I was born in 1964, in a village called Kiasemi. I went to primary school in the same village. I used to love medicine and anything to do with hospitals but I couldn’t continue with secondary school because my father was not interested in education. He had children with four different women. From my mother, there were 4 girls and 6 boys but not even one of us made it to secondary school. Even worse, back when I was in school, it was very difficult to excel academically. The government would only send the top 2 students to secondary school but there were 145 students in my class. So you can see that it was impossible to continue…
Nonetheless, I used to love medicine and the whole idea of hospitals. After primary school, my parents sent me to live with my aunt in Moshi (region in Tanzania) town so that I could find work. Luckily, the man who rented a room in the same house as us worked at a hospital. I talked to him a few times about my interests and he managed to get me a job as a cleaner in the hospital laboratory. Since I was strongly passionate, I quickly learned how to test blood, urine, eye sight etc. Things were going very well and the lab technicians all liked me so they showed me how to do things whenever I asked.
A short while after, I got a suitor. The guy was a soldier and he had just got back home from the battle against Uganda. You know back then, a man is told to go marry so and so girl from a certain house and that’s it. As a woman, you’re in no position to refuse. That’s how I got married.
In 1985, we got married and I had my first child that same year. I was still working at the hospital at the time and the head of the lab told me about a short course and test I could take to become a lab assistant. But the test was in Mwanza (region in Tanzania), which is very far from Moshi. I was very excited for that opportunity but my husband talked me out of it because I had a newborn and a few weeks later, we found out that I was pregnant again. Even worse, every time I went into the lab, I would either vomit or faint due to the strong smell of chemicals.
My husband “advised” me to quit my job and I did. In 1986, I quit my job at the hospital.
He then opened a little grocery store and I ran it. In the next 10 years, I had given birth to 5 more children, we started farming, raising hens and selling mbege (local Tanzanian alcohol made out of fermented bananas). I can honestly say, we had a happy life during that time. But you know uchaggani (area in Tanzania populated by the Chagga tribe), you can’t have a happy marriage for long. When my in-laws started noticing that we were living comfortably, the war began.
My husband and I started fighting all the time. My sisters-in-law would move in for months on end and never leave. They would bring their friends over and cheekily introduce them to my husband.
Apparently I was getting too old for their brother, who by the way, was 12 years my senior.
Now, the real heat began when I gave birth to my last born. Shortly after this, my first born who was 11 years old at the time, fell sick. I took him to the hospital because he was very weak all the time, and he would develop so many bruises you know. My husband didn’t come with me because he was out drunk, sleeping with someone.
At the hospital, the doctor was very concerned, “every time I inject your son, it seems like the wounds get worse and we can’t explain it. It’s best you take him to Dr. Irongo, a Tuberculosis specialist at KCMC (big hospital in Moshi region). Your son may have TB of the bones.” And so, I did.
At KCMC, they conducted more tests. The moment they drew his blood, my heart sank. I knew immediately it was something serious since I had worked in a lab before. His blood was too dark; it had a black tint to it.
One of the nurses told me not to worry, “these days there’s good medicine and good doctors.” But she wouldn’t tell me the exact diagnosis.
Three days later, I went back to get the results. They told me my son had Sickle Cell and I had to take him to Muhimbili (the biggest national hospital in Tanzania), in Dar es Salaam. I simply cried. All the doctors were consoling me, but we all knew the inevitable. You see, back then, no one really knew about Sickle Cell. We just knew that you die if you have it.
Immediately after the hospital, I went to the market to tell my husband. I found him at our shop, already drinking at 10 am… I told him everything.
He slapped me across the face. “Foolish woman, why are you crying? They’re telling you to take him to Muhimbili so do that!”
You know when someone’s uneducated, they don’t understand things. Even though I didn’t go to school, I was at least able to see that this was a serious problem. Luckily, his uncle was at the scene. He was a teacher at the local school so he had some sense in him. He told us to calm down so that we can discuss how to get my son to Dar. The next week, he took my son and they left for Muhimbili hospital. I stayed behind with my mother in-law, because remember I still had a six-month old at home.
They stayed in Dar for six months. At Muhimbili, they told us we needed to raise money to take my son to South Africa because they didn’t have the equipment and medicine to treat him. That’s when they told me that my boy had Leukemia.
