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Strength of women epitomized by African, HIV-positive matriarchs

Alice Abracen

February 2011

Malawan Grace Saka and her husband, Enos, found out in January 2008 that they are HIV positive.

They received some medicine three months later. Enos reacted very badly to the first anti-retroviral drug; the second affected his mental capacities. They were forced to seek a third drug in Chilazulu, far to the south of Malawi.

“It is too far,” Grace said. “We need more money. We needed three people because my husband cannot walk on his own. He can’t stand.”

The trip takes three days, every three months. The cost of the bus, accommodation and food are too much. Enos listened to the conversation between Grace and I mutely, and his agonized frustration at not being able to take part was palpable. He cannot articulate in speech what his wife tells us with patient courage and harrowing endurance.

Rhoda Manda, who gave me an early Chichewa lesson, also has had problems with AIDS medication. She is 29; her daughter, Vitumbiku, is 8. Rhoda’s husband, a driver, has died. Her medication has caused her severe vision problems that set in after severe head pain. The doctor, though aware of the problem, has not changed her drugs. Rhoda is supported by her extended family in Makupo village.

Rhoda Manda is widowed and struggles with vision problems brought on by her AIDS medication. She gave Alice Abracen (right) an early Chichewa lesson. Photo courtesy of Alice Abracen

Chifundo Katawasaka is tall, beautiful, soft-spoken and effortlessly graceful. She is HIV positive and widowed. She was living in the capital, Lilongwe, when her illness forced her to return home to Makupo.

She finds it difficult to support herself, but hopes to engage in the economic projects being undertaken by the women of Makupo, particularly the hostel project; housing foreign students eager to learn about Malawi and its people.

Anasimango, or Flossie, is the eldest woman in the village. She is 68, and a formidable presence, radiating toughness and resilience. She is a widow with nine children and 23 grandchildren. She cares for nine of them, between the ages of 4 and 21. One of them, at 17, has a child. Flossie’s voice drops and she begins to tap the table, wrapped in grief she tries to hide as she talks about their parents, who have died.

She lives on an allowance from her other sons and daughters. The children are all in school, and the school fees are brutal. She wishes she could offer the children more: food, clothing and school fees so they can support themselves, furnished with a good education. All of the children have been tested for HIV; one has tested positive, and receives drugs from the Kasungu district hospital.

Flossie receives no subsidies or support from the government and she has high blood pressure; no one is taking care of her. What will she do when the children move out? She chuckles and says this will take a very long time.

“Zikomo kwambiri,” I said, and she thanked me, too.


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