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Edward: anxiety of poverty

Born in 1938, Edward didn’t go to school until he was 12, and then only for two years. There was little money for education; his father had died and his mother was very sick, having to borrow money for medication.

On leaving school, Edward became a farmer. He was impressed by President Kaunda’s government (after Independence in 1964) and the help given by agricultural extension workers. High rainfall and good harvests meant he was able to repay loans by selling maize. But the commercialisation of traditional resources such as wild roots has been less positive.

Edward vividly describes the anxiety caused by poverty – people lie awake at night “trying to figure a way out of [their] predicament”.

When I wake up in the morning I go to the field to clear it. Then I go to the garden with my wife to try to grow some vegetables in the hope that when we sell them we can buy salt and maize to eat, from those people that had a good yield the previous year. I also sit down to think how my life can be improved; what can I do?

I also take on some piecework, like building…when paid, I come home and buy some mealie meal (maize meal) for the family… I am very happy because I was given the knowledge how to build and how to drive… I got my license. [But now] my family is large and [if I went] to town to do some work… who would look after the family? I have decided that I have to suffer with my family here.

I came here in 1959… During this time it was very good, because when our own leadership came into being – the leadership of Nkumbula (Zambian nationalist leader who assisted in the struggle for independence) and Kaunda (Zambia’s first president) – farming was well organised by the extension workers.

I say this because loans were given side by side with the production of maize… We were able to repay the loans after selling [our produce] to the maize board. We also had very good rainfall patterns.

Farming in decline

[However]…when Chiluba started ruling (1991-2002), things became very expensive. When it came to paying back loans, we were paying more than before… [And] in the past we had manure to apply to our fields. We can no longer do that. The animals are dead. Disease really wiped out the animals…

The fertiliser we are given has destroyed the land…The [price of] fertiliser has gone up but the yield has gone down….We no longer have cattle [and] I am no longer that strong… when my children left, some for marriage, our labour force was reduced…

My farming was very good in the beginning because I could produce enough food for the children and for sale in Choma. I grew maize, soya bean, groundnuts, sunflower and sweet potatoes… I used to diversify… The field where I have planted maize, the following year I would plant sunflower. This is in a bid to fertilise the soil. The field that had groundnuts, the following year I would put in maize. We also used to apply manure to make the land good for the crops…

Agricultural extension workers

I got this knowledge from an agriculture extension officer… This field you are seeing here saved me for three years. Poor rainfall has made it look that barren. I was able to feed my children from that field. … With [the extension officer’s] good instructions, we worked very well…

I prefer the time when we were using cow manure and compost… When the land was becoming less fertile [and] the rain was coming we cut down [the sunflower stalks] so [compost] was added to the soil. Today this practice no longer exists.

It seems people are downplaying the role of the extension workers… This was never the case in the old times. We really respected the extension workers… These are the people that taught us conservation farming, to protect our livelihoods. We try the methods they are teaching us, but we do not [have] all the inputs…

[In the past] we got the farming implements from the agricultural officers. Even when we were just starting our families, we were able to apply to an extension officer for a plough, a harrow or a planter… I no longer have the farming implements… If these tools were available, poverty could be brought to an end…

Traditional survival practices

The land is now very dry… [and] if I were to walk to the middle of the dam, you would still be able to see me; I cannot submerge myself in the water as it is too shallow… We had droughts [in the past] but they were periodic… We had old men and women who knew how to ask for rain. Our requests were answered all the time…

In the past the elders taught us a lot of things. We stored our maize in grain banks. We also ate nchenje (a wild fruit), lulezya (wild roots), manshyaabe (wild root used for making chibwantu, sweet beer)… These are some of the things that protect us during droughts. It gives us a chance to spare the maize in the grain banks for other days…

We also dug lusala (a wild root) to eat, before we knew that they could also be sold commercially. [But] this business brought a problem, because we dug [them all up] at the same place – until there was nothing left…

We also reared chickens. There were not so many diseases as there are now… We kept the money [from selling them] for a specified purpose. Sometimes the money could stay in the house for more than a month…kept for emergencies, or indeed any eventuality.

