I’ve taken on the task of interviewing the widows that weave bags at Chikumbuso and writing their stories for promotional and archival purposes. The following is the story of Barbara, who was the first widow I interviewed for this project. I’ve written her story just as she told it to me, including direct quotes from our conversation.
Barbara was born in the Chilulu compound in Lusaka. Thirteen people lived in her family’s three-bedroom house. Barbara was the oldest child, and she was very close to her mom. She stopped going to school after the fourth grade so that she could stay home and help her mother with household chores and responsibilities. Oftentimes, her mother visited relatives in distant villages, leaving Barbara to care for all of her siblings for days or weeks at a time.
Barbara first met her husband when her family rented his mother’s house. He was twenty, and she was eighteen. He was a self-employed carpenter. Every day, he went to the market to buy wood, and brought it home on his bicycle to build tables, chairs, and other furniture to sell. One day, he came over when her mom was not home to ask for help removing wood from his bicycle. Barbara refused to help him, but he didn’t give up. He came to her house the next day for the same purpose. This time, she agreed to help him. While she was helping him with his bicycle, he professed his love to her. “Oh thank you! I wish [for] you and I to be together,” he said. “How do you mean like that?” Barbara asked. He told her to wait until the next day, and he would show her what he meant. The next day, there was another knock at her door. It was the man again. He had brought eggs, milk, oil, sugar, and lotion for her. She realized that he was trying to impress her so that she would marry him.
“I want to chat with you,” he said. “Chat with me about what?” she retorted. “You know. You are a big girl,” he replied. He told her that he had watched her care for her siblings and help her mother with the house, and he was impressed by how hardworking and steadfast she was. He said that he was sure that he wanted to marry her. She resisted at first, insisting that she needed time to get to know him before she could agree to marry him. He began to bring her and her family gifts, and after several days she accepted his proposal. They were married five months later.
The first years of Barbara’s marriage were blissfully happy. She describes her husband as wonderfully caring and loving. They had three children together, one girl and two boys. When Barbara was pregnant with the couple’s fourth child, her mother came to visit her. She noticed that Barbara was getting thin, and suggested that she go to see a doctor. “You are a fat girl. Now you are coming slim slim all the time. Why? Are you not eating, or what is happening to you?” Barbara followed her mother’s advice and went to the local clinic. She tested positive for HIV.
When Barbara told her husband that she was HIV-positive, he did not believe her. “How can it be that you are positive? Those machines are not properly maintained. They are lying. What about all these three kids which we have? They are fine, and when you were going to the clinic they didn’t test you that you are positive.” A fight ensued. Barbara’s husband insisted that he’d been faithful; he couldn’t have infected her with HIV. But Barbara maintains that she has never had an affair. She doesn’t know how they were infected.
As her pregnancy progressed, Barbara paid little attention to her HIV-positive status. She didn’t understand the gravity of her diagnosis. To her, it was just a small inconvenience like “just malaria.” When their baby was born, Barbara’s husband tried to convince her not to breastfeed. Barbara insisted that she had breastfed all of their other three children, and she would breastfeed this son as well. She didn’t know that she was putting her son’s life in jeopardy by exposing him to HIV.
In September 2005, when her son was seven months old, he got sick and passed away. Her husband cried, “You have killed my baby! I told you do not breastfeed, and you refused. It’s you who have killed my baby.” Four months later, her husband died as well.
Barbara was devastated. While they were married, Barbara lacked nothing. Her husband provided everything that she needed. She stayed home and cared for the children while he worked. “When he died, I was very confused,” she said. “Now I am HIV positive. My baby has passed away. My husband has passed away. I don’t know anything; I didn’t go to school. How am I going to survive to keep all these three children on my own?”
The mysterious disease that she knew so little about had stolen her husband and infant son. She was sure that it would kill her too. “Tomorrow or any day I will follow my husband.” As she waited for death, Barbara gave her two sons to her mother-in-law in a remote village. She kept her daughter with her in Lusaka to care for her until she died. As the days passed, Barbara grew increasingly depressed and hopeless.
One day while she was walking to the market, Barbara ran into her old friend Mary, who works in Chikumbuso’s sewing room. Mary asked her why she was so sad. Barbara told Mary that she had HIV and would die soon. Mary told her that this was nonsense. Mary was also HIV-positive, and she wasn’t planning on dying anytime soon! Barbara was astonished. She did not know that people with HIV could take medicine and continue to live normal lives. She walked away from the conversation encouraged and with new a resolve to live.
However, as the weeks progressed, Barbara began to struggle with depression again. She couldn’t care for her daughter or herself, and she felt useless. They frequently went without eating. As she grew thinner and sicker, she began to doubt Mary’s words. She decided that since she would eventually die like her husband and son, she should end her life sooner. One day, Barbara gathered the last of her money and took it to the store. She told her daughter that she would buy vegetables for their dinner, but she actually had other plans. Barbara purchased rat poison to end her life.
As she was walking home from the store, rat poison in her hand, Barbara ran into Mary again. Again, Mary asked Barbara why she looked so sad. Barbara said that she was fine, there was nothing to worry about. Mary knew that something was wrong, and she insisted that Barbara tell her. She saw that Barbara was holding something in her hand. “Where are you coming from?” Mary asked. “You are looking like you are walking very long and you are tired.” Barbara began to cry. She confessed, “Mary, you will not see me again. I have bought this medicine; today is my last day of living. I will die today.” Mary took the rat poison and threw it away. She told Barbara to come home with her and spend the night. Barbara replied, “How am I going to spend the night with you? I’ve left my daughter alone.” Mary reminded Barbara that she was not thinking of her daughter when she bought the poison to kill herself.
Mary took Barbara by the hand and led her straight to Chikumbuso. She explained the day’s events to Mama Linda (the founder of Chikumbuso). “Mama Linda started hugging me, started telling me sweet stories.” She gave Barbara a little money to replace what she’d spent on the rat poison. Then, she placed a pair of scissors and some plastic in her hand so that she could crochet her first bag. Barbara told Mama Linda that she couldn’t crochet, but Linda insisted that she stay and learn. Mama Linda sat by her side all afternoon, talking and crocheting. That night, Mary walked Barbara home and stayed with her while she prepared dinner. Her daughter had no idea what had transpired during the day.
Barbara continued to come to Chikumbuso to crochet bags and talk to Mama Linda. Her first bags, she says, were very ugly, but Mama Linda bought them anyway. With time, she learned how to crochet more beautiful bags, and she made enough money to feed and support her daughter. Every time she cooked dinner and ate with her daughter, she wondered, “Have my two boys in the village eaten?” Barbara decided that she wanted to be with her sons again.
She saved money for seven months. When she finally had enough, Barbara travelled to the village to get her sons. They had been separated for one and a half years. When she saw them again, their stomachs were distended from malnutrition. She brought them back to Lusaka, where she fed them well with the money that she made at Chikumbuso, and she enrolled them in school.
Today, her daughter has graduated from high school and is eager to begin college. Her sons are still enrolled in school and are doing well. Barbara supports her family with the income that she earns at Chikumbuso. She tells people that she works at Chikumbuso, not as a maid or clothes-washer, but as a self-employed handbag designer.
“So Chikumbuso was a good thing for you?” I asked her at the end of our conversation.
“Yes! Very, very… Because of Chikumbuso, I am alive,” Barbara replied. “So, this is my story,” she smiled a wide, infectious smile and enveloped me in a big hug.
“Thank you for telling me your story, Barbara,” I whispered.
“Thank you for listening,” she replied.