ALEX NJOVU, Lusaka
WITH a baby on her back, Bertha Kamuti, who cannot certainly be older than 20 years, is seemingly at home in one of the bars at Liteta, which is about 64 kilometres from Kabwe.
Bertha is enjoying her castle lager.
We were in Chisamba for a meeting at Ibis Gardens, and at the end of the day, we decided to see what Liteta, which is in the nearby Chibombo District, had to offer. And boy, there is much more than those vegetables and fruits that you see during the day.
This seemingly lethargic town which services travellers on the Great North Road becomes some kind of a red light district albeit in a rural set-up.
Young girls with babies strapped on their backs loitering around in bars as late (or early) as 01:00 hours are a common sight. And a normal sight for that matter.
You do not need a questionnaire to know what they are looking for in bars around that time.
“I have no choice but to move with my baby at night. My parents are poor and old, they cannot take care of my baby and I cannot stay at home to nurse my child, especially at night, because that is when business thrives for us,” Bertha says.
The business she is talking about is sex, mostly with travellers who make a stopover in the area, which is popular for its array of fresh vegetables and fruits that fetch for a reasonably fair price.
“Our area is a transit place where people move from Lusaka to the Copperbelt and vice versa, so we make a lot of money at night,” she says.
A Grade Nine school dropout, Bertha has two children whose father she does not know. But that is least of her concerns as I chat with her. She is eager to secure a client or at least a drink.
Before long, she is with the child on her back dancing to a song that has just been played by the disc jockey. The song is Sekesha Umupashi, a popular song by Vally Vally featuring 408 Empire, which loosely translates as ‘make your spirit happy’. And that is what Bertha thinks she is doing – making herself happy.
But make no mistake; Bertha is not unique in this regard.
“Life is hard here in Liteta. You have to be strong to get what you want, if it means moving with your newly-born baby on your back at night, you have to do it as long as you are strong,” Ndiwenu said in justifying why Bertha is on the right side of the moral compass to come with a baby in the bar at around midnight.
Having been offered something for a drink, Ndiwenu, who is also with her two-year-old baby in the bar, is ready to give more insight into their work.
“My parents are late and I have no one to leave my child with at home,” she says. “So I move with my baby whenever I go out and when I have a client, I go with my baby until I finish what I’m doing,” she says.
I decide to keep an eye on Ndiwenu, and around 01:30 hours, she disappears with her baby before resurfacing on stage dancing to a song. No prizes for guessing right where she went.
When she takes back her place, I enquire where she went. But she somewhat dismisses me. I know what she wants – more money. I give her some, and ask whether the baby does not inconvenience her when she goes out with a client.
“We usually give our children piriton [a sedating antihistamine that enters the brain in significant quantities and causes drowsiness],” she says as she walks away to attend to her child, who was playing with another child right in the bar.
As I wait for Ndiwenu to come back, another young woman, also with her baby strapped on her back, is slapped hard by a man, who from the look of things, could be the boyfriend and possibly the father of the child.
The slap was enough to ground the woman, and coupled with the beer in her system, she has difficulties getting up. The man helps her and sharply rebukes her for exposing the child to the cold.
We simply watch.
I later ask one of the bar owners why he allows these young women to enter the facility with their babies. His answer was chilling.
“We don’t have a lot of people in Liteta. It’s a small town with a small population, so when we stop the few people that come into our bars, what are we going to eat?” he says. “I know that it is wrong to allow young girls with babies on their backs and teenagers into our bars but there is nothing we can do. We need to survive. They attract other customers for us.”
Back in Lusaka, I get in touch with Chibombo council chairman James Ntalasha and ask him whether he is aware that young girls are patronising bars in Liteta in the company of their babies.
Mr Ntalasha says he is hearing of this for the first time.
“If it is happening, it means my officers at the council are not working, they have gone to sleep, we’re moving into Liteta to conduct a serious operation,” he says.
“We cannot allow young girls with babies on their backs in bars at night. What kind of generation are we raising? We’re coming for them. This has to stop with immediate effect.
“We may not stop or change the behaviour of the girls but we will at least clamp on the bars which they use to engage in illicit activities. The law is clear that no underage should be allowed in a bar, why are they allowing children in such facilities?”
ALEX NJOVU, Lusaka