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 Sunday 06 June 2010
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ZAMBIA: Orphans grow up without cultural identity

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
About 20,000 households in Zambia are led by children
LUSAKA, 16 November 2009 (PlusNews) - Abigail Mwanashimba has been looking after her five siblings since the age of eight, when her parents died of AIDS-related illnesses. She is now 19 years old, and without relatives to represent her at her lobola (bride price) negotiations, she was forced to hire traditional counsellors to organise the process of marriage according to the tribal customs. They did a bad job.

"I don't know anything about my tribe or its culture because there has never been anyone to teach or show me," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "I got very little lobola, but the last straw was the humiliation I suffered at my in-laws' home, when I embarrassed them by performing the wrong dance."

Losing out on the bride price was one thing, but when she realised that the counsellors she had hired had taught her the wrong traditional dances, she refused to pay them their 500,000 Zambian kwacha (US$100) fee, and is now facing a lawsuit.

Agnes Ngubeni, from the central town of Kabwe, also knows this kind of humiliation; she has lived with the embarrassment of not having undergone an initiation ceremony when she came of age, and not being able to speak the language of her tribe.

"People called us goats ... they said we were 'cultureless' and were not educated in the ways of our tribe. It never occurred to them that there was no-one to teach us - we lived without elders," she said.

Ngubeni and her siblings were orphaned fifteen years ago when her oldest brother was just 10. A Norwegian family living in Zambia committed itself to looking after them, which meant they were clothed and fed, but this presented them with social problems.

Their neighbours ridiculed them for eating pasta, bread and rice, instead of the staple, nshima - thick maize-meal porridge - that neither she nor her three sisters can cook.

"The neighbours laughed at us for eating the white man's food, which they said was not real food, but what are we supposed to do? We eat what we are given. That's just how it is," Ngubeni said.

Ngubeni recommends that people helping child-headed families should consider placing an adult relative or any other person of the same tribe among them to guide and mentor them in the ways of traditional society.

''We are so engrossed in keeping the children off drugs and alcohol, and the girls from getting pregnant ... that we lsoe sight of the fact that children need to be socialised in the ways of their tribe''
Out of touch with culture

In its latest report on Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that about 20,000 households in Zambia were led by children, but the number is increasing.

The report outlines the severe deprivations of food and shelter these children often face, and concludes that with more youngsters having to take on the responsibilities of running a household at an early age, there is every likelihood that more of them will end up on the street.

Joseph Banda heads Tisunge, a local organisation that assists child-headed households to deal with the trauma of loss, and teaches them income-generating and life skills, so that the children are able to fend for themselves and can continue their schooling.

Banda said it had never occurred to him that these children would struggle with cultural issues. "I am ashamed to say that I never saw the children's situation in this way," he admitted.

"We are so engrossed in keeping the children off drugs and alcohol, and the girls from getting pregnant, and making sure that they become good citizens, that we lose sight of the fact that children need to be socialised in the ways of their tribe."

Child psychologist Trina Mayope warned that children growing up without the value of custom and tradition would have problems in future. "It's about growing up with a cultural identity ... The children feel isolation because the communities treat them as aliens, or as something not quite right because of their seeming lack of 'traditional etiquette'."

There is also the stigma attached to being orphaned by HIV/AIDS, as is mostly the case. "If these children don't conform to the cultural norms of the society they live in they will suffer a double discrimination," she noted.

Mayope acknowledged that urbanisation and the passing of time had caused people to discard many traditions, but the basics of culture were still important and largely defined how someone was perceived.

"It's difficult for most people to comprehend how a child can grow up without knowing anything about his or culture. People think they [children] are trying to act like a muzungu [European], but when you have children whose mentor is a fellow child, how are they supposed to learn traditional norms and customs?"


Theme(s): (PLUSNEWS) Care/Treatment - PlusNews, (PLUSNEWS) Children, (PLUSNEWS) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews)


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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