Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Gruesome murder in Chienge

Mr Kabonda nursing his wounds.
ON MONDAY, November 16, a group of men, acting on Senior Chief Puta’s orders, went to demolish a small palace belonging to a headwoman long accused of insurrection in the Bwile chiefdom. What followed, however, was a brutal and bloody revolt that left the chief’s retainer or kapaso dead.  

From his ipad, Senior Chief Puta shows me pictures he took of his kapaso shortly after he was killed. The images, which are too graphic to publish, show the mangled and bloody face of Peter Muswe - his deep wounds a telltale of a savage and merciless attack.

"He was a good man," says the chief, his voice almost breaking.

Muswe’s family is shocked at the killing.

"My brother was killed like an animal," says Mwenya Muswe, younger brother of the slain royal messenger.

And at the district hospital, 60-year-old Gershom Kabonda, another victim of the brutal assault, groans with pain on his hospital bed. He is surrounded by sympathetic relatives and friends, who cannot hide their shock at the wounds inflicted on the old man. His head is all stitched up.

Mr Kabonda was hacked five times on the head with a machete by his attackers and left for dead.

"I don’t know if I will be able to eat normally again. They should have just finished me off," he says in a whimpering voice.

Mr Kabonda, who also suffered a dislocated jaw, can hardly remember how the attack evolved.

Four days after I visited him, the old man was transferred to Katumba Mwanke Hospital in Pweto, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Some who witnessed the attack, like Gilbert Mwape, talks of men armed with bow and arrows and machetes coming after them.

Mr Mwape suffered a deep cut on his right arm when he tried to help a man who was being attacked.

"He wanted to hit me on the head with a machete, but I put forth my hand and he hit me on my arm instead," he says.

Mr Mwape counts himself lucky to have survived.

"When people use pangas to attack others, it means their aim is to kill," he says.

Katele Kalumba, who is the Natende or ombudsman in the Bwile chiefdom, describes the attack as "almost satanic".

"That is not a normal way of killing somebody. We have never heard anything like that," says Dr Kalumba, who is also a renowned politician.

"That only happens in the Congo, in a place where the Mai Mai are still active," he says.

At the centre of the murder is Mwabu Kasenge, an 86-year-old headwoman who settled in the Bwile chiefdom in 1958 from the DRC.

According to historical records of the colonial government, there was no-one reigning in Zambia under the title of Mwabu, except in neighbouring Congo.

The Bwile kingdom extends to the DRC and is under the leadership of Paramount Chief Mpweto.

According to Dr Kalumba, trouble began when Mwabu Kasenge, who had been banished to the DRC before for insurrection, started undermining Mwabu Musunga Bantu, headman of a neighbouring village.

She had also formed an alliance with Mwamba Kapotwe, a man who was claiming to be the rightful heir to the Puta throne, but lost the bid in court.

There have also been reports that Chief Puta’s adversaries had hired a murderous militia from the Democratic Republic of Congo called Mai Mai.

However, Luapula Province deputy police chief Webby Shula dismisses any Mai Mai connection to the attack.

So what really sparked the brutal attack and murder of Muswe, a 40-year-old father of six?

The police chief says trouble in the chiefdom has been brewing since the 1970s.

Chief Puta says there have been many murders in the Mwabu area, mainly based on witchcraft accusations and rivalry between Mwabu Kasenge and Musunga Bantu.

In 2013, headman Mututuma was shot dead while he ate his supper at his home. He was a close friend of Musunga Bantu and had long been accused of practising witchcraft by Mwabu Kasenge.

And on the night of February 18 this year, Musunga Bantu’s wife was gunned down while she stood in the doorway of her house with her husband.

The fatal bullets were apperently meant for her husband.

The suspected assailant escaped to the DRC, but was later apprehended and brought back to Zambia by Muswe.