The value of a dam

Then in 19…..sorry I can’t remember the year, it was when I was building these grain banks – the Permanent Secretary for Southern Province came here. He asked us to choose what we needed most – a bore-hole, a grinding mill or a dam.

I said that the thing I would really prefer in this area is a dam… If the [bore-hole pump or] well is damaged, it means people will die as well as livestock. And we would only need the grinding mill if we had water… They asked me [why] I needed the dam.

I said because cattle cannot drink from a well; but they can just go to the dam and drink some water. When I want to do gardening, it would be easier for me to get water from the dam. Even someone from afar can come and use the dam water without any problem. More people can do gardening at the same time using the dam water. There’ll be no situations like “the hand pump is broken down today”; the dam is open for all at all times… After this, that’s when the government started digging…

The dam…has done a very commendable job because the people that used to take their animals long distances to drink water, like to Bulanda, no longer had to go that far… [And] if you look around, you can see the many vegetable gardens that have been made…now the water is near. The gardens are a source of income to many people in this area. Even those who want to mould bricks get water from this dam…

We have seen this dam bring unity and harmony… People are now able to utilise the water for different activities and we have seen this to be very good for the people, thanks to the government.

Poverty alleviated

If government hears your plea, you can survive poverty. You would then have the energy to complete your plans with the help of the agriculture extension officers…[But] if you don’t [have] the strength to work on your own, and if you don’t have access to things from the government through extension officers, then you can find yourself poor.

In the beginning I never felt in poverty because I was able to do what I wanted to do. I felt poor when I lost my property and livestock… But after the establishment of the dam, I have been able to do something. It’s now been two years since it was made.

I started pushing my wives to do vegetable gardening so that we may get something from there. We were able to have some maize to eat in October as we were also sowing fresh plants to coincide with the rainy season…

Some time back there was a District Agriculture Coordinating Office from Choma, though it died a natural death… [A] second development group that I have seen [is] in the area of poultry and gardening. They are also promising to bring some heifer cows so that even patients can have access to milk. The chickens are already laying. Patients can also eat some eggs through the help of this same group.

Ways forward

My greatest request to the government – if it were a listening government like in the past – is to assist us with farming implements… even to have a tractor with the extension officers that could be going round the different fields, cultivating. We need cattle…[we need] to be able to rent oxen… We can return them after the day’s work…

At the moment let them also help us with relief food… There is hunger in this area… [But] when they come to register people for relief food and find that you are also keeping your divorced daughters, they say that they will only register the father and the wife. You try to reason with them, explaining that daughters have children and what shall become of them?

Stress and anxiety

The [cost of] seed maize has also gone higher than a bag of maize. Where shall we get the money? Just to pay back the [cost of the] seed, you have to have two bags of maize! This is theft… We now live in fear of getting loans because we don’t know the means we are going to use to pay them back…

I have managed to send my children to school by brewing beer for sale… we are really struggling because education nowadays is very expensive… The education system is quite [good] except that the infrastructure is dilapidated… We lack materials to construct new classroom blocks… The main problem is lack [of] funds to get the materials…

The saddest thing in my life is this poverty… [Our parents] told us that when we grow up we will “count the planks in the roof of the house”. We just laughed at them and wondered how you could count the planks in the dark…

Little did we realise that they were talking about thoughts [at night], such as how will you be able to solve your problems? You would be in bed with your wife but your eyes are wide open looking at the roof…staring at the darkness trying to figure a way out of your predicament. Sometimes you carry on with thoughts about what to do until morning…

I have hopes that I can do what I want to do. I still have the energy… The fear I have for my family is the issue of hunger… I try to find ways to feed my children…

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.


Edward: anxiety of poverty 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