More news from comedy critic Kate Copstick, who is currently in Kenya, where her charity Mama Biashara gives small grants and advice to mostly women wanting to start small businesses which can raise them out of their extreme poverty.
Note. Zimbabwean men in Kenya tend to have more than one wife.
A blog from Kenya a couple of days ago mentioned that Mama Biashara has stalls at the Nairobi International Trade Show – the Big Event of the Nairobi year in terms of business and enterprise – and that the President was due to pay a visit. Now read on…
FRIDAY 2nd OCTOBER
It is another slightly odd day when nothing happens as it should.
I am supposed to have a meet with Doris and more of the Zimbabwean Third Wives Club who need a grant to start business. They are trapped in the ghastly jam caused by the Prez going to the Show (he was scheduled to go yesterday but, of course, he is late). Lest the Prez be tainted by anything approaching real life in Nairobi, the roads are cleared and all normal traffic held back while his motorcade sweeps by.
When Doris does arrive she has two young women with her, representing the two groups of Zimbabwean Third Wives. The groups could not come en masse – there are 50 women in one group and 62 in the other. The young women are charming. We discuss the businesses.
I ask if the ladies could let me know how many children the women in the group have. The total is 479 for both groups.
Many of these young women already have 5 children by the age of 17 or 18. They are married at 12 and impregnated almost immediately. The young women I am sitting with are 17 and 18. They have 8 children between them. The first and second wives sometimes have as many as 12. The men do and give absolutely nothing by way of support.
The living conditions are pretty horrific – given the enormous numbers of children and the extreme poverty in which they live. They do not, Doris tells me, even have enough unga (flour) to make solid ugali. Their ugali is like soup. It should be like cake. They sleep as many as twenty to a room.
Now that the Zimbabwean community here is a couple of generations old, women of the Third Wives’ ages are looking for another way. Mama Biashara was the first ever help they were given.
These are the women for whom we ran the Secret School (but we don’t have the infrastructure or resources to continue it – much as we would like). These are the women for whom (at their begging request) Doris supplies the pill. These are women who, in secret, are doing massive business across Sudan. The effects can be seen in the much improved living conditions of their families, their nutrition, the number of their children going to school… but apparently the wazee (the much MUCH older husbands) are beginning to talk… to notice the money coming in. And this is dangerous for our women. But they are desperate to continue. And expand. They want a better life for themselves and their (many) children. They are going further underground with their supply lines.
Third wives are aged anything from 12 to 20. After that they are sort of discarded as hubby gets another 12 year-old and they are left to support the children and feed the husband.
I really want to offer them an alternative.
Their community operates like a sort of sect. Any deviation from its religious rules meets with fairly ghastly consequences. They have their own ‘courts’ and their own punishments. Any girl not getting married when told to would be an absolute pariah in the community. An outcast. But not allowed to leave. Ditto any mother not allowing her 12 year-old to be laid waste (literally and metaphorically) by some 50 year-old in the market for Wife No 4.
There is no real option for the young women who want out and there are many now.
The women who have had the experience of going to Sudan to do business love the freedom, love the power, love the life of independence and they want to learn to read and to write and they want their girls to have a proper chance in life. They are brought up in this closed community ruled by men with their over-active rods of iron. I want to give them an option. An escape route. We are not going to persuade anyone, we are not going to do a hard sell, but I want to (and it is a way off) establish a refuge for up to ten Wives at a time, with their children.
They come, they get acclimatised to life outside, they continue their business and make money but no longer have to hide it. And, when they are ready, and have found somewhere they think they can live happily, they go. And thus we establish little mini-communities of Zimbabwean ladies all over the place. But without the men forcing them to do anything. Least of all forcing them to hand their 12 year-old daughters over to a a 50 year-old man.
It needs a lot of planning. Somewhere very safe. And it will need a fair old wedge of money. I am very much against the march of Middle Class White ‘Liberalism’ hurtling in to trample all over cultures which are thousands of years old and ways of life that suit the people living them. But too, too many of these young women have come to us now wanting out. Wanting a different life for themselves and their kids.
Sorry I have been wittering on quite repetitively.
But I have never met a 17 year-old with 5 children before. It is an experience I found quite difficult.
Doris goes off to the show.
I start packing for Monday when we take the stuff to the airport cargo area.
Doris calls to ask what would cause a 21 year-old woman to scream in pain and say her chest is burning. I ask if her chest is, in fact, burning. It is not. I ask the usual – What has she eaten/drunk? Where exactly is the pain? Has it happened before? Are there any other symptoms? – and have only just got into my quasi-medical stride when Doris texts to say that the young woman knows what is wrong. She is possessed by demons.
I lie on my mattress and look at my WhatsApp conversations with Rebecca right up until the day before she died. Suddenly, before my eyes, her picture disappears from the profile to be replaced by some ghastly, pouting, lipsticked, anorexic 14 year-old.
The phone had, as promised, been stopped and the number was now someone else’s.
I turn to my new addiction. Solitaire. Known to us older people as Patience. I play it obsessively. I understand that this is about making order from chaos. And it comforts me. My phone tells me I have spent 34 hours playing since I started about a month and a half ago.
I am visited by the two, now grown-up, kittens I knew when I lived in the other little house here. One is seal point and the other tortoiseshell and very reminiscent of William, the cat who entered and enhanced Daddy Copstick’s life for a while and then left as suddenly as he came. They are ridiculously affectionate. To the point of developing (in the case of William Jnr) a tiny feline erection as I played with him (not like that!).
I notice he has MASSIVE balls (for a cat his size) and immediately re-christen him Malcolm (after Malcolm Hardee, of course). I have never actually been as close up and personal with a young cat’s tackle, but Malcolm made his attributes hard to miss.
A couple of games of Solitaire later I sleep.