Following interrogations, Mwabu Kasenge’s daughter Chishimba and her husband, Lewis Mulumbwa, were named as conspirators and arrested. They were later discharged after the State entered a nolle prosequi in October for lack of evidence.

Following the failed court case, Mwabu Kasenge, who remained suspended, began building a palace in the place belonging to Musunga Bantu, escalating tensions between the two.

Chief Puta says he had informed police before sending his kapaso to stop Mwabu Kasenge from building her palace and he wonders why the police did not escort them.

According to Mr Mulumbwa’s narrative of what happened, the chief’s retainer and his group arrived in three vehicles, including a truck, armed with sticks.

"But because the people love their chieftainess and what she has done for them, they wanted to protect her," he told me by phone.

But Chief Puta says his kapaso was only armed with handcuffs.

Mr Shula denies the local police ever gave permission to Chief Puta to raze Kasenge’s palace and advises him to involve the House of Chiefs to resolve the wrangles in his chiefdom.

But Chief Puta says the matter is outside the jurisdiction of the House of Chiefs, as sub-chiefs and headmen are appointed by him and not gazetted by law.

There are currently 17 sub-chiefs serving under Chief Puta.

Death threats
According to Chief Puta, a week before he was killed, Muswe and a local forestry officer had received death threats from villagers of Mwabu Kasenge’s area, where they had gone to stop the cutting of rattan, which is used to make furniture.

Mr Muswe’s family has submitted seven names, among them Lewis Mulumbwa, who they say were involved in the attack. They have also submitted a death threat sent by phone to the family by Mr Mulumbwa a day after Muswe was killed.

The fallen kapaso’s family is now seeking justice, but has lost confidence in the local police, although Mr Shula says the murder case is still active and police are still looking for suspects.

The four suspects who had been arrested, including Kasenge and her daughter, have since been released.

"We can’t keep holding people if there is no sufficient evidence against them," says the police chief.

Meanwhile, the feud continues to rage. Muswe’s family is now talking of picking up arms to avenge his murder if the police do not bring the culprits to justice.


