Women’s Lives

A Composite Sketch of a Pimbwe Woman in Rukwa Valley 2012

This page was developed by students in the Women and Gender Studies program at CSU Fullerton using Monique Borgerhoff Mulder’s ethnographic fieldwork notes.

I’m a 28 year old Pimbwe woman, I am big and healthy and have three children. I was born in the same village where I now live, raised with my 8 brothers and sisters. We spent a lot of time playing as children – we girls made dolls out of corn cobs, sang together as we ground maize and millet using our mother’s large wooden pestles, and helped raise our younger siblings (who were a lot heavier to carry around than the corn cobs). I was second born, so I was busy with these jobs until I was about 14 years of age. Often I looked after three or four of my younger siblings, while my mother was out in the shamba (the garden plot), cultivating the maize, millet and cassava we needed to eat, picking bush vegetables in the newly harvested shamba, collecting firewood, and struggling to find ways to make some cash for buying clothes, oil, salt, matches and other needs for her family. We kids particularly enjoyed going to collect water. Early in the morning (to avoid having to queue) we would go down to Wamwelu, the natural spring at the bottom of the village which has been fixed up by the government into a pump, named after the wife of Katavi (our most important god). Wamwelu is very important to women as she can treat infertility and lives in the trees behind the well – I really used to believe she lives there, but after one of my friends got bitten by a puff adder in her forest (he was seven years old, and he died) I began to question whether this was possible. In the afternoons we would go for water in the river, as the spring at Wamwelu would dry up after heavy morning use. At the river, and especially in the dry season, we would have to dig shallow wells daily, scooping away the coarse sand to make deep hollows into which the river water slowly seeps. But even this was fun, as we could stay and play at the river while we dried our clothes, which we had washed and hung out on the bushes. We also enjoyed it when villagers were called to do collective work, like carrying mud bricks to a village building project such as teacher’s house.

There was a primary school in my village, and we used to attend every morning, starting at 7am when the bell (a wheel rim) was beaten by the head teacher. At school we would start with a long run round the village, and our lessons were often cancelled because the teachers were ill, were busy with other jobs, or had gone to the local town to get paid. I found school easy, and after 7 years (I began when I was 8, others wait much longer) I had passed the standard 7 exam, and was eligible for secondary school. From a class of 200 children that started with me only 37 of us passed our standard 7 exams so I felt very proud on my graduation day. My father even bought me a new dress.

Our family was lucky, as my father had worked as a policeman in another part of Tanzania. He didn’t have any savings, nor any pension, but he was an innovative farmer, and he also ran a small business, that I now realize was illegal, selling medicines to villagers that he had bought in the local town; (I now know these medicines were stolen from government allocations to the Regional hospital, not by my father but by administrators and doctors working in the Regional hospital). As such there was always some cash around. This meant that when we got ill we got medicine, or were even taken to the dispensary in the next village 6 miles away for treatment. It also meant that I could be sent to secondary school (which although technically free at the time had associated expenses – like uniform, dormitory costs, etc).

Secondary school was difficult. I was far from home (in a village 30 miles away), and staying in a dormitory with lots of other girls. I made friends quickly and there was a group of us that would cook together and share the food we brought from our homes, but I felt very alone. I also found the work, now in English, very difficult. I started to hang out in the village rather than go to school, and sooner than I would ever have wanted, I found myself pregnant. After that life became difficult. I ended up married to, or at least living with, the father of my child – he belonged to a different ethnic group, and already had two wives. I liked my cowives, we had a lot of fun together, but life was hard – much harder work agricultural work than at home, and there was less cash around. In the end I got lonely, missing home, and came back home to my mum and dad. Since then I’ve had two kids, both by different guys. I have managed to build myself a small house; the traditional mud kind, with a grass roof, we call the “biscuit” because they crumble in the rain), and I farm maize which is our staple diet , on an acre that my mother and father allocated to me from their plot. There are also wild tomatoes and some greens that I pick to eat with the Ugalia but this isn’t quite enough to feed us all year and I get some additionally cash from brewing maize beer, and occasionally I collect and sell firewood to richer families. I do worry. The rains are starting to be less reliable which effect the growth of our maize. They say it is because we are using all the trees for firewood and charcoal. It is true that we have to travel further now than when I was a little girl to collect firewood but there are no alternatives.

My father now is quite ill, but he continues his little medicine business (which I help him with), so my condition is quite good compared to some of my friends. I do wish I had finished secondary school. There was a rumor that there would be evening classes for people such as me but they never happened. What I would do with that education though I’m not sure. There aren’t many options unless I moved away. So I would like to marry and settle down with one guy if I could find a good one. It isn’t easy to find someone who would provide for me and my child though and honestly it’s easier alone in many respects.

