Friday, June 18, 2010

Young Widows' Network

Because of a chance encounter, I have been on Zambian national TV!

Three weeks ago, a young woman, Evelyn, followed me out of church and asked to speak with me. She told me that she had organized four groups of young widows in the compounds near Mindolo, and they were having a joint conference/fundraiser June 12. Would I buy a ticket and come if I had the time? I asked her to tell me more about herself and this endeavor, so she came and had tea with me.

Evelyn completed a social work/community development diploma a year ago, and hasn't yet found work. (Side comment: this is an all-too-common reality here in Zambia.) But she decided that while she was waiting for employment, she could use her skills to organize other young widows for mutual support and group education and action. Many young widows are HIV+. Their husbands strayed and brought AIDS home and have died, but they are surviving and raising children. One of Evelyn's goals is to encourage all the widows to be tested and know their status, and to reduce the stigma attached to being HIV+. She is not herself HIV+, but she is aware of how important it is to begin the anti-retroviral medications early.

I shared with her that I, too, was a widow, and that Jenny, my neighbor, had organized a widows group in another area not far from us. By the time I brought Jenny and Evelyn together, Evelyn had decided to invite us as speakers, along with the MEF chaplain and a friend of mine who is a student and is a widow from Kenya.
On the appointed day, we all gathered in a high school auditorium for a very Zambian style meeting. First, all the leaders and speakers processed in, to lively music. The meeting opened with praise singing and prayer. Groups were introduced. One of the older widows spoke about the difficulties of widowhood and the value of working together. Then we sang and danced.

Next we had a talk by the chaplain, who used the story of Ruth and Naomi as his theme. After he spoke, there was more singing and dancing, and even the speakers, including the chaplain, were expected to dance. The women applauded our efforts, although we lacked their grace and expertise--but we made up for it with energy and enthusiasm! More reflections and then a presentation by a City Councilman. That is why we were on TV. He brought a cameraman and his presentation was filmed, with us in the background at the head table. Next came the collection of offerings of financial support for the work. A cloth was placed on the floor, and we all sang and danced our way to the cloth and dropped our money onto it. Even the politician contributed, as well as promising them assistance from his office.

Lunch was served, prepared by some of the women--chicken, rice, coleslaw--and the program continued. Margaret spoke of the challenges faced by African widows because of tradition and poverty, but recognized their resilience and faith, as well. Jenny spoke about group process and empowerment, and I followed, speaking about how to develop participatory, self-reliant, cooperative groups and how to plan projects. More singing, dancing, and praying followed, and the speakers and leaders processed out and formed a reception line to greet the participants.

Both Jenny and I had illustrastions in our talks that seemed to help the women understand our main point. To explain empowerment, she spoke of a man who found a butterfly chrysalis and saw how the butterfly inside was struggling to emerge. Trying to be helpful, he cut a slit so the butterfly could come out, and it did, but it crawled out of its cocoon,fell onto a leaf, fluttered its wings, and never flew. It needed to struggle in order to make its wings strong enough to fly. Outside help can be crippling, but our own efforts strengthen us. (This story comes from

To illustrate my talk, I brought along a bundle of twigs. I asked for a volunteer from the audience, a strong woman. One came forward. I pulled out a single twig and asked her to break it. She easily broke it in half. I said that alone, we can sometimes be broken by difficulties. Then I asked her to try to break the bundle of sticks. She grabbed it with both hands and tried hard, but she couldn't break the bundle. That's what happens when we join together and stay together as we work in groups. We have strength and power!

Evelyn was an amazing facilitator and organizer of this event. She knew how to balance sitting time and active time, how to celebrate and motivate, and how to involve everyone in some part of the event. Now comes the hard work of cultivating leadership in the groups and finding income-generating projects to sustain the work. The life of a widow in Zambia is more difficult than most of us in America could ever imagine, but this movement offers help and hope.

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