Recently I met two women with special needs. Each had four children, with the youngest being a few months old. I was struck by the news that there are so many women in this situation in my County. I have been working with women living with HIV/AIDS and others with various challenges - violence, poverty - but in the fourteen or so years of our work, I had encountered oneor two women with special needs. Now they seem to be everywhere I look. This is why I am adding a new layer to my work. This is what this Campaign is about. However, let me first share where it all started.
When I was about 3 years old, I remember a woman who used to run through the door of our house every night. It seemed to me like the darkness was propelling her through my mother’s door. There was never a knock – and I do not know why my mother never locked the door because the woman used to come flying through the door and she would go right to the back of the house. Shortly after, there would be footsteps and then a male voice that would say something and my mother would answer and the noise of the receding footsteps would be left ringing in my young confused ears and mind. Much later in life, I would learn the lady was running away for domestic violence – she was being battered by her husband every night.
At the age of 10, I encountered a woman who became my friend. I do not remember how or why. All I remember is that one day I went to visit her and she was eating plain dry maize/corn and I could not understand why. She told me that sometimes she had no food to cook. So I started taking my lunches to her during the weekends. One day I went to see her and she said to me: “Yesterday when I was seating out here I heard a popping noise. I looked around and saw nothing. But this morning, I saw a crack on my breast!” That was the beginning of a nightmarish battle with cancer. Because she was very malnourished and had no money, she eventually lost her life to cancer.
My childhood girlfriend one day asked me to take her to pray for her mother who was ill. I happily agreed and we went to this dilapidated place where we found a very emancipated body lying outside a hut. She was lying on carton paper, ants and maggots all over her lower body. Innocence is something great – I believed we could pray her to heal – and we prayed. She could not wake up. We prayed some more and left. She died soon after. My friend informed me that her Mom had been evicted from her matrimonial home when her husband married a second wife. She went to live where she was born. When that happens, brothers become very mean because they do not want to see sisters who return home (indeed, when a girl gets married, her parents give her a bed as a present to underline the fact that they have removed her bed and so she should not come back home) – she had no one to look after her, so she died like a dog. As for the children, they were left with a step mother who mistreated them badly. My friend never made it to high school and was married early.
Finally, I met Beatrice, in 2004. She had been asking after me for many days. On the day I made it to see her, it was too late – she was on this bed with an old, old torn mattress, hardly able to talk. All she said to me was: “please make sure my son goes to school.” Vincent was at that time digging outside the hut his Mom lay dying. He was out of school because no one could pay for his school fees. Vincent has been with me since. Beatrice was a faithful wife, a church leader and God fearing woman. Her husband married a second wife and HIV/AIDS came home. The second wife died first, then the man and last, three years later, Beatrice succumbed to HIV/AIDS and left her 10 year old son Vincent behind to be looked after by his grandmother.
The one question I had in my mind was: ‘Why Women?’ And, when these women are in these situations, their children do not go to school like Beatrice’s son, Vincent. What was wrong with this picture for me was that I had never seen a man in such a place of vulnerability. I told myself that I would go to school and read till I finished all education – as if that is possible!! I also knew that I did not want to die like a dog (it is not a state anyone would choose for themselves) – but I knew I had to work hard in order to never be in this situation. I also made the decision, unconsciously, that I would work with women to strengthen their capacity so that they can better take care of themselves and their children. I do not remember the exact time I made that decision, but looking back now, I think the decision lay there dormant, for years, waiting for the day all would be aligned for it to emerge. It was a silent awakening – I just found myself working with women and children. The plight of these women and children baptized me into the work that I do today; and their courage and resilience inspires me to keep serving, no matter the obstacles!