World Pulse

ZAMBIA: Only I Remain

Prudence Chinemu Phiri
Posted April 26, 2012 from Zambia

That Sunday, I came back from church feeling happy and looking forward to a visit with my brother at the orphanage. Before heading to the Mother Theresa’s home where my brother had been for almost a year, I rushed to the makeshift kitchen attached to my grandmother’s two-room house to get something to eat. As soon as I had finished, my granny called out to me. I hurried to her room to find her sitting on her old mattress sobbing. She hugged me tightly, in a way she hadn’t for a long time, and I couldn’t understand her gesture.

Wasala weka! Wasala weka!” cried my granny as she held me tightly to her chest. She was saying, “Only you have remained!”

Still, I couldn’t understand. I loosened myself from her; she cried uncontrollably. It wasn’t until my aunt came wailing my brother’s name that I understood: My only surviving brother, Philip, had died. I stood motionless, tears running down my face. Memories of my late mother, father, and two other siblings flooded me as if their deaths had just happened.

I was now the only surviving member of a family of five.

My brother first became sick at the age of two, after my parents died. First to pass was my father in 1992, then my mother in 1993. The only explanation offered for my brother’s illness was that he was too young to cope without motherly love.

Despite Granny trying to fill my mother’s shoes, we lacked many basic necessities and my brother’s condition deteriorated, leaving Granny no option but to take him to Mother Theresa’s home, a Catholic orphanage that also offers medical care. For a year I only saw my brother once a week. During his first six months at the orphanage, his condition improved and we were hopeful. But as his one-year anniversary at the home approached, he died.

At the funeral home, I overhead some women talking about how AIDS had wiped out my family. They were questioning where my mother had contracted the virus and were accusing her of promiscuity.

Nimatenda,” they said, meaning ‘It’s AIDS.’ “Look at how the husband died and now the children.” One woman, signaling in my direction with her eyebrows, said, “Maybe even this one is dying, too.”

Their conjectures greatly disturbed me. Throughout my brother’s funeral I was troubled, wondering how Mother, of all people, could have died from AIDS.

The women’s gossip instilled fear in me, and I started to believe I could be HIV positive and could die at any moment. Each time I saw I had lost weight I thought I was nearing my death day. To learn more about the disease, I started reading a lot of booklets on HIV/AIDS, about how it’s transmitted, and how it has no cure.

Later, I approached my granny on the topic and told her what I overheard during my brother’s funeral. She looked agitated and quickly changed the topic. AIDS was not something that was openly discussed. I let it go, but I did not give up.

Weeks passed and again I asked her about my family’s death. Her explanation was that my parents and three siblings had been bewitched by jealous relatives. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard such an explanation. Most deaths in my community were blamed on witchcraft.

For weeks I persisted until Granny finally confessed that the doctor at the orphanage had told her my brother had AIDS, though she never believed it.

“I knew my daughter. She could not die of AIDS. She was too decent to die of the disease,” Granny told me. “That’s what doctors do if they can’t find a disease; they always say its AIDS.” She warned me not to share the doctor’s remarks with anyone and assured me that I was not next to die because she had taken all precautions to prevent witches from reaching me.

This was the scenario in Zambia when the HIV/AIDS pandemic was discovered in the 1980s. No one openly talked about AIDS, and those found with the virus were stigmatized and regarded as promiscuous. Most people died silently without knowing their HIV status for fear of discrimination and name-calling.

Politicians too were reluctant to speak out on the growing pandemic. President Kenneth Kaunda’s announcement in 1987 that his son had died of AIDS was a notable exception and a milestone in breaking the silence. However it was not enough to curb the stigma there and then. In a culture that supports gender inequality, HIV prevalence is especially high among women and young girls. Women are taught never to refuse their husbands sex nor to insist on condom use. According to the AVERT HIV & AIDS report, a Zambian behavioral survey showed around 15% of women reported forced sex, although this may not be accurate since many women do not disclose this information. Women are also forced to hang on to promiscuous husbands because they lack the financial muscle to survive independently. Additionally women become sexually active earlier than men, with partners who are much older and who may have already had a number of sexual partners. Apart from being vulnerable to infection, women are the worst affected. They are the ones that bear the burden of HIV positive children, nurse their husbands, and most times look after orphans. I personally checked a local clinic to see how many men take their children in for their routine tests, and among thirty women, only one man had taken his son to the clinic. [paging] The dawn of the new millennium coincided with the enactment of the national AIDS bill in Parliament. The National Aids Council was established to coordinate the actions of all segments of government and society in the fight against HIV/ AIDS and is in charge of guiding the implementation of the National HIV and AIDS Strategic Framework (AVERT Zambia).

Within this framework, the council launched the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) program. Though the HIV virus is mostly transmitted through unprotected sexual acts, children who are born from infected mothers are at high risk of getting infected at birth and through breastfeeding, as was the case with my siblings. The project aimed to test all expectant mothers for HIV and put those found positive on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to weaken the virus and prevent the babies from infection during birth. The project proved effective and today every clinic that offers prenatal care has to provide counseling and testing to all expectant mothers.

When the PMTCT program started, most women shunned the services. When I was expecting my first child I saw some women refuse even the counseling services. Such incidences forced the government to introduce mandatory counseling to encourage mothers to undergo testing, although testing still remains voluntary for all expectant mothers.

