She walked barefoot and semi-naked through lion territory. She hid in burrows of wild animals to avoid the bullets of ruthless soldiers and dangerous animals. She sacrificed her marriage of many years. And now she lies helpless at the bottom of the pit of social rank, alienated. She struggles to survive and not only to survive, but to support and protect 3 grandchildren.
This is the story of Rudi – a woman of courage, loyalty and determination.
For Rudi, life began on the banks of the Zambezi River in central Mozambique. It was simple then. They lived off the land and food was plentiful with an abundance of fish, crops and coconuts. She married and had 4 children, one of whom died shortly after birth.
But beyond the boundaries of the river district – Marromeu – political tensions were simmering. Soon, a full blown war tainted with guerrilla tactics erupted between Renamo and Frelimo, one that lasted for 16 years, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
The political party Renamo had claimed the area in which she was in. Wisely, Rudi and her husband had sent their children to Beira which was considered a safe-haven. Shortly after, most of her village, including herself and her husband, were captured and taken deep into the African bush where they were held as prisoners in a camp. They were there for 2 months and were fed one spoon of food a day. Young boys were forced to become child soldiers and went into training. The middle-aged prisoners were made to work and to maintain the camp. And the young girls became sex slaves to the Renamo army.
But one night, their luck changed. Frelimo attacked the camp and they had the opportunity to escape. Rudi and her husband chose to take separate paths; one to Beira and one to Chimoio. This way they could avoid both being killed at the same time, which would leave no-one to look after their children.
It took Rudi 5 days of walking through the bush. She was accompanied by a small group of escapees, some of whom were lost while trying to swim across rivers, either taken by crocs or by drowning and sometimes falling prey to lion. Their only food was fish from the rivers that they caught along the way and there only form of clothing was a skimpy ‘garment’ made of woven banana leaves. At night, they slept in the trees to avoid wild animals and by day, they would hide in the shallow burrows made by animals in a desperate attempt to hide from the scouting soldiers.
She made it to Chimoio and soon embarked on the second leg of her journey to Beira, another 5 days on foot.
Rudi survived the dangerous journey and was reunited with her family. For the duration of the war, they lived in Beira and had another 3 children.
16 years later, Rudi and her husband returned to Marromeu. They set up a successful ploughing business and enjoyed the fruits of their work, never going hungry. But their children stayed in Beira. And while life was good in Marromeu, her children’s fate was a different one altogether. All of them died except for one.
The death of her children happened over a number of years. During this traumatic period of her life, Rudi and her husband returned to Beira to help care for the grandchildren. When her first child died of Aids, Rudi was left with 9 grandchildren to take care of – one of them being Lourdes. Rudi’s only hope of survival up until now, including that of Kapesi (2) and Toni (9) rests in the hands of Lourdes – her 17 year old granddaughter.
In 2009, Rudi’s husband left her over a conflict I do not know of. He returned to Marromeu, never to be heard from again and whom strongly expressed that her and the grandchildren are no longer welcome in his life. He has since remarried.
Rudi and her 3 grandchildren moved to Mafambisse where they slowly built their house with sticks and mud sourced from the estate. With no supportive family and with a ‘single woman’s’ status, she is at the bottom of the community social ranks. Her only surviving son who lives in Chimoio has not made contact with her for 2 years and has never offered any form of support, neither financially nor emotionally.
Kapesi’s father is also still alive. Kapesi’s mother died when he was one week old. The father insisted Rudi take the baby and for Kapesi’s first year, he occasionally visited Kapesi and supplied Rudi with formula. After a year, he remarried and stopped all sponsorship. Again, Rudi was deserted along with his very own child and has not been seen since.
To add to her woes, she lost her eye last year due to an insect bite of sorts and it looks to me like a cataract has formed in the other eye.
It’s been a hard life for Rudi and the 3 remaining children. Especially for Lourdes who has been with Rudi since the beginning. A young life riddled with heartbreak, abandonment and fear and seemingly, an infinitely hopeless situation.
Last week, I found Rudi and Kapesi huddled up together in their little hut, midday. They had both contracted malaria and had no money to treat it. It was lucky that I decided to visit them ‘that’ day because I don’t think they would have survived the sickness without urgent medical attention. It was so glaringly obvious that this little family was in desperate need of ‘change’ or something to happen that would allow them to pick themselves up out of a bottomless pit.
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but I still can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” – Hellen Keller
I decided that should Lourdes want, I would sponsor her to do a 6 month course with the Young Africa foundation that would equip her with basic skills and the opportunity to open a small business or get her a job.
A few days later, I paid the family another visit. I’d come with vitamins as well as a course of ‘de-worming’ tablets for each of them. I also had plans to ask Lourdes whether she’d be interested in studying again. I never doubted she’d say yes as I knew that she had had to drop out of school for not being able to pay bribe to the teacher during exams and ended up having to drop out of school over a meager 5 met bribe.
I naively thought it would be simple. But when I offered them all de-worming medicine, Lourdes refused the medicine.
As so often happens in Mozambique, young girls will marry purely for financial security. Marrying for love is often a luxury, experienced by the wealthier or luckier Mozambicans. Marriage has become a form of survival for many young girls and apparently for Lourdes too.
Lourdes got married to a 32 year old man 2 months ago and is 2 months pregnant. The man’s family, however, have not accepted her, mostly because of her low-ranked status in the community and have insisted that no money is spent on her or her own blood family in the way of food, clothing and medication. Yet at the same time she is expected to cook and clean for her new family. She wants to move back into her grandmother’s house but she is uncertain of her baby’s future.
I was stumped. Although Lourdes is still young and able, I was increasingly aware of how vulnerable Rudi and the 2 young children were and how they were dependent on Lourdes to pull them out of this situation. My only other solution was to help raise their status in the community by empowering Lourdes and Rudi with a small business, helping them with an initial capital input to get them started and out of this vicious cycle.
But this ‘solution’ too does not come without its drawbacks. Starting a business and storing ‘stock’ of sorts in their open hut would make them vulnerable to theft. There was also a strong possibility that the community would become jealous, as so often happens when someone begins to rise ‘above’ the rest of them. And how would Lourdes operate a business while being married to a man whose family refuses to help Rudi and the children? Would Rudi and the children even see any of that income?
UPDATE: Read about Rudi’s new Bean business: http://africafarandwide.com/2013/05/06/bean-happy/