DANIEL SIKAZWE, Chembe
HE WAS very apt.
“If you were to bring all the widows in the Kundamfumu chiefdom of Chembe District in Luapula, they would outnumber the trees of the chiefdom,” a community organiser told this writer during a baseline survey research on challenges faced by widows.The survey was supported by Justice for Widows and Orphans Association (JWOA), a non-governmental organisation working with widows.
Yes, there are fewer trees now in Chembe district and the statement that the trees are fewer than the widows is hyperbole.
But the vexing problem that requires urgent attention in Kundamfumu’s chiefdom in Chembe is two-fold; the cruelty of those who should be caring for widows and how the quest for the widows’ survival is leading to the disappearance of forest cover.
Countless trees continue to be cut daily by widows who practise both the environmentally less destructive chitemene (shifting cultivation) system of agriculture and the brutal annihilation of trees for energy in order to cope with life after the death of their husbands.
It cannot be clearly ascertained what the major cause of death among men in Chembe district is. But HIV/AIDS and traffic accidents could count high among the reasons because Chembe is a transit town which connects Luapula Province to the Copperbelt via the nearly 70 kilometre ‘foot’ stretch of the Congo.
The majority of the dead (men) in the chiefdom scratch out an existence on the land, a peasant life in which men and women are co-producers of food yet unequal owners of land and property in a marriage.
So when husbands die without leaving a will (which happens more often than not), their widows and the environment are condemned to a future of suffering worse than that of beasts of burden.
The labour and toil that Agness Ngandwe, a 50-year-old who lost her husband ten years ago, has endured after 32 years of marriage is unfathomable.
In 2006, she recalls receiving a phone call from one of her husband’s relatives. The message heralded her suffering. Her husband had just collapsed. So for the next three months, she would be by his bedside in Mansa General Hospital till his death. When he had been buried, the worst began.
The relatives of her late husband parked a track outside her house just after the burial. They went away with all the household goods the couple had worked to buy together in the three decades of the marriage. And that was not all.
“I’ve a balance of K4,000 on the house my husband and I were living in. Her relatives told me the only way I could have the house from them is if I bought it from them. They asked me to pay K25,000 so that my children and I can continue living in the house,” Ms Ngandwe narrated amid sobs.
Ten years down the road, Ms Ngandwe has had to clear huge tracts of land to raise money to buy what had been her matrimonial house. Last year, she almost lost the house.
“I did not have fertiliser, so my harvest was poor. I defaulted on the payment and they have been calling me, threatening that they would sell the house. They really want their K4,000,” Ms Ngandwe said.
For Loveness Chama, 65, whose husband was hit by a car just over a decade ago, when the organisation whose vehicle had killed her husband paid the family K30,000, her in-laws called a strange meeting.
“They asked my children to explain how I used to live with my husband. They told them to tell everyone that I was cruel to him. Each one of my children was promised a plot of land if they did this. The man in charge also told me that the money would be used to pay Sangomas to find out how my husband died,” Ms Chama narrated.
With that, Chama left what had been her matrimonial home to start a new life on a rented farm plot.
But starting a new life in a land far away from what had been home after decades of building together with husbands is like walking through hell to get to heaven. The forests will have to burn hard.
In the scorching heat of ambers set up by Eleshi Kunda, a 45-year-old widow, to prepare the land for the next farming season, she remembered how her late husband’s relatives asked her to leave the farm plot she had been growing crops on.
“They tied a white cotton band around my wrist, pronounced a blessing to release me to marry someone else. And then they sent me away with a prayer,” Ms Kunda narrated her ordeal as tears begun to roll down her cheeks.
That was after she had nursed her sick husband for two years before his death. She had lived with him in various parts of the country and supported him while he excelled as an agriculture extension officer.
At his home of retirement at Munushi, Ms Kunda’s husband was laid to rest while she was banished to the land of her birth in Chief Kundamfumu’s area. Her new life would have to be earned through clearing a huge tract of land for the coming farming season.
When the new farming season came, Ms Kunda was busy clearing the land when paradoxically, she came across a twist of the story of her experience. It was the narrative of Edwin Chilufya, a 55-year-old who had decided to end the woes of a widow who was a victim of property grabbing like herself.
“When my current wife’s husband died, her late husband’s relatives grabbed everything the couple had. They even went to the extent of taking away all the maize, cassava and other crops in their field. I felt sorry for the suffering of her children, so I decided to marry her,” Mr Chilufya narrated.
Mr Chilufya’s generosity is just one of the less sustainable ways in which widows who are lucky are able to find an escape from the impending suffering following the death of a spouse in Chembe district. There is no guarantee though that the widow would not suffer a similar fate if the new husband dies or divorces her.
Chief Kundamfumu, a worried man, weighed by the load of responsibility placed on his shoulders by the escalating number of widows in his chiefdom, was sure there had been divine intervention when Justice for Widows and Orphans Association of Zambia (JWOA) executive director Felix Kunda told the chief the local non-governmental organisation had earmarked the chief’s area for interventions. These are aimed at helping widows to find sustainable ways of living life after the death of a spouse.
“I have never, since 1964, seen an NGO come into my area to help widows specifically. I prayed to God and my prayers have been answered,” the chief beamed.
The chief was encouraged by Mr Kunda to keep the faith in a bright future for the widows in his chiefdom.
“We came here to do a baseline survey to ascertain the magnitude of the problems of widows in your chiefdom. Now that we have this understanding, we are beginning the work of organising the widows into support groups of care,” Mr Kunda said.
But it is clear that the care widows in Chembe need is a multifaceted, multisectoral and multistakeholder intervention that includes legal, social and economic protection. JWOA is showing the way that must be emulated by communities.
DANIEL SIKAZWE, Chembe