The Lot of Malawian Village Women
This past weekend was so hot that the prolonged black-out did not help matter. The only time it is a little tolerable is early in the morning and in the evening. Kuyvina has learned that there is an exciting world outside for her to explore but when she lives with a bunch of women, her fate is sealed by one of the expats who has appointed herself as her caretaker and who insists on her getting a flea collar before she could be free. Like most of the things we wish for here they do not come easily and she has waited for almost a month and a collar is still not in sight. And so she could only be held while I sit or walk with her outside in the early mornings and evenings. Some mornings she is so frustrated that she gives out a heart-breaking mournful meow and then proceeds to scramble up the wire netting of the front and the back porches hanging on like a giant gecko. On one particularly scorching afternoon after playing hide and seek with my hat, she took a cat nap in the coolest place she could find, curled up in the small sink in the dining room.
This morning dark thick rain clouds gathered in the sky. This had happened once before but the clouds soon were blown away. While I was getting ready to go running, Kuyvina had forced her way outside, big drops of rain began to fall, she looked heavenward, bewildered. The pitter patter on the roof became louder, heaven opened up and a heavy downpour descended on us. This was highly unusual for this time of the year, the wind picked up and the temperature became cool enough I had to wear a cardigan to work.
I was really looking forward to going to Lulwe in the mountain today. The rain flooded the trenches on the sides of the dirt road forming gushing streams. Its pattering on the roof drowned out conversations.
Before we arrived at Lulwe, a man who came in with a couple of months of knee pain was sent by the medical assistant to have an HIV test. When he returned he came in with his male relative, the medical assistant shooed him away and asked to have his wife sent in. He tested positive for HIV and she was advised to get tested and she too was positive. They had three children, the middle one died and the others were ages two and eight and had never been tested. The couple was sent off for counseling.
A woman came in with her sixteen-months-old child, her breasts hanging out of the V of her blouse and at once the medical assistant asked her to cover herself. She replied that her child was fussy and she had to breastfeed him. She had seven children, one died. Having nursed so many children her breasts looked withered and limp, seemingly sucked dry by the child. She was tested positive for HIV during her antenatal visit but refused to start ARVs. Her husband had not been tested. She feared that she would be sent home if her husband learned that she was taking ARVs. Since there was no actual result of her HIV test she was retested and both she and her baby were positive. Over the last few months the baby’s height and weight had fallen off the growth chart.
Both Lulwe and Chididi are high up in the hard-to-reach mountains but Lulwe being close to Mozambique where the men go for long periods to work and bring back HIV to their spouses. A lot more women in Lulwe tested positive for HIV than those in Chididi. Some men from Chididi go to cut sugar canes in Nchalo and stay away from home for a long period and they too bring home HIV infection.
The tradition of men having to abstain from sex when their wives are six months pregnant till six months post-partum also leads to their seeking sex elsewhere. The practice of kupitakufa or cleansing has been a reason for the spreading of HIV. When a woman’s husband dies, any one of her brother-in-laws could take her as a wife. Because there is a death in the family she has to be cleansed by having unsafe sex with a man whom the family has to pay in cash or cows to perform the cleansing before she would be accepted back to her family. She is sent home when there is no one to take her as a wife and has to leave all her children to her in-laws. She has no rights to any one of them. Polygamy helps in the spread of HIV. Most men refuse to get themselves tested even when their wives are on HIV treatment.
Agnes being an educated woman reprimanded her woman patients for not covering up. She was not very tall but she wore a slinky flamenco-like dress that made her look slim and lanky; she looked very distinctive and attractive with her high cheekbones and her corn rows on her head tapered to form a small bun at the top of her head. When asked if she would share her husband with other women, she smiled shyly and said no way. She knew of a man with six wives and thirty-five children and the women raised the children.
Village women often multitask; breastfeeding their babies while carrying a bundle on their head on their way to the market doing the business of selling and buying. They till the land, chop wood, pump water with a baby on their backs. I saw a woman on one of my morning runs carrying a bundle of firewood to the market to sell while carrying her baby on a sling with two young children in tow, one of whom carrying a plastic bag which probably contained their food. Women may work the land but the men own the property. It is indeed a harsh life for these village women with little education, nebulous social standing and insecure financial status.
After helping a young woman deliver her baby, a middle-aged mid-wife in Sankulani threw her hands up in the air and remarked exasperatingly, “These village women are not interested in education, all they want to do is to get married and have many babies.”