Just think of two of my friends:

One is married, in fact married to a relatively wealthy guy who was making quite some profit both through cutting trees in the forest and selling the wood to carpenters, and through buying surplus maize from cash-strapped families right after the harvest, and then reselling in February, in the middle of the rains, when no-one has any food left, and the price of corn goes right up. He is a nice guy, but he tricked another farmer in a nearby village big time, taking some maize sacks to sell up on the Ufipa Plateau, and then running off with the money. The last she heard of him (she has a mobile phone and usually has some money for the vouchers to keep it operating), he is in a coastal town in southern Tanzania, over 1000 miles away. This is typical in Tanzania – if you get into trouble, just leave. Now my friend is left with her kids and very little help at all, as his family were never very supportive of him and her parents and siblings are very poor.

Another friend of mine also has had problems with her husband. She is also rather well educated like me, but like all of us who get some secondary education, has been unable to find any work so she came back to the village to farm. Her family had terrible problems – her mother was accused of witchcraft, and was banished from the village. My friend was of course implicated in the accusations against her mother, and her house was burned down in the middle of the night – she had to run from the flaming grass-roofed structure with a 5 day old baby in her arms. She has also had children with several different men, but the last guy was the worst. She had gone to the market to buy some shoes for her son who was trying to complete primary school (kids can’t go to school if they don’t wear shoes and uniform, and this is expensive!). Anyhow she bought the shoes, put them safely in her house, and then went to river. Next morning they weren’t there, and her son (again) missed school. Two days later she saw a neighbour’s son go to school with the identical second-hand sneakers she’d bought in the market. This woman explained that the shoes had been bought from my friend’s husband. In other words the man stole from his wife! My friend has thrown this guy out now – he has a terrible drinking problem. But she has ended up HIV positive, and is actually now very ill. Last time I visited her house she was away seeking treatment. Her 12 year old daughter was looking after the smaller kids; the elder boy had dropped out of primary school, and was nowhere to be found.

Still there are also a lot of functioning families too. Some of my friends are happily married and have really helpful husbands who farm, and run small businesses – maybe catching and trading fish, collecting honey, harvesting timber, working as a carpenter or tailor, or specializing in traditional medicine. Some of these families are well off, and some are terribly poor, but even the latter struggles to keep going.

We are all heavily at risk from HIV/AIDS, especially now a new road is being built down into the Rukwa Valley. Travelers (often young men with business ambitions) are pouring into the valley, and are attractive as lovers because they look a lot better connected and richer than most of the guys here. A fair number of my friends have to sleep with these guys, or richer villagers, for money (very little money, less than 50 US cents, usually). We know about condoms, and they are usually available (sometimes for free), but it’s hard to get guys to use them. Until recently, because of all the “Condom/HIV” posters and radio announcements, some of my less educated friends believed that condoms caused HIV. Most of us know better now, but there are so many more things to worry about than a disease that can take 10 years to affect you – how to feed the kids tomorrow, how to find money for a school uniform, how to treat a sickly baby who can’t keep any food down, how to deal with a tricky neighbour who is jealous of you and may try to accuse you of witchcraft. Life is hard, day to day; and I hardly know a woman who has not lost a kid, had a stillbirth, or a miscarriage. We have to deal with a lot of sadness. My friend and I would like to make sure we have no more children. It’s hard enough feeding and caring for the ones we have. We hear about different methods of birth control such as the pill and an injection. However if a husband found out you were using this they would be very cross.

On a brighter side most of us are lucky, and have a lot of kin in the village, family is very important but it is strange that you can’t always rely on your relatives. My mum for example will have nothing to do with me, perhaps because I got pregnant in school; they never got a bride wealth payment for me because I don’t have a proper husband. Some of us have brothers and sisters who are kind and helpful, but others have siblings who can bring trouble, jealousy, and as I mentioned above witchcraft accusations. Many old people in the village are completely abandoned by their kids. There is a lot of envy and suspicion among villagers, related or not, and this seems to be getting worse as some people are getting really rich (as a result of new business brought by the road).

My approach to life, because I am healthy, is to stay happy. I always have a smile on my face, and I have lots of fun with my friends. Our biggest social time is when we do each other’s hair – a great time for chat, gossip and relaxation. Some of us like to make music, we do this by scraping stools over broken pots,singing and using whistles. My littlest baby, he is only 4 months, is a delight – growing well and very healthy. My older two kids are behaving very badly at the moment – I sometimes wonder if it is because there is no man around the place; I worry about them a lot, but I am too busy with the baby and household chore now to do much about it.