Chief Mphuka: A champion of maternal health

CHIEF Mphuka with World Vision child activist Chifunda Chitimbwa (right) and AIDS expert Wanty Chifunda-Mweetwa at a workshop on child marriages in Mpika. PICTURES: JACK ZIMBA

Sunday Profile: JACK ZIMBA, Luangwa
“I NEVER saw the face of my mother because she died when I was very young,” says Chief Mphuka in a solemn, but assertive voice.
The chief, who oversees a small chiefdom of the Chikunda tribe nestled, in the mountainous region in Luangwa district, east of Lusaka, is now a strong advocate of maternal health. His passion and efforts to ensure safe motherhood among his subjects have been recognised by World Vision Zambia.
In Zambia, about 591 in 100,000 women die while giving birth, while the infant, neo-natal and under-five mortality rates are at 70, 34, and 119 per 1,000 live births, respectively.
Home deliveries have been identified as one of the major causes of maternal deaths in the country. Lack of easy access to health facilities forces many women, especially those in rural areas, to deliver at home, but then, when complications arise, death is usually inevitable.
In 2010, Chief Mphuka, who had just ascended to the throne, attended a meeting in Lusaka where maternal health was being discussed.
After learning how many women were dying during the process of giving birth, the chief remembered his own experience.
“That part really bothered me because I remembered that I did not see the face of my mother. I was very young when she died and looking at what hell I went through with my step-mother, I knew that any child who loses their mother while young would have a difficult life,” he says.
In that meeting, Chief Mphuka also heard about how Senior Chief Mumena of the Kaonde people in North-Western Province was making women who delivered babies at home pay penalty fees in form of chickens, as a way of discouraging home deliveries.
“When I heard that, I thought to myself, will my people listen if I tell them to give me chickens. I knew that my people keep a lot of chickens and they wouldn’t bother about giving away a chicken. And so I wanted something bigger in order to discourage them from giving birth at home,” he says.
After discussing with the village headmen, the chief decreed that any woman who gave birth at home in his chiefdom would pay him a goat. The chief’s action was prompted by another incident.
One day, while he and his wife were driving from the palace, the chief noticed some commotion near a baobab tree on the roadside. Approaching the scene, he realised that some women were trying to help a young pregnant woman to deliver.
“Later, I learned that that girl was from Mozambique, our neighbour. That incident did not please me,” he says.
According to the chief, his decree was never really enforced even though some women still gave birth at home, until about a year later when one of the community health workers almost died giving birth at home.
“That woman delivered her baby at home, but the placenta remained in her womb and she was almost dying, but she was rushed to the hospital and she survived,” explains the chief.
That woman was the first to pay for disobeying the chief’s decree.
The second person the chief punished for giving birth at home was his own grandaughter.
“She was guilty of giving birth at home and so I made her pay,” he says.
Chief Mphuka speaks his mind with boldness and does not seem to care to be thought as controversial.
The chief says the goats the offenders gave were used to support the local annual traditional ceremony.
The message was clear: In the Mphuka chiefdom women were not allowed to give birth at home.
Chief Mphuka does not consider it taboo to discuss issues of child birth with his subjects.
“I’m a human being like any other person, I was born out of a woman, I was carried by a woman for nine months… We celebrate when our wives give birth but we don’t usually think of them and the challenges they goes through,” he says.
However, not everyone was happy with the new law.
“The men were against because when they go to a health centre, they will be asked to buy napkins, a basin, soap… Those are the things that made most of my people not go to the hospital. They would rather give birth at home and just get any cloth and wrap the child,” he says.
According to the chief, since the penalty for giving birth at home was introduced, there has been no recorded incidence of maternal death.
“The goats have stopped coming now,” says the chief.
Chifunda Chitimbwa is a coordinator for the Child Health Now, a campaign for maternal and child health under World Vision, which begun in 2012.
“The story we heard from Chief Mphuka was amazing,” she says.
“We want to see if other chiefs in our catchment area could learn from what he is doing in his chiefdom,” says Ms Chitimbwa.
She now hopes to document Chief Mphuka’s efforts and see if it can be replicated in other chiefdoms.
“If we can reduce the maternal mortality rate, for sure the rate of new-born deaths will come down as well, because right now, that is where the challenge really is with child mortality, it is the first month of life where most of these children are dying the most,” she says.
She considers Chief Mphuka as a champion of maternal health, among the likes of Senior Chief Mumena and Chieftainess Nawaitwika of Nakonde.
Chief Mphuka was born Luciano Kamenti Malunga in 1941. He is a descendent of a Portuguese hunter who came from Tete in Mozambique over a century ago.
According to one historical account, when Nsenga warriors from Senior Chief Mburuma’s chiefdom crossed the Luangwa River into present-day Mozambique, they discovered a white woman in the bush. The warriors killed the white woman, whom they mistook for a ghost.
Later, the villagers were confronted by a whiteman armed with guns angry over the death of his wife. In order to make peace, the Nsenga chief offered the Portuguese man land and a Nsenga woman to marry. And so was born the Chikunda tribe and the Mphuka chiefdom. Today, the chiefdom’s population numbers only about a thousand people.
And because of a patrilineal system, Portuguese blood still runs deep in the royal house of Mphuka.
The chief, himself, still bears some physical features of his Portuguese ancestry.
His father was a mailman who delivered letters by foot and bicycle in the early 1940s between Luangwa boma and Luangwa Bridge. After suffering from chronic tuberculosis, he was transferred to Chipata.
His mother – who was one of many wives in his father’s household – died when the little Luciano was still an infant. He was raised by the woman his father had married a month before his own mother died.
He says he had a very rough upbringing under the care of his step-mother, but at least he still managed to go to school.
As a little boy, Luciano’s dream was to become a brother in the Catholic Church, but his father was not for the idea. Later, he thought of joining the Zambia Air Force, but that, too, was not his father’s wish.
He settled for teaching.
In 1965, he enrolled at Chipata Teachers’ Training College.
“We were the first students to open the college in 1965,” he says.
After completing his training, he was sent to work in the mining town of Chingola up to 1998 when he retired.
He decided to settle in Chingola where he had bought two farms. But even then, he knew he was the next heir to the Mphuka throne.
But when the throne fell vacant after the death of his cousin, he was faced with a very difficult decision – he had to choose between his wife of many years and the chieftaincy.
His wife, who was also a teacher, was against the idea of him becoming chief.
After failing to reach compromise, the couple, who had eight children together, decided to divorce.
“I wouldn’t have refused to become a chief when the people wanted me,” he says. “It was a very had decision, but I had no other way but to become a chief.”
He was installed as chief on February 27, 2010.
The chief has since married another woman, Elizabeth Nalwamba.
Chief Mphuka is a devout Catholic, but says there is no conflict between his Christian values and traditional beliefs.
“My throne was given to me by God,” he says.

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