Thursday, 12 November 2015

2 can share a kidney

Gabriel with his younger brother, who donated a kidney to him.
WHEN Gabriel Phiri was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2006, he felt like it was the end of the world for him.
“It was a fright. It was a question of am I going to live or maybe this is the end of it all,” says the 55-year-old.
Today, however, Mr Phiri lives a fairly healthy life, thanks to a donated kidney he received from his younger brother.
Mr Phiri discovered that both his kidneys had collapsed after a freaky incident. While waiting for a friend in a car park, a tiny particle entered his eye and he ended up at the hospital to have it removed.
However, after routine tests, it was discovered that Mr Phiri had high blood pressure, a shocking diagnosis, as he was not a known hypertensive. Prior to this episode, however, Mr Phiri had for a long time suffered loss of appetite, which he could not understand.
But it was the second diagnosis that scared him the most.
Further tests revealed that Mr Phiri had abnormal levels of urea and creatinine (a chemical waste which is a by-product of normal muscle contractions) in his blood. This led doctors to check his kidneys and confirm the worst - both organs had collapsed.
After the diagnosis, Mr Phiri was put on dialysis treatment, which he received three times a week at a private hospital.
But even for an established businessman like him, meeting the cost of dialysis at the private hospital soon became unbearable. At the time, treatment cost K800 per session, and a patient needs three sessions per week.
Today, the cost of dialysis ranges between K1,200 and K1,700 per session at private medical facilities.
Under a government scheme, however, the treatment can be accessed at highly subsidized fees. There are three categories of payments, with the highest being K400, while the least is K50 per session. There are others still, who get the service for free under the scheme, including children and pregnant women.
But although he was able to access cheaper dialysis at UTH, life on the machine was beginning to take a toll on Mr Phiri and his business, as he had to spend many hours out of the office.
“Four hours on the machine drains you,” says Mr Phiri, who runs a printing company.
After three years on dialysis, doctors recommended kidney transplant as a long term solution for Mr Phiri.
Although he was scared to undergo a transplant, he took the offer.
“When you are in a situation where it’s a question of life or death, you take anything that is offered to you as an option,” he says.
Two of Mr Phiri’s brothers offered themselves as possible donors of the bean-like organ, but it was Vincent, his youngest brother, who had a matching blood group.
“I did it out of love,” says Vincent, who was 33 years old at the time.
The Zambian law does not allow harvesting of organs from dead people; hence the only source of body parts is a living person, preferably a blood relative.
On March 29, 2009, Mr Phiri underwent the transplant operation at Apollo Hospital in India, making full recovery within two month.
As for Vincent, he leads a normal life just like before.
“People ask me if I feel like there is something missing in me…but I don’t feel anything,” he says.
“I think I have become more attached to him,” says Mr Phiri about his younger brother.
“Of course there is that feeling that if it wasn’t for him, I would probably not be here. There are people I spent time with at UTH who died because, in some cases, they never had the privilege that I had,” he says.
He says the transplant gave him “a second chance at life”.
It is a second chance that others long for.
Maganizo Mabengwa is a young man in his late 20s. He has a catheter permanently inserted in his abdomen and thrice a week he visits the renal department at UTH for dialysis.
He complains about life on dialysis and his face beams when asked if he would consider a transplant. 
“I wouldn’t refuse that…I wouldn’t,” he says.
Maganizo discovered he had kidney failure in October last year after visiting the hospital with symptoms that included swollen legs, vomiting and night sweats, and although he never suspected anything very serious, he was diagnosed with kidney failure.
Hypertension was given as the reason for Maganizo’s condition. But just like Mr Phiri, he, too, was not a known hypertensive.
According to Dr Charles Mutemba, a nephrologist or kidney specialist working at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH), many people will not know they have kidney failure until the condition becomes advanced, usually resulting in swollen legs.
Dr Mutemba says many people who are diagnosed with kidney failure are “crash-landers”, people who, like Mr Phiri, go to seek medical attention for something different.
He, however, says symptoms of kidney failure usually mimic the original disease, making screening difficult.
There are two types of kidney failure - chronic and acute kidney failure. Acute kidney failure, which is reversible, is usually caused by sudden occurrences such as accident, poisoning and diseases such as malaria.
Chronic kidney failure, which is a result of permanent damage to the kidneys, is caused by three major factors, according to Dr Michael Mbambiko, a UK-trained kidney transplant surgeon.
“If someone is hypertensive and the blood pressure is not properly controlled, one of the organs that gets damaged is the kidney and it is damaged irreversibly,” says Dr Mbambiko.
Diabetes is also listed among the major causes of kidney failure, while ethnicity is also a factor, with black people being more susceptible to the condition, according to Dr Mutemba.
He says Truvada, which is one of the first-line treatments for HIV/AIDS, has also been known to cause damage to kidneys, so has the prolonged use of certain painkillers.
Although UTH does not have records to show the prevalence of kidney failure, Dr Mbambiko thinks the number is “quite high”.
Dr Mutemba blames non-availability of statistics on kidney failure on lack of proper screening of patients.
Every year, the Zambian government sponsors 10 patients to undergo kidney transplants in India, spending about US$25,000 for each transplant. In South Africa, kidney transplants cost as high as US$65,000.
However, Dr Mutemba says some patients have failed to undergo the transplant because they failed to find a matching donor.
He says many relatives of kidney patients are afraid to donate a kidney even with assurance that they can live normally on one.
In fact Zambia’s celebrated football commentator Dennis Liwewe, who died last year at the age of 78, was born with one kidney.
“We still have a lot of work to sensitise our population that kidney donation is safe,” says Dr Mbambiko, who has performed many successful kidney transplants in Britain.
“We can’t perpetually be dialyzing patients,” he says.
Besides, access to dialysis machines is still very limited in Zambia. Currently, only two government hospitals have Hemodialysis machines – Kitwe Central Hospital and UTH.
Patients who are in places where they cannot access Hemodialysis are put on peritoneal dialysis, which can be administered at home. But peritoneal dialysis does not come cheap, either.
Dr Mutemba says the cost of dialysis cannot become cheaper with time, it can only getter worse, making transplant the best solution.
Transplant Links Community, a UK charity has offered to conduct the first-ever kidney transplants on a number of patients in Zambia, as well as to equip local doctors with skills in renal transplants.
Dr Mbambiko says although the initial cost of establishing a facility that would conduct kidney transplants in Zambia has not be determined, the country would save a lot of money in the long run.
“We have enough expertise to carry out kidney transplants,” Dr Mbambiko says.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Recycle-mad Sweden now moves towards circular economy