I started struggling by myself to raise the money. I told my husband we should sell our farm but he wouldn’t hear it. He was too busy drinking and now he was openly having an affair with his new young girlfriend. Right as I was about to finalize the sale of the farm, which I was doing behind my husband’s back, the doctors told me that it was too late. The only thing left to do was pray. The next morning, I got on the first bus to Dar.
I don’t think I have ever felt as weak as they day I walked in to Muhimbili and saw my son. He looked nothing like the young boy who left Moshi a few months ago. He was skin and bones, and scarily pale.
Two weeks later, we were both awake late in the night. My son told me, “Mama, just leave me, I’m dying.” I told him not to speak such words and urged him to keep praying. All he said was, “Mama, I’m dying.”
I stayed in Dar for a month. I had to leave the last week of November to get back to my young one. My husband told me we would all go back to Dar in January, so that’s what I was holding on to, but I knew.
A few days later, the 4th of December, I woke up feeling horrible. The moment I woke up, I went straight to a bar and started drinking heavily. There was a lump in my throat that just wouldn’t go away. I stayed at the bar all day drinking. I don’t even know how I got home. When I woke up around 7pm, I saw my sister-in-law in my bedroom. She said she was looking for food for the goats. It was very unusual. But I couldn’t focus. The lump was still in my throat.
My other sister-in-law walked in and asked if I wanted more mbege, which again, was very unusual. I started getting worried. Not to mention, it sounded like there were a lot of people outside. When I asked them what was going on, they wouldn’t say anything. They kept ushering me to drink the mbege. After what felt like 100 years, they finally said the words, “Ricky passed away.”
A huge part of my memory after that is missing to this day. Some say I simply screamed and fainted. Others say I tried to kill myself. I believe both versions.
We waited for the body for two whole days before we could bury him. The whole time though, my husband would not talk to me or even look at me. Uchagani, we have this tradition where the parents who lose a child have to eat a specific meal for several days after the funeral. Since my husband would not be around me, I ended up eating the meal myself. He wouldn’t even sleep in our house. People started questioning our marriage because it was not customary for a husband to not sleep in the house with his wife after they just lost a child. Truth be told, that whole time, I could not care less.
A few days after the funeral, my aunts came to me and said, “Child, be very careful here, you might get killed. Your sisters-in-law are saying that you killed your son.”
I just screamed. They went on, “They’re saying that you wanted to kill your husband because he’s leaving you so you poisoned his food but your son ate it accidentally. They’re telling everyone that Muhimbili found poison in your baby’s blood.”
You know, it didn’t make any sense. First, what kind of poison stays in your blood for more than six months before killing you? So blood cancer is poison now.
Anyway, everyone left after a week. The house was heavy with silence. My husband still slept at his woman’s house and my children were simply confused. I used to cry all day, still in disbelief that Ricky was gone. I would go to his grave and just stare at it, waiting for him to come out and wake me up.
Things didn’t change. My husband and his family told the whole village that I was a witch and I killed my son. He publicly swore that he would never set foot in our house as long as I’m still in it. And you know the village mindset, everyone believed everything. Even my children were afraid to leave the house because people would taunt them.
We stayed there for four more months. Not even once did my husband stop by to see his kids or leave some money for food. In fact, he was having the time of his life. After cooking up the witch story, he had the perfect excuse to move in with his girlfriend because no one would judge him. That’s what hurt me the most; because he knew our son was sick, he watched my cry, watched me die inside as I nursed him but my husband only cared about the fun. After the four months, I packed my bags, took my kids and moved to Moshi town with my Aunt.
Now, I am with my children. The oldest one, a girl, is a teacher. I struggled to make sure she had a decent education. She’s now married with a two year old son. But recently, she has been complaining a lot about her husband; he wants her to quit her job and raise the child. I said, “Over my dead body! If he loves his son so much, he should quit his job and raise him.”
My husband had me leave my job and look at what happened. If I had stayed working, I know I would have gotten far. Even though I had not gone to school, I was already climbing up in the lab. So I told my daughter she can’t leave her job.
I keep telling her, “In life, you have to look forward and back. When I left your father, I was 30 years old with four children and no job. I struggled to make sure you have a better life than me so you absolutely cannot repeat my mistakes.”