Grandmothers’ Testimonies

Mama F

Zimbabwe

My story begins in 1992, when I went to the doctor and got tested and found out I was HIV positive. When I found out, my mind was so confused, I couldn’t think. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I thought it was the end of the road, and I started crying. I thought about my son, who was two and a half years old at that time. Each time I looked at my son I started to cry. It was just a big blow to my life. I thought I was going to die, because in those days ARVs were not available and so many people were dying.

The doctor saw that I was so stressed and he tried to give me tablets for stress. But as a person who was working in a pharmacy at that time I knew people got addicted to those tablets, and I didn’t want to be controlled by them. I just said to myself, “I will stand up and be strong and accept whatever is there”.

When I got home my husband was there and I told him straight away that the doctor said I was HIV-positive and wanted to test him too. He started shouting at me “No! If you’ve got that HIV it’s yours, it’s yours and your doctor’s. You’re the ones with HIV, not me.” I felt so bad, but when I went to work the following day I told my colleagues, and they comforted me. What happened next was a real shock. I saw a messenger of the court coming to me with a letter. It was a divorce letter with my name written on it. The same day I got the letter, my husband took all of his clothes and started sleeping in his spare room.

Divorce laws in Zimbabwe have a waiting period to encourage reconciliation. So we waited for three years. It was a stressful life staying with my husband under the same roof because he is an alcoholic. He would come and break down the door and beat me and shout at me “Yah, you’re going to lose the kids and I am the one who bought this house, and you will be destitute.”

The day of the trial came and we went to court. He’d stolen the copy of my HIV test results, and produced them in court when the judge asked why he was divorcing me. He said he was divorcing me because I tested HIV-positive and he was not. The judge asked him where his results were, and he had nothing to show. And then the judge said “You are not divorcing this woman for no reason. If she’s HIV positive that does not mean you divorce her and then you get to stay in the same house. You must move out and this woman will stay in this house with her children.”

When the divorce came through he was ordered to leave the house. But after the divorce, he lost his job, and came back asking for forgiveness. I was not happy, but he insisted that he had nowhere to stay, so I let him stay with me, in a different bedroom, until he could find another job. That was my mistake. Getting him to leave now is a real problem. He is insisting on selling the house, and the divorce order only gave me the right to stay in the house while the children were under age, and now they are older so the law may force us to sell the house. I don’t know what will happen next.

When my husband first started being violent to me, my doctor advised me to go to the Zimbabwe Women’s Lawyers’ Association to get a protection order. I did, but these orders would expire after a year. Later on, they gave me a five-year protection order. Now I was able to go to the police when he bothered me, but it hasn’t been easy getting them to do anything. The real reason was that my husband bought them beer, and they would go drinking together. I had to report to another police station to get help because the local police station would not take me seriously.

So once I reported them to the police administration, their bosses, and then they finally did something. They took him and locked him up for a night, and the following day he was ordered to pay a fine. But the problem keeps going on and on. Now my husband is always drunk and saying vulgar words to me and the children. He calls me names. And the police will not act. This has been going on for too long, since 1996. It is painful, and I am tired of it. I don’t see a way forward or a way to have hope. The police and the lawyers’ association have seen me come to them too many times. Sometimes my life seems like it is going down the drain. I have had trouble making ends meet, and I did not have money to go to hospital to check my CD4 count or feed the children.

Chiedza is an organization in my country which helps me so much. I come to them every morning, and I also bring the children with me, and I talk with them. In June 2013, I started taking ARVs, because my CD4 count dropped too low. It has been difficult getting to the hospital. Before I came to Chiedza, I would go to the local clinic, but to check my CD4 count I had to walk three hours to the hospital and three hours home. I leave around 5 am, but that is a risk because you know there are people waiting for older people who are vulnerable. But I had no choice, I had to walk because there are long queues and you have to line up very early.

I finally started going to Chiedza after things got really hard. In 2005, I lost my job because the pharmacy closed, and then in 2006 I lost my daughter to meningitis and my brother to suicide, and had to start caring for their children. Suddenly I was responsible for five children: my son, three grandchildren and my niece. I didn’t know where I could even look for money. It was a hard time for me, angering and aching me—how was I going to get through this, and send the children to school and clothe and feed them? And for myself too, I needed better food to survive.

Chiedza has welcomed me and accepted me into the organization. They help me with food and clothes and blankets. One of the children went into their nursery school, and Chiedza paid for tuition and uniforms so another child could go to school. I would go there every day and eat, and they would teach me and the other grandmothers skills, and to make products we could sell. It’s so hard for older women, you know, because we are supposed to be relaxing at this moment, but instead we are now busy looking for jobs, selling vegetables, scouting for food because our children died and left a trail of grandchildren behind to look after. The whole day, grandmothers work for those children because we cannot see those children suffering and out of school.

I was at the end of the road and Chiedza saved my life. I was thinking of suicide, but each time I would go to Chiedza they would tell us “Don’t be discouraged, you will get through. Look after these children—you are ambassadors, you were chosen by God to look after those children.” So I looked at the children and thought about the right decision. If I die, what are they going to do? All of these people are depending on me, and these children, they need me, killing myself would be the worst ending. So just cancel that thought. I am going to live.

After being helped, I said to myself, “I’m OK, what about the others?” I took courses and trainings, and now I am a community worker with Chiedza. I tell people not to give up; they can come out of the worst situation.

I do a lot of advocacy with other women in my community about violence. I am also working as a paralegal, especially for the women who are battered. I’m not afraid to talk or lecture to people. I tell people, “Don’t be discouraged, be strong, if you see something wrong, or even if your husband gives you a slap, report it.” I always tell people they must know their rights. They mustn’t be quiet. They don’t tell the police, they don’t tell their relatives, they don’t tell their neighbors what is happening under their roofs.

People listen to me and trust me, and know I will step in if something is wrong. I also tell them to find out their HIV status to know the right food to take and live a better life.

One of the hardest things is when there is violence against a grandmother, because they won’t report it. Most of the cases go under the bridge because nobody reports them. These grandmothers in our culture have a tendency to say “Oh, what can I do, it’s my husband, or my brother, or my son, or my daughter, or my grandson.” It’s not just the job of the person who is being hurt to help themselves; it is also the work of the community. The way I see it, this is my community and I must take care of it—and people must move, they must change. If I see something that is wrong, I go and report it. If the police don’t take action I change the police station. And if the next police station doesn’t take action, I’ll report it to the police headquarters—until the case is dealt with. I have this determination to fight because I love my community and the children so much. I won’t accept bad things happening before my eyes, and I won’t be quiet. I don’t want crooked things, and I will try to make them straight.

Note: This grandmother’s name has been withheld to protect her safety – speaking out about human rights in Zimbabwe at this time may pose a risk.