PMTCT programs today have made headway. According to the UNICEF 2010 HIV/AIDS report, the number of women who have received testing for HIV has jumped from 12% in 2004 to 95% in 2009. These statistics show that women are learning more about the virus and prevention, resulting in reduced mortality rates in Zambia.

In addition, in 2004 late President Levy Mwanawasa introduced free antiretroviral drugs, including pediatric drugs, to prolong the lives of infected children.

Despite the introduction of PMTCT and better access to ARVs, there are still incidences of newborn infections where expectant mothers fail to adhere to treatment during pregnancy.

Despite all the government efforts to combat the HIV virus and protect future generations, the infection rate in Zambia has still remained high, hovering around 14% of a population of 13 million. High levels of poverty where over 65% of people survive on less than a dollar a day, alcohol abuse, and cultural pressures are the major contributors to the high infection rates.

There is much work to be done and many NGOs see women as the agents of healing and change. They have embarked on empowering women financially and academically, and the government aims to ensure 40% representation of women in Parliament to ensure that the voices of women are heard. All these efforts are yet to fully materialize and I look forward to a day when women and children will be truly liberated from the HIV/AIDS scourge.

To honor my late family, I have opted to speak out on the virus. Change begins with me. I am on a personal campaign to encourage women to get tested and to replace ignorance with knowledge; shame with liberty.

Comments 9

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May 09, 2012
May 09, 2012

I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story- it was really powerful and gave great perspective. Gender inequality that is literally killing women is something that must stop.

May 13, 2012
May 13, 2012

Very touching! Women need to be educated so they can know what to do when faced with challenges like this. Thank you.

Carrie Lee
May 23, 2012
May 23, 2012

Your writing is incredible and you are a change agent! I support you and hold you in all your efforts. Keep going...your voice is powerful and I hear you!!! Blessings, Carrie

Jul 17, 2012
Jul 17, 2012

This was really very touching, you have done a great job ... This will help many

Wendy Stebbins
Jul 31, 2012
Jul 31, 2012

I really appreciate your sensitive story. You write beautifully and I feel your pain.

I have an NGO and am in Livingstone Zambia often. The denial regarding a person having AIDS is incredible. Every 3 months when I go to Livingstone, I hear about someone I knew who died of TB or something but at the base was AIDS. What you say about a woman not having the choice of leaving a man because she does not have financial means is so important and true. Many people do not understand the limited options women in Zambia have. They simply can't always do what they want or know is the right thing to do.

Thank you for your writing.

Wendy Stebbins

Stephanie Duval-Spaargaren
Sep 11, 2012
Sep 11, 2012

It's a touching story. I have been to Zambia few years ago and while I was reading I saw all the images. We have visited Chikankata hopital where there was people at the final stage of their life because of AIDS.

I think to speak out like you do will make people aware, I deeply hope your voice will reach many people and wake them up. Continue your life mission it's beautiful.

Thanks for this writting I support you in all way I can!


Wendy Stebbins
Sep 14, 2012
Sep 14, 2012

Hi Chinemu,

I have reread your story with horror and yet appreciation for your courage to speak out. I have just last night come back to Chicago, Illinois after my 3 weeks in Livingstone, Zambia where I work with street orphans and vulnerable children. I return to Zambia the first part of November.

This time I sat down some of my older (age 19-20) year old boys and had an open discussion with them about what THEIR role must be in the change in HIV-AIDS in Zambia. Actually, I think the rate is higher than you stated because it is quite common for someone who died of pneumonia or TB to actually have had AIDS which lowered immune system and then they got another disease which is always what is put on the death certificate.

Anyhow, I know if women refuse sex they are beaten at the least. I know if a man does not want to wear a condom, there is no condom used and the woman can even be sent home to her family in disgrace. So, I am going to make it a point each time I go, to talk to the young men about THEIR responsibility. This time just before I arrived two of them had been far away to a relative's funeral (one it was his brother) and the suffering and need is so great with not enough help sustaining change. BUT that is what I am going to do. I wanted to share this with you. Yes, I hope everyone talks to women in ways to protect themselves but I feel a need and a way to get the young men, who will someday be running the country, to change also.

I started doing this about 2 years ago, when we were watching a movie. A girl was being raped and the boys started laughing. I stopped the movie and said "Now, if that were your mother being raped would you be sitting here laughing?" The whole mood in the room sombered. "No", they all said sadly. And I use every opportunity to compare this for them so that they actually FEEL the situation for what it is.

Keep up the good work.

Your friend in ubuntu,

Wendy Stebbins

Sep 20, 2012
Sep 20, 2012


Your courage to speak out is inspiring. It really feels sad while I read the story but your decision to be positive about the reality and work for change is to be appreciated.

I will share this story in my blog.

Wendy Stebbins
Apr 13, 2013
Apr 13, 2013

Your article still needs to be heard loud and clear. I just returned from my trip to Zambia and was stunned to hear a high level female whisper to me "People who go in hospitals die".

I feel at a loss but I hope that you will continue to write so beautifully and accurately so that we become and stay aware.

Again thank you for trying and writing in your compassionate way.

Ubuntu ( I am who I am because of who we are togehter),