to be a hardworking person to lessen life’s problems. To earn a good living, you have to work hard…

I had great hopes but these are now fading. I was hopeful that I would one day buy a vehicle. But I have now started drawing back. Have you seen this cotton? [Points to a trailer with bags of cotton] There are no proper sacks in which to pack it…hopes are fading. I have the produce, but I don’t have any place to sell it to.

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.


Dominic: valuing tradition is produced as part of the Living with poverty: Zambia oral testimony project.


Anna: strong and hardworking

Benson: people need jobs

Dominic: valuing tradition

Edward: anxiety of poverty

Gilbert: cattle is wealth

Grandwell: sustained support

Mirriam: dedicated to others

Ruth: a mother’s struggle

Sara: coping without family

Utrina: working the land

Warren: the HIV burden

Grace: an open approach

Key themes

Introduction to the project


Food security


Water and drought


Survival strategies

Self-help and community support


Loans and debt

Political representation

The cycle of poverty