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Ruth: a mother’s struggle

Ruth: 'Men are the ones who are always spearheading activities...'

Ruth first became pregnant when she applied to nursing college. She postponed her further education and gave up on it completely when, just six months after giving birth, she discovered she was pregnant again. Her partner later left her because he wanted a wife with a job, taking their children with him. In a cruel twist of fate, he married a nurse.

She had three more children with different men and has left two of them with their fathers. Now on her own – with an eight-year-old to look after – she struggles to make ends meet by selling groundnuts, charcoal and home-brewed beer, washing clothes and working on farms.

Ruth implies that some members of the community control what can and can’t be done. If, as a woman, she protests against this or other injustices, she is firmly put down and told “you are being too talkative”.

I came here in 1995. I was born in Mazabuka in 1962. I went to a very rural school there. After I went to Macha secondary school [and] from there, I was sent to Mebosho secondary school in Luapula province, for two terms only.

It was too far for me to travel and my parents agreed, so they got a transfer for me…to Choma secondary school. I completed in 1981.

Motherhood stops studies

I wanted to continue with my education but I met a guy who I started going out with. Unfortunately he made me pregnant, and I had my first child in 1982… I had [just left school] and applied to train as a nurse, but by the time they accepted me I was pregnant, so I couldn’t go.

Then I said I would go after I delivered. But [it wasn’t] long before I conceived my second child… [only] six months… I didn’t even have a relative nearby to keep my children while I went to school, so I just stayed home without…training.

I had three children with Mwananyambe….the third in 1987… Afterwards, he decided to leave me; his friends told him that he cannot marry a woman who is not working… They were laughing at him saying,”Us, when we get paid, our wives also get paid…You are like an animal which has so many ticks that suck blood from it.” [Laughs] When my husband heard that, that’s when he decided to leave me, after we had three children. Otherwise, I didn’t see anything bad with this man.

He found a lady who was a nurse at the hospital where he was working…I [recently] heard that the lady he married after me was laid off, she is no longer working. Now they have all my children… I haven’t seen them in a long time because he got the children when they were very young – the youngest was eight months old, and was still being breastfed. From the time they left, until last year, I hadn’t seen them …

You know, it is hard when you are still fit to bear children. I just decided to have a man – not for marriage, but for fun. But unfortunately I conceived again, I had a boy and he is in Mazabuka with his father. Again after some time, before I moved to Choma, I conceived again from another man.

I decided to come to Choma because this is where my parents were…And after I came to Choma, I met another man, a businessman, who impregnated me. And that is the youngest child I have, who stays with me… I am living alone.

Economic survival

I sell vegetables and am also in the business of selling illegal beer known as kachasu (home-brewed beer). There is nothing else I do. I started doing some small business, selling fish. When I came here to Choma, that is when I started brewing kachasu… when I decided to live alone in the shanties.

But…beer brings no profit these days. A few months ago, I was doing some piecework with GTZ (German aid agency); it was better because we were getting mealie meal (maize meal) as payment. Sometimes if I get more than one bag of mealie meal, I would sell one for cash. I also sell groundnuts, and charcoal in small quantities, just to sustain our livelihood…

When we were brewing [beer] a few years back, we used to make a lot of money, and I would buy anything I wanted. These days, you can pass a whole week without [getting] cash. I get most of our food on credit. And it isn’t even a balanced diet. We are used to that now.

[Health workers] used to come here, mainly from the council. What they used to do is just spill all the beer…throw away everything. They were saying it was illegal…that it was a drug just like cannabis. We used to hide it! But now I have seen that there is no profit even if I do it secretly… It’s wasting my time.

I think I should try doing something else, so now what I do is I buy small packs of mealie meal and re-sell them, just like that! I get a little profit, maybe 2,500 Kwacha. That is the money I use to buy food. Sometimes I also sell charcoal and it gives me about 3,000 Kwacha profit. I also get some clothes for myself and my child on a”pay-show” basis (a deposit followed by regular payments) where I pay maybe 1,000 Kwacha per day. This is how we live…

“There is so much hunger”

Many people also find it hard to survive. Most of them also rely on piecework, and sometimes begging. They also do things like washing clothes for people who have money. Sometimes we are given 5,000 Kwacha for washing clothes; we keep changing places of work so that we get more money.

Also, during the farming season, we work on people’s land…if we don’t do that, then we will sleep hungry for days. And this year, there is so much hunger. Some just eat once a day and this food is usually not balanced. It’s just anything that makes us feel like we have eaten something.

Desperation makes it hard to club together

Ah, no, we don’t have any clubs at all…Organisations have come, and they have lied to us, saying that they will bring clubs here, but nothing has happened. We were at one time doing something with CRAIDS (Community Response to HIV and AIDS); we were at a workshop with them for five days. We were told they will give us some sewing machines so that we can make clothes to sell.

There is another organisation called SWAZ (Society for Women and AIDS in Zambia), which also wanted to form a club with us. They bought us a piece of land so that we can start gardening. We did that just for a few months and we failed. You know, many people here are not good sometimes; you will find that they will start stealing.