Solar panels at an apartment block in Husby.


Henrik Norlin explains to journalists how old clothes are turned into new fabric.

Bicycles at a new residential in the Stockholm Royal Seaport.

THE 1985 sci-fi movie, Back to the Future, predicted what the future would look like 30 years later - with flying cars, video phones, robots, self-lacing shoes and levitating skate boards. Most ideas remain a dream.

The movie is partly set to the date October 21, 2015 which, three decades ago, seemed a really distant future. Yet on this very date, I found myself standing in a small science laboratory at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, listening to a lively young man explaining how his small company called Re:newcell is able to turn old clothes into snow-white fluffy cotton that can then be used to make brand new garments.

The concept seems extremely futuristic and I can imagine what such an innovation could contribute to recycling and the manufacturing sectors.

The company is very secretive about the chemical formula or chemicals used in its processes, but insists it doesn’t use any dangerous chemicals.

Henrik Norlin, who is one of the founders of Re:newcell, says cotton material produced in the laboratory will cost “more or less” the same as the one made from harvested cotton.

The company is currently awaiting more financial investment to take the idea from the laboratory to a factory.

Re:newcell is just one of many companies in Sweden that are trying to promote sustainable living through recycling and re-using of various products and materials.

The Swedes are generally obsessed with the environment and sustainable living, and are investing a lot of research into technologies and concepts that can reduce the carbon footprint, thereby reversing the negative effects of climate change.

The Swedish Institute invited six journalists from Africa, Asia and Europe to look at some of the concepts being developed to encourage sustainable living in this technologically-advanced Nordic country.

One of the concepts being espoused by Swedish companies is circular economy, which entails that a product never really ends up in the trash can as waste, as the case is in a linear economy, where there is an industry on one end and a landfill or refuse dump on the other.

Actually, in a circular economy, garbage does smell like money and all waste that ends in a landfill is considered as lost profit.

Stuart Pledger, who is one of the strongest proponents of circular economy, reckons that there is US$4.4 trillion to be made out of rubbish. Although what he really preaches is re-using material as opposed to recycling them.

According to Mr Pledger, who heads a consultancy firm called, circular economy is modelled on the ecosystem, which he describes as a “super-efficient system” able to rejuvenate itself.

“The circular economy is really interested in a mindset where you borrow materials from the ecosystem, use them and then you return,” he says.

And when it comes to recycling, Sweden is really a shining example. The country recycles 99 percent of its household waste.

In Stockholm, for instance, about 993,000 kilogrammes of food waste is collected every month and is turned into biofuel to power buses and taxis. The city is working to become fossil fuel-free by 2040.

In Back to the Future, Doc Brown powers his time-travel machine with banana peels, leftover beer, and Pepsi scavenged from garbage.

So efficient is Sweden’s waste management that the country now imports huge amounts of garbage from other countries to generate energy for domestic heating.

Some 800,000 tonnes was imported in 2014 from countries including Britain, according to statistics from Avfall Sverige, Sweden’s national waste-management association. And up to 260,000 homes in the Nordic country are powered by trash, making Sweden a world leader in energy generated from garbage.

