Remembering Senzeni within a wider Zimbabwean context

Senzeni jpeg

This photo shows Tariro’s librarian Senzeni Matikiti in 1995.

Today, I want to take a few more minutes to address the recent death of Senzeni Matikiti, Tariro’s beloved librarian. While my first post about Senzeni’s passingwas a more personal reflection on how she became involved in Tariro’s work, I also feel it is important to reflect on how Senzeni’s very early death, at only 35 years old, is part of a much large constellation of issues of health, education, poverty, and social justice – the very issues that Tariro is dedicating to addressing in our work to educate at-risk girls.

Life expectancies in Zimbabwe

When I heard the news that Senzeni had died, I was immediately reminded that her early death was sadly not an unusual event in Zimbabwe, where life expectancy dropped precipitously in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By 2006, Zimbabwe had the world’s shortest life spans – 34 years for women, and 37 years for men. Recent reports from organizations such as the World Bank suggest that life expectancies have improved in recent years, reaching 60 years for women and 56 years for men. Yet, these numbers are still lower than Zimbabwe’s average life expectancy in the 1980s, suggesting that HIV/AIDS has erased many of the health gains made immediately after independence.

The thinning population pyramid

In the lyrics to his song “Mabasa,” which addresses the ravages of HIV/AIDS, Zimbabwean popular artist Oliver Mtukudzi sings the poignant lines:

The young lead the way (Pwere dzotungamira)
The workers lead the way (Mushandi wotungamira)
Only elderly men and women are left (Sare chembere neharahwa)

Mtukudzi’s lyrics reflect exactly how HIV/AIDS and related diseases have affected the “population pyramid” in countries like Zimbabwe, by hollowing out an entire generation of people in the most productive years of their lives: teachers, farmers, mothers, fathers, nurses, and traders. Let’s take a moment to view some graphics illustrating the devastating social effects of this process.

Normally, developing countries like Zimbabwe have a population pyramid that tapers evenly, from a large base of dependent young people, through a mid-sized group of workers in their productive years, and to a small number of dependent elderly people. The following chart, while illustrates the population pyramid of Mozambique, is an excellent example:

Population pyramid, Mozambique. From the BBC.

Population pyramid, Mozambique. From the BBC.

In Zimbabwe, on the other hand, the population pyramid radically thins out just at the ages of 35-39, as we might expect after the drop in life expectancy over previous decades. While Zimbabwe is located right next to Mozambique, its population pyramid thus looks very different:

Population pyramid, Zimbabwe. From Indexmundi.

Population pyramid, Zimbabwe. From Indexmundi.

The shape of Zimbabwe’s population pyramid reflects the predictions made by scholars interested in demographic changes in countries affected by HIV/AIDS, as you can see in the following illustration, which predicts the relative population of low-income countries affected by HIV/AIDS, represented by the dark shaded area, in comparison with those unaffected by HIV/AIDS, represented by the light shaded area. Note how closely the prediction for countries affected by HIV/AIDS matches Zimbabwe’s actual population pyramid.

Population pyramid model illustrated the effects of HIV/AIDS. www.sarpn.org

Population pyramid model illustrated the effects of HIV/AIDS. http://www.sarpn.org

As people in the prime of their lives are lost to diseases such as HIV/AIDS, the effects are felt not only on an individual, family basis, but throughout society as a whole. Their loss is, in a very real sense, everyone’s loss. When I think back to the invaluable role Senzeni played within Tariro, I think of all the people whom she interacted with in her professional life: our students, their guardians, their teachers and headmasters, our other staff. For each of these people, Senzeni’s death is a narrowing of their professional and social world.

Orphans

Yet, needless to say, the deepest pain of Senzeni’s death is that felt by her two children, Jesse and Tinashe, both of whom are still under the age of 18. Senzeni was an amazing mother: no matter how hard things were, Jesse and Tinashe were always dressed in cleaned, well-ironed clothes, and always had a smile on their faces. It was obviously how much they respected and loved their mom, and no one will ever be able to fill that gap in their lives.

Jesse and Tinashe now join the ranks of almost a million orphans living in Zimbabwe, all of whom have lost either one or both parents. Among these orphans, Jesse and Tinashe are among the most disadvantaged, because they are now “double orphans,” rather than “single orphans” who have lost only one parent.

In a country of only 10-12 million inhabitants, the problems of caring for nearly a million orphaned children should be clearly evident. Who will take them in, feed the, and pay their school fees? Who will be able to spare the extra time to wash and iron their clothes, pack their lunches, and protect them from abuse? And who can muster the extra emotional energy to guide them through the trauma and grief of losing not one, but often multiple family members?

The many pressing needs of Zimbabwe’s orphaned children is precisely the site where Tariro has chosen to intervene in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Instead of institutionalizing orphans, our approach is to strengthen the ability of their extended families to keep them at home and care for them. Your support and generous donations have been essential in enabling us to make this difference.

Tariro’s Executive Director Kenny Magwada recently reported that Senzeni’s children have been taken in by an uncle who lives in Highfield, not far away from where they used to live. This is excellent news, since it will minimize further disruptions to their education. Yet, the road will be very long and difficult for both of them. Tinashe, in particular, was supposed to write his O Level exams this year. So soon after his mother’s death, however, it is likely that he will not pass. And there are no guarantees that they will be able to continue living in the same neighborhood, or with the same relatives, until finishing secondary school. As long as they are still in Highfield, however, Tariro is dedicated to supporting their education in Senzeni’s memory.

Infections and inequalities

Borrowing a phrase from the amazing work of Dr. Paul Farmer, the last point I believe it is important to make is that Senzeni’s death from tuberculosis reflects the way many modern infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and now also ebola, have become diseases of the poor. Relatively rare in developed nations, they have become entrenched in places like Haiti and Guinea, and are also endemic within pockets of institutionalized poverty, including many prison systems.

Yet, as Paul Farmer has long argued, these conditions are not simply private problems; they are public health problems, with important ramifications for all of us. From Russian prisons, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, or MDR-TB, threatens to spill over into the larger Eastern Eauropean population. From Sierra Leonean districts like Kenema, Ebola eventually reaches Dakar, Madrid, New York City, Dallas, and Kayes. Among these infectious diseases, HIV/AIDS has taken the greatest human toll; it is also implicated in the spread of other opportunistic infections, like TB.

In order to successfully change this dynamic, Farmer argues that we must move away from explanations that rely on dubious assertions about “culture” – the idea that people in Guinea engage in dangerous burial practices, for example – and toward addressing the structural problems that create the conditions for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, TB, and Ebola to spread. Foremost among them is, quite simply, poverty.

Once again, it is here that Tariro is participating in creating small, but radical change, since educating women is the single best way to transform poverty. Our mission is one of empowering girls not simply to transcend the problem of infections and inequalities, but to participate in changing the very conditions by which the two become linked. Please join us.

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