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Ringston Mwale: Divided in politics, united in marriage

RINGSTON Mwale arrives at an isolated polling station in Lumezi Constituency, Lundazi, in style – with two of his four wives in tow. The pensive look on his face tells of the seriousness he attaches to what he was about to do; to vote for Zambia’s next President.
After casting his vote, he leads his small delegation out, clearly proud of what he had just done.
I decide to follow the 67-year-old patriarch back to his home. His wives, however, warn me about the long distance and so I borrow a bicycle to ease my travel back to the polling station.
We pass a few homesteads made up of mud houses and a few maize fields, but mostly we walk through bush in paths that crisscross and disappear into the overgrowth.
We cross two streams, steadying ourselves on makeshift bridges made out of logs. It is a long hike and the afternoon heat is punishing. My feet begin to hurt, but I keep in step with the old man, consoled somewhat by the beautiful green scenery.
To me, this is adventure, for Mr Mwale, this is routine.
But my thoughts go to Mr Mwale’s children and grandchildren, who have to walk this long distance every day to attend school.
Usually, the children leave home, but don’t reach their school, choosing, instead, to play in the bush, says Mr Mwale.
He expresses deep sadness about the situation and it is easy to understand why.
Mr Mwale only went up to grade three and when he grew up, he dreamt of having educated children, but none of his 12 children or grand children have gone beyond grade seven.
“How can small children walk this long distance to school?” he asks.
In spite of all the hardships Mr Mwale faces, he is keen about voting and along the way, he encourages every adult we meet to go and vote.
After walking for over an hour, we enter Mr Mwale’s compound and are greeted by the music of Franco blaring from a badly-tuned radio.
His home is situated in Sikelo village in Chief Zumwanda’s area and all the four wives live in the same compound.
“One wife is not enough,” says Mr Mwale, who married his first wife, Tamanyauli Nyirongo in 1969.  He then married his second wife in 1983, another one in 1989 and his fourth in 1993.
He spends a week at a time with each of his wives, though he does admit the time is not enough and that it takes too long to complete the love cycle. Polygamy is very common among the Tumbukas.
At the time of my visit, the old man’s third wife was very ill at her parents’ village, where she was being nursed with the help of his fourth wife.
In the compound, Mr Mwale leads me to a small mud house and ushers me into a Spartan room. The house belongs to his first wife.
I sit on a small stool that elevates me just a few inches off the floor, while he sits on an old shell of a car battery.
An old pair of shoe, probably the old man’s best, hangs on the wall, revealing their worn-out sores.
But my eyes are immediately drawn to a campaign poster for Edgar Lungu nailed onto the wall on the other side of the small room.
“Did you vote for him?” I ask, pointing to the man on the wall.
“No,” responds the old man with a smirk.
Politics has divided Mr Mwale’s family. He voted for the Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) president Edith Nawakwi, while his two wives voted for Hakainde Hichilema, the United Party for National Development president. His first-born son, Isaac, voted for Edgar Lungu, who would become President.
Mr Mwale’s support for the FDD candidate is based on his belief that women are more caring and usually do not steal.
“This is what I have seen in our church that when you put a woman in leadership, things are done in a proper manner and there is good accountability of funds,” says Mr Mwale, who is a leader in his church called Chipangano Africa Covenant Church.
However, in his final analysis, he paints all politicians with the same brush.
“They all tell us lies when they come here,” he says.
“Why did you walk all the way to vote, then?” I ask.
“It is important to elect leaders because if we don’t have leaders, whom are we going to complain to?” he says.
Our conversation is briefly interrupted by a small boy in torn, dirty cloths, who walks in bearing plates, which he carefully places on the floor between us.
“This is my grandson,” introduces Mr Mwale.
The meal the boy brings consists of nshima and boiled pumpkin leaves with salt as the only ingredient. There is also a cup of milky water to wash down the meal.
Mr Mwale is full of apology over the frugal meal. I eat my portion more out of courtesy than anything else. Swallowing is hard.
A scrawny dog waits in the doorway as we eat, but in the end there is nothing for the poor creature.
These are lean times for Mr Mwale and his family, and there are about 20 children in the compound to feed.
Usually the family runs out of food by July, then they have to work on other people’s farms to eat until the next harvest in April.
To Mr Mwale, there is only one solution to reverse his misfortune – subsidised fertiliser from Government.
“Our soil is very used to fertilizer,” he says.
Fertiliser is the most precious commodity among the villagers here. It means the difference between a good harvest and starvation.
“Things were better under President [Kenneth] Kaunda because Kaunda gave everyone fertiliser,” says the old man.
This season, Mr Mwale only has four bags of fertiliser which were loaned to him by a cotton company.
The next harvest does not look very promising.
Last year, the old man made enough money from tobacco to buy a motorbike. This year, however, the tobacco company is not interested in small farmers like him.
Mr Mwale’s demands to the new President are basic – water, fertiliser and a school near his home.
Water is usually a problem during the dry season in this land. Just two months ago, the villagers in the area had to fetch water many kilometres away using bicycles and ox-cart.
With the onset of the rains, the two nearby streams are slowly filling up, but that also means the children will not have access to the school.
Four days after Mr Mwale cast his vote, Zambia had a new President and it was not his prefered candidate. The old man now has to look up to the man on the wall of his house for hope.

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