Re-using old computers

Although circular economy is little heard of in Zambia, Erik Pettersson, describes it as a “revolution” and predicts that the concept will gain momentum.

Mr Pettersson runs a company called Inrego, which buys old laptop and desktop computers, wipes the hard drives, restores them to pristine condition, and then sells them to second users.

The idea is to reduce the amount of e-waste, already a huge problem in countries like Nigeria, as well as to cut down on the carbon dioxide that is produced during the manufacturing of new computers.

It is said that every Swede has five kilogrammes of electronic products in their homes that they do not use, but are still useable.

According to Mr Pettersson, about 600,000 laptops are thrown away in Sweden every year and end up at recycling plants where they are shredded before certain metals are extracted.

Inrego buys back about a third of the laptops that would, otherwise, end up at recycling plants. Last year, the company bought 260,000 laptops from companies and individuals. Of those, only eight percent were not reusable and sent to the reprocessing factories.

The company’s warehouse has tens of thousands of laptops that will end up in 70 countries across the globe.

Actually, about 40 percent of the computers find their way back into the Swedish market.

Car sharing

One of the major sources of carbon emissions, especially in densely-populated cities is automobiles, and the lesser vehicles on the road, the better for the environment.

And so Flexidrive, a small company founded in 2011, has a solution: car owners can rent out their vehicles when they are not using them. The concept is called car sharing, and is also meant to promote social interaction among citizens.

Through car sharing, Flexidrive hopes to reduce car emissions by one percent.

“It’s a waste to have a car just sitting the whole day when you are at work,” says Magnus Engervall, who co-owns Flexidrive.

Mr Engervall, himself, does not own a car, but rents one whenever he needs to drive somewhere.

Of course the concept requires a lot of trust, and Swedes are said to be among the most trustworthy people in the world.

Flexidrive now has about 800 car owners registered as members, with a pool of 1,600 vehicles. Last month, the company announced a take-over by one of Europe’s largest car sharing company, SnappCar.

Mr Pledger says: “In a circular economy, leasing is better than buying.”

Green housing

But the grand project in as far as sustainable living is concerned is a green housing development at the Stockholm Royal Seaport, a large piece of land reclaimed from old industries.

The new urban district, which will have 12,000 flats, is located a few kilometres from the heart of Stockholm, and is set to become one of the greenest residential areas in the world once completed.

Designers of the new complex have completely done away with refuse bins, instead, there is a network of underground vacuum pipes that, by suction, take the garbage to a central place for sorting, before recycling takes place.

Trees are sacred in the new residential and even frogs have a special channel to prevent them from being run over. Now that is eco-conscious.

And there are more slots for bicycles in the new residential development than for cars. Actually there is one car parking slot for every two houses and two bicycle slots per home. The idea is to discourage people from using cars.

And because not everyone is expected to own a car, there are pool cars which residents can use at a fee.

The green plan is to build not only energy efficient houses, but also an energy efficient transportation system, with buses and taxis that will run on biofuel.

In another location, north of Stockholm, called Husby, which is home to poor, mostly migrant communities, the municipality is refurbishing entire blocks of residential flats, and the houses are not just getting a new coat of paint, but are being made energy efficient.

About 10,000 square metres of solar panels have been installed in the refurbished blocks.

This makes Husby one of the most solar dense areas in Sweden. 

In Husby, too, there is more emphasis on cycling, with bicycle lanes incorporated into the road network.

The local authority is even offering cycling lessons to residents who do not know how to cycle.

The Stockholm Royal Seaport gives one a glimpse into what future housing developments will look like, and what sustainable living really is.

