You are here: Home » Resources » Oral Testimonies » Gilbert: cattle is wealth

Gilbert: cattle is wealth

Gilbert: 'If I was a farmer like those with cattle, I would be fine'

Gilbert works as a security guard. He says that things have got steadily worse since the end of President Kaunda’s government (which followed Independence in 1964). He complains that the government provides no assistance apart from paying teachers’ salaries.

Gilbert stresses the importance of education and is unhappy that one of his daughters has dropped out of school. He values his marriage, and explains that it’s crucial for a husband and wife to jointly support their children and each other. He says that polygamy is bad if you are poor, but fine for rich people.

“Cattle is wealth,” he says. “Poverty has come because I am not a farmer. If I was a farmer like those with cattle, I would be fine. Poverty has led to my moving here and there for work, due to the lack of farming equipment in the village.”

There are many problems. These problems are hunger…water is also giving us problems. When we go to draw water from the well of another person, they charge. They say bring 500 Kwacha…what do you do? You just give it…

We don’t have good roads, nothing. There are no good houses, the toilets we dig ourselves and the well that was here at Mwapona is broken down…. There is one well in the east near Tukonkote… For me, I go to one of my neighbours who has a well and that is where I draw water.

The water sources that I am saying are broken down are the hand pumps. The single hand pump which exists cannot sustain Mwapona… [and] most of the wells have collapsed… The water in [my neighbour’s well] is good because they put in chlorine and so when we drink the water we are sure there are no germs…

But what makes people in Mwapona poor is lack of employment…

Making ends meet

Since jobs here in Mwapona are not to be found, for me I am a security guard and when I knock off in the evenings, I go and do piecework… In the past I used to grow vegetables, but these days due to lack of water I stopped…

I work for an individual…as a security guard. But this person I work for, if I request some money in a situation of need, he can assist me. If I need to buy clothes for a child or if I need school fees…he is able to help me…

Although sometimes, after giving me that money, he deducts it when I get paid because it was like credit and is counted as an advance… [but] if you have a problem such as a funeral to take care of, he is able to give you money without asking for pay back.

The salary he gives me is very little…[but] I have not found anywhere else to work…

Two pairs of working hands

[My wife’s] piecework involves washing clothes… Where she works the woman is Beba by tribe. She does people’s laundry and she wants my wife to be always going there. Even my boy, whenever he knocks off from school, goes there and assists in watering the garden. My wife…[also] washes plates, and sweeps… During the rainy season she does piecework in the fields of other people…

The type of piecework [I do] sometimes involves cutting poles for someone to construct a house. Sometimes you are told to till the land and other times someone wants bricks made. You do the work and you are given money, you go and buy a pamela (1 kg packet of maize meal)…but some days it is difficult, you can’t find any piecework.

The advantages of the two of you working are that sometimes as a man you run short of money or perhaps you have not yet been paid by your employer, but your wife who does piecework [can] assist in buying food [or] soap before you get your money.


I [went to school] until my father died… I only went up to grade 7 because my mother had no money.

There is good in going to school, because if you are educated maybe in future you can find a serious job. Sometimes, if you don’t join a company, you might come up with your own carpentry workshop and find people to work for you…

[But] if school fees start to increase it will be difficult…because the money that I get as a security person is little. [My] fourth born is a girl and she doesn’t want to go to school. She is lazy… I [have] stopped forcing her to go to school by beating her because you can end up hurting the child… Sometimes teachers call her to school but whenever a subject becomes difficult for her, she tells lies [saying] that she is sick…

Urban dangers

Her life will be difficult. As for now, she does some piecework at one woman’s [house]. She is learning to wash plates… I want to force her to go to school again, because if I give up and let her stay at home, the truth is she will be useless in the future – you already know what town life is like…

I wouldn’t want my children to grow up here in town… If the child is a girl, she will start moving here and there, until she acquires a disease and who suffers later? It is the mother and father. So I want these daughters who are not yet married to go back to the village when they grow up… Because if they go to the village, they will learn good rules. In town they will follow peer pressure which is not good…


People are always coughing, people are growing thin… when you look at a person, you start…imagining that this may be HIV and AIDS. Some complain of stomach pains… Headaches and backaches are very common.

They teach [you] to stick to your wife only if you are married, so that you do not go to another woman… If we do not respect ourselves, we will end up with the disease, die and leave our children alone – and then they become destitute and have nowhere to go.

