Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF

Interview: Grandmother Lucia

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In 2013, SLF staff member Joanna Henry visited eight African countries and conducted hundreds of interviews with grandmothers about how they are reclaiming hope and resurrecting lives at the frontlines of the AIDS pandemic; conversations that will inform the SLF’s Grandmothers Book, now in progress. Here, Joanna tells of her time with Nyanya Lucia in Keyna.

At 36, Lucia was the youngest grandmother interviewed for the book. When asked if she identified as a nyanya (grandmother), she laughed:

Sometimes I can feel surprised that I am a nyanya, but I can take care of family, I can advise someone in trouble, I can bring people together. It’s not determined by age, it’s all about selfless, being selfless. And I can say that I have wisdom, even though I am not educated. So, yes I am a nyanya.

Lucia is Secretary of Young Women Campaign Against AIDS’ (YWCAA) Bar Waitresses (BAWA) group: a support programme for women engaged in the dangerous and illegal business of making and selling alcohol from their homes. After years of YWCAA’s support, all of the group members are now earning their income through legitimate and diverse activities. On the way to her home, Lucia pointed out the businesses she had started using her group’s revolving loan: her water vending and public bathrooms station, her small food stand, and finally, her fully licensed bar.

Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF

Nyanya Lucia meets with her support group.

Lucia’s home was built on the roof of the bar. We squeezed down a narrow alley to a set of rickety and dark stairs which lead to her house. It was a patchwork quilt of sundry building supplies. This was her third rebuilding at least, having already suffered through a fire and the razing of her home during elections. She is considered a squatter on this land even though she has never lived anywhere else—she is landless, but not homeless. Her defiant little home radiated warmth and was bursting at the seams with family. There were babies, children, teens and adults, all of them relating to Lucia as mother—some were her siblings that she raised since she was a child, adopted children, her own children and, the apple of her eye: her first grandchild, two-year-old Louis.

She had an incredible touch with the children, her entrance into the room was met with kissing and cuddling, laughing and playing; it was a hub of joyfulness. But when the time came to settle down, the room went from mayhem to instant quiet. Children who were racing about were suddenly sitting contentedly on the floor playing together. Lucia gave a small half-smile in response to our looks of incredulous admiration: ‘I’m not just a leader in my community, I’m the leader of my home.

Lucia settled in a comfy chair to share her personal story. Intimate and honest, she recounted how she had become a mother at 14 and, almost at the same time, became responsible for the care of her five younger siblings.

My mum used to sell illicit liquor. That is what she brought us up with, but there is danger in this business. The clients are men, drinking in your home where the children are staying. These men, even the old ones, make passes at you. So you have to be keen, you have to brush them off. In poorer houses where there is no food, the men may offer to sleep with the mother for three shillings (four cents) or five shillings (six cents) if he could also sleep with her child. And they can get drunk and become violent if you refuse.

We didn’t learn from our parents about how to protect ourselves, so I got pregnant when I was 14. Eventually I had to leave school and work. When the child was born and crying, I was also crying because I didn’t know what to do. I had five younger sisters and Mum told them to call me ‘mum’ so I went from being a small girl to an adult overnight.

Then my mother got sick, so she went to her brother’s and I was left to manage the home. I continued selling the illicit brew but the burden was heavy. I was so worried about how I could get enough money for us to eat and about the safety of my young sisters in the home with these men. At night I could never sleep, I would just lie in my bed, building castles in the air—imagining the things that a young girl imagines, but for me, were never going to materialize. Sometimes I would take a bit of the drink just to help me forget these dreams of mine.

It pained me that I could not go to school myself. Even at 14 I understood that education is the key to life. So that’s why I promised myself that my siblings will be able to do their studies—and my child too. I didn’t want them to be like me. It was difficult but somehow we managed.

Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF

L to R: Lucia, Trina (Zebia’s daughter), Stephen, Zebia

My son met Stephen when they were both young boys. He told me Stephen was sleeping on the streets in doorways and asked if we could bring him in. He was only eight years old at the time but he has lived with us since then. He is 19 now and everyone accepts that this is Stephen’s home.

Zebia joined us when she was 16. She was staying in a home for orphans but at 16, the girls are discharged onto the street. She was thinking about going into sex work, so I just took her in. When she came, I told her that we were poor but we would share what we had with her. I was firm that I wouldn’t tolerate sex work, and she was happy to accept.

I knew that sometimes the children might struggle with sibling rivalry. And since Stephen and Zebia were orphans, they were likely to be more sensitive to the feelings of being neglected. But I told them ‘you’re mine, we’ll have to go through this together.’ I was careful not to discriminate. During the festive season, for example, I had to look for enough money so that I could buy them all trousers and t-shirts so that they all felt equal.

I worried constantly about the future of all these children. I continued the illicit brewing until we met up with YWCAA. They helped the women brewers form the BAWA group, and held a seminar where we were taught how to keep our children safe from clients, how to work together to save our money and how to stop drinking ourselves. Yeah, that was the first step. So after that, they gave us a loan. So I started changing.

Now I have these three businesses, but even more, with YWCAA I found myself becoming an educated woman! I learned how to write and take minutes. I was chosen as the chair lady of the group and I had that position for five years. I didn’t know I could get to that point!

They also taught us about HIV and AIDS. This was important to me because at that time I was caring for Zebia’s younger sister who was HIV positive, and very sick. I learned how to manage HIV, but also how to be open about it with the children. Now I teach my own children and all the children of my community about these things, especially the girls. I even educate some of the grandmothers who don’t want to send their girls to school because they need their help at home. I tell them that if they get an education, they get a job, and this will not only help the child but it will help the family too.

I can do this because of what I have gone through, but also what YWCAA has taught me. If it were not for them, I don’t think I could have ever reached this place in my life.

Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF

Nyanya Lucia with her two-year old grandson Louis.

As she concluded her story, Lucia stood up from her chair and greeted Stephen who had arrived home mid-interview. She then scooped up her grandson Louis and began lavishing him with some grandmotherly affection. As if on cue, the other small children suddenly became restless and began to climb onto her lap as well.

With nyanya happily occupied, we asked Stephen if there was anything he wanted to add to his story of finding a home with Lucia. He shared that he is currently volunteering as a Facilitator with Africa Trust, working with vulnerable youth aged 18–35 years.

I had a hard life, as mamma said, and it’s kinda like I don’t want other people to suffer, so I volunteer and help others. You know, people say if you are given to, you also have to give back to the community. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Zebia, now 29, had also stopped by with her daughter to greet us and add her comments to Stephen’s:

She is the only family I have because my mother died when I was only nine years old. Actually, I was in a home, St. Barton’s, and when I reached 16, they told me to leave, and she’s the one who took me in. And later she took in my sister who was sick. If she hadn’t taken us in, I don’t know what could have become of us. Now I have my own small business doing hair with the support of Lucia. All I can say is that I’m grateful that she is my family.

It was time to go, and as we left Lucia, quite literally with children all over her, we knew we were leaving a very special place. Somehow, against all odds, Lucia, with the stalwart support of YWCAA, had managed to construct a home that felt like a fortress in the most tenuous of environments—a safe haven for children; children who know the meaning of love and the meaning of possibility, who are given a chance to grow into the adults they wish to be.

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