As we start to consider the effects of climate change and the efficient use of resources and management of waste, Zambia should also begin to seek innovations to help make money from trash and turn old things into new ones.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Something fishy out there



TWO girls fishing using a mosquito net on Lake Mweru. Picture by Jack Zimba

IT’S Friday 05:30 hours and our small fishing party pushes the boat into Lake Bangweulu in Luapula Province. Leading the party is Bernard Chipulu, a third-generation fisherman who has been plying his trade on this huge expanse of water since he was a boy.
He and his three nephews then peddle the banana boat into the deep waters of the lake. My fear of the lake and the dangers lurking beneath it – real or imaginary - are confirmed by Mr Chipulu, who tells me his net was broken by crocodiles a few days ago.

Mr Chipulu and his nephews were going to check on 4,400 metres of netting they cast into the lake the previous day. There is a sense of optimism about today’s catch. One of Mr Chipulu’s nephews reported sighting a school of tiger fish around the area where the fishermen cast their nets.
After peddling for about an hour, we finally reach the nets. By this time, the sun is a small ball of striking amber emerging out of the water.
There is a palpable feeling of anticipation as the men begin to pull the first net into the boat. It’s a 1,000-metre net.
The fish start coming in, but in long intervals, first, a tiger fish, which is carefully disentangled from the nylon mesh and thrown into the boat. The gasping fish lies on the boat floor and occasionally lets out a furious struggle for life.
The fish come in different types – impende (tilapia), imbilia and kabombola, a member of the catfish family with spikes sharp enough to puncture the belly of a grown man.
After pulling in all the net into the boat, we only have about six fish and we move on to the next net, which is 2,000 metres long. This one yields a few more tigers and kabombola. Disappointment soon registers on the fishers’ faces.
After toiling for almost three hours on the lake, we peddle back to the shore with a boat full of netting and only 30 tigers, plus a few more of the catfish-like fish.
The tiger fish will be sold to the fishmongers for about K100, who will sell it at a higher price in Samfya or Mansa. The rest of the fish is shared among the four men for home consumption.
The dwindling catches of fish from the lake spell tough times for Chipulu and his family of six.
Luapula is a land of lakes, rivers, swamplands, plus a good number of waterfalls, but that equation no longer equals abundant fish, owing to decades of indiscriminate fishing.
Three of Luapula’s important fish sources – Luapula River, Lake Bangweulu and Lake Mweru - are now yielding far less fish than in years past.
The scarcity of fish in the province can be seen from the high prices on the local markets, where the fish costs just as much as in Lusaka, save for the chisense, which can still be found in abundance in these waters. 
The extent of over-fishing and the impact of illegal fishing methods, such as use of mosquito nets for fishing on Lake Bangweulu are now clearly evident.
Travel over 300km further north to Nchelenge district and the story on Lake Mweru is no different.
Here, too, the use of mosquito nets for fishing is rife. In fact, it was here that I found four teen-aged girls fishing using mosquito nets along the lakeshore. The girls had caught about a half-bucket of chisense.

And at one government office in Milenge district, there was a huge pile of mosquito nets. The nets were confiscated from fishermen on Luapula River.  
Amon Foloweza is the district fisheries officer for Samfya. He says the catches on Lake Bangweulu are going down at an alarming rate.
According to statistics, in 2012 Luapula contributed 35 percent to the country’s total fish production and of that, 17 percent was from Lake Bangweulu. Although latest statistics on fish stocks are not available, Mr Foloweza says the catches have reduced over the years.