No work in the village

Staying in the village is good if you have cattle for farming. Apart from cattle, you also need fertiliser and good rainfall. If these are there, then you are okay. Then you also need good land, which is not under dispute with others…

Even when the rains are not enough, if you have fertiliser and draught power it’s much better, because you can produce enough food. Then that is when it is nice. But if you don’t have anything – like me seated here – I’d say, let me go to town to look for a job and maybe after working there I will be able to feed my children.

Deteriorating conditions

During the Kaunda government (1964-91), we used to experience hunger, but the president used to look out for us, his people. During that time, if you didn’t have food, you used to be given a 90 kg bag of maize.

After being given that, enough food remained in the reserve so they would tell you when to come for your next turn and when that date came, you just went and got your food. This would continue until the next season and at that time money was easy to find…

When we came to the Chiluba government (1991-2002), there were a lot of things in the market and…it was a bit easy to access money… But under the current government of Mwanawasa (2002- ), things are hard. Life is unbearable… hunger has increased, cash is not to be found.

Finding money has become lwija lwamubwa (“as difficult as to find a dog with a horn”)… Under the Chiluba government at least we got some relief food in terms of yellow maize. But ever since Mwanawasa became president, there is no relief food.

Loans and maize were more available

The major reason that Kaunda (Zambia’s first president) looked after us is because there was maize… grain depots were to be found even in the rural areas… [And] the trucks that used to carry maize from the depots to town, they would bring seeds and fertiliser back to the depots… there were a lot of depots and people used to farm a lot. They used to get loans.

I got eight bags of fertiliser [as a loan]: under-dressing four bags and top-dressing four bags… Then we ploughed and had enough food and in the following year I again went to get bags of fertiliser… But that year, the crops died because of drought… I can’t recall exactly which year because it has been a long time.

Then people’s standard of living dropped and the majority could not manage to improve their lives any more. But those with cattle were doing fine. Then that time came when those of us who could not afford to do better, we would go to another person and ask for food when we were hungry. They used to give us at least a bucketful of maize… Some people would give you two buckets.

“Agriculture has died”

If assistance with fertiliser can be given, I can just go back to the village…where there is plenty of land… There is an area we call kobulongo, [so] vast that even four people could farm it, and we have other land near Dimbwe village, also vast and left to us by our father. [If] I was given fertiliser, I could leave Mwapona and go home to start farming…

I say I’ve become a child – because everything is about being helped… This is because there is no money… Unlike in the Kaunda times, money has become light and things have become expensive. This means that even agriculture has died – what makes Zambia tick is agriculture and if agriculture was doing fine, we would say Zambia is ticking…

Government neglect

Since 2002 to date I have not seen anything that the government has done… These roads were done by this man from Germany (the development agency GTZ). He is the one who…came to help us to make these roads, help us build this school. He made us mould bricks…in four groups…and that’s when we built this school… People were digging into their own pockets to build for themselves.

No government assisted us but now there are some teachers…paid by the government… There is nothing they have given us apart from the teachers and I don’t even know how many of them are at this school.

The toilets, you have to dig for yourself. When rain comes, they collapse and then you start using the bush as a toilet. For water, we dig shallow wells for ourselves and that is what we drink. The government have never [provided]…good toilets for the community, nothing.

Polygamy and poverty

The church is good because it assists… [and] they teach that whatever parents tell their children, they should follow. One reason I am saying polygamy is bad is because church teachings do not allow this… Secondly I say it is especially bad during times of hunger: how can you feed two people and they both have children? One wife may have five and the other one six children, while you are alone as a man.

If both wives are working, it is okay. Some women are very sensible. You will be working, both of you, then you find she buys you some trousers [laughs], maybe she buys you a shirt like my wife did.

But if you are not friends, whenever the wife brings in money, she banks it in the house and…after you leave home, behind your back she buys bread, eats with the children and does not give you anything. But those women that are good, you will be clothing one another and both assisting in buying the food…

But in wealth, polygamy is good. Because as a rich person you have cattle and you are able to farm and there are no problems. Therefore, with rich people polygamy is good because when it comes to farming…you have enough labour.

“Cattle bring wealth”

Poverty has come because I am not a farmer. If I was a farmer like those with cattle, I would be fine. Poverty has lead to my moving here and there for work, due to the lack of farming equipment in the village.

A poor person I would say has no cattle, because having cattle brings wealth… Some…of us – like me – do not have cattle, or a bicycle, and have to rent our house. I would say I am poor… For us who do not even have a goat, like me, I would say are poor – because I have nothing.

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.


Gilbert: cattle is wealth 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