We have tried and we want to do something, but there are others who are not committed… the other thing is that there is no cooperation in this community. Someone can have an idea…but others will say, no, we want to go and look for food for our children. So we find it difficult to convince the women because their excuses are quite genuine. They need to feed their families.

These clubs could help us so much. We could start making doormats for sale, or even making uniforms for schoolchildren.

Development projects bring benefit

GTZ (German aid agency)…made fish ponds for us and also worked on a few roads. They also made us stoves which we are still using… [they] do not consume a lot of firewood. I use very few pieces of fuelwood; it is costing maybe only 500 Kwacha for me to prepare a meal. We also have a clinic which GTZ built for us.

The stoves have made my life easier. I don’t have to buy lots of firewood. And also the clinic has benefited me, even if they do not operate on a daily basis. Many women get their antenatal help from there. They also provide services for the under-fives – once in a while.

We go to Shampande clinic and sometimes we go to these private clinics. It is far but there is nothing else we can do. There are times when I have terrible malaria and I even fail to reach the clinic in Shampande. When you have money you can book a taxi. Those who are expecting, they are helped by the TBAs (traditional birth attendants). If the TBAs are not around, then you just have to book a taxi to go to the nearest clinic…

Male dominance

They haven’t fully opened our clinic because they are saying there is no toilet… People are just talking about it [but not building one]… these are the people who are controlling others…what can we do? If we women say something, they will say you are being too talkative…

Like the time we had fish ponds – we used to have a lot of fish, but some people had to steal the fish. Yet if you raise this issue, they accuse you of talking too much. We have [fish still] but…we just have small ones. And…there was inadequate rainfall this year and the dams ran dry .We don’t know what will happen…

Many times women are not considered in decision making; men mostly dominate high positions. I don’t know why. You’ll find that even if a project should involve women, men are the ones who are always spearheading activities. Like SWAZ – it was meant for women, but men were the ones who took charge. But we realised that we were the ones to run the activities. We mentioned this to them; that is when the men stopped…

Attitudes to HIV and AIDS

Mwapona has not been spared the pandemic. Many people have suffered from the disease and others have died from HIV-related illnesses. The problem is that people are not willing to go for HIV testing.

The problem is also that there…are plenty of shebeens (drinking places). After they are drunk, [men] do anything and they don’t even think about condoms. And women engage…because they want to find money for food, they don’t care whether the man is HIV free or not.

Nobody has [declared him or herself HIV positive], but…it is easy to tell that some people are suffering from AIDS-related illnesses. There is no help that these people get from the community – I can’t lie.

Some incentive to be tested

There is an organisation which used to give food…mealie meal and other high nutrient foods. But now that is no more. I hope that maybe now that there is medicine for prolonging life, the drugs will be given for free. When there were no drugs, people were afraid to be tested. I believe now they will go for testing because there are drugs.

We are affected by HIV and AIDS because everyone is, although nobody in our family has ever been ill or died of AIDS-related illnesses… I haven’t gone for HIV testing yet. I will go later [laughs]… Everybody is vulnerable. Old women, [old] men, young girls and boys are also contracting this disease…

Orphans at risk

There never used to be as many orphans… You now have more than 10 orphans being kept by one member of the deceased’s family…We never saw such things happening the time I was growing up. We have so many orphans in Mwapona…We don’t even have an orphanage. Some people come here, take names of children – maybe up to 50 – but you’ll find out that only a few are helped.

AIDS is the one which has left so many orphans. You will find that young people are dying and leaving young children. And these same children have engaged in dangerous activities like prostitution and drug abuse… [Prostitution] is very high… There is no age limit. Some old people can also be found in nightclubs, working in prostitution… These sexually transmitted diseases mostly affect those that drink beer, because if you are not drunk, you don’t do silly things…

There has not been anyone [from the ministry of health]. I haven’t seen anyone at all. We only get information [about HIV and AIDS] through the local radio stations.

Lack of employment drives prostitution

The main problem among older people is unemployment. Many of us don’t work. People reply on piecework. There is nothing serious that many of us are doing. If we were working, we would not have high prostitution levels… others are involved in crime because of not having money.

There has been no NGO coming here, apart from GTZ… we used to get some mealie-meal after working for them. Nobody complained, because all we need is to eat… It is three months since we last did something with GTZ. They said the contract had ended…

We appreciated what they did, especially giving us mealie meal. We didn’t care much about money. What we would do is sell some of the mealie meal to get money for relish and other basic needs.

“We eat anything”

Many people here live in poverty…There are those who are very, very poor, and they only have a meal once a day. [Their problems] started a long time ago… A few years ago, I was not having problems. Nowadays I don’t have money and my child is at a community school… I can’t even find enough money to support him… We eat anything that comes by.

He is eight years old. He is in grade two, he delayed starting school… the good thing is that my child is bright… I try working out his homework with him… I have always encouraged him to study hard. I tell him not to worry when his friends take some food to school… If he sees his friends with food, he wants it… Sometimes when I try explaining that there is no food, it is difficult for him to understand… he is still very young.

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.


Ruth: a mother’s struggle 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