“There are those species that we call commercial species; the ones that the fishermen really go for such as the tilapia – those have really gone down,” he says.
He suggests diversification.
“If our fishers were to be diverse enough or explore other species, it will help reduce the pressure on the commercial species,” says Mr Foloweza.
Lake Bangweulu is said to have more than 75 known fish species.
But the fishermen fish for business, and some species do not sell on the market.
Even the much-sung-about imbowa (hammered catfish) is not really the fishermen’s most prized catch as it does not make very good sales. Many people will not eat the scale-less fish for religious reasons.
The fish does not even make it on the menu at most of the local restaurants in Samfya.
There is now an ambitious project to restock Lake Bangweulu with tilapia by setting up cages where the fish is allowed to grow and breed freely.
Three cages, each stocked with 450 tilapia, were installed on the lake in February.
The cages and the waters around them are strictly guarded to keep away the fishermen. And the fish is fed to prevent it from wandering very far from the cages.
Similar cages are found on Lake Mweru in Nchelenge. Mr Foloweza says there will be need for more cages. However, it will be years before such efforts replenish this aquatic wilderness.
And the biggest challenge the fisheries department faces is trying to stop fishermen from using illegal fishing methods. What makes this work even harder are the high poverty levels among the fishing communities.
“High poverty is what causes people to use illegal fishing methods,” says Mr Chipulu, who is also chairperson for Chikonde Fishing Club.
Mr Chipulu wants government to start giving the fishermen small loans during the period when the fish ban is enforced to cushion their families from hunger and poverty.
He says the period when the fish ban is enforced – December 1 to February 28 - is crucial as it coincides with the first term for school-going children. This, he says, places a lot of financial pressure on parents.
“Our friends in Malawi are given loans by the government to help them survive during the fish ban,” he says.
Mr Foloweza says many fishermen use mosquito nets to fish because they catch more fish that way.
But a mosquito net is not selective and its use has far-reaching consequences on marine life - destroying breading grounds and migratory routes for fish. Even the fish spawn is not spared.
There are many traders selling young fish on the lakeshore market in Samfya, evidence of illegal fishing.
And Mr Foloweza says the majority of people in the local prison are fishermen caught and prosecuted for using illegal fishing methods and for defying the fish ban. But he says penalties offenders are given are not punitive enough.
The use of illegal fishing methods is widespread in Luapula.
In the swamplands, fishermen have been known to set traps across channels used by fish going to breeding grounds.
“They are disturbing the fish which is going to breed. They catch the fish and the eggs and so tomorrow there might not be any fish,” says Mr Foloweza.
Yes, Luapula may have abundant waters, but there might be no fish left for future generations.
It’s early morning Saturday and a 10-year-old boy on the banks of Luapula River in Milenge disentangles his net besides a small dug-out canoe. Even though he is too young to understand what is happening to the river, he has worry written on his face.
“How much fish did you catch?” I ask the little boy.
“Nothing,” he replies.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Princess Kasune: A new chapter of Hope

PRINCESS and David with their son.

Princess Kasune Zulu is one of the most influential HIV/AIDS campaigners with a global platform through speaking engagements and a telling book about her own life. Two months ago, Princess, who is HIV-positive, herself, gave birth to a baby boy. She shared her experience as a new mother with JACK ZIMBA via telephone from her home in Chicago, United States of America.

IT did not matter that the telephone call was across continents, Princess sounded the same way she has always - bubbly and giggly.
Any reference to her misfortune of contracting HIV at a young age and losing both parents, two siblings and a husband to the disease still receives the same response like a recorded message: “I’m forever the positive one. I want to live a life full of joy.”
The 39-year-old has such a positive attitude about life, she makes HIV/AIDS seem lighter.
But it is her own openness and frankness that gives her away, bringing out some realism out of her about her status.
“Living positive is not the same as being negative,” she says as if to moderate her own positive-living talk which she goes on and on about.
But being HIV-positive has not stopped Princess from living her dream. And although “Princess” is her given name and not her title, Princess has lived life like a royal, rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s most powerful leaders, including US President George W. Bush. He once kissed Princess on both cheeks at the White House, a gesture that would be replicated by late President Levy Mwanawasa.
Over eight years ago, Princess met an American man who, despite him being HIV-negative, fell in love with her and insisted on marrying her.
Although she dropped out of school, she completed a double degree in divinity and non-for-profit management at a Chicago university last May.
She has a book to her name, Warrior Princess, and remarkable physical beauty.
But even the Warrior Princess has to admit that becoming a mother again, especially at her age, was pushing her luck a little bit too far. Albeit, Princess has always mentioned her desire to have 10 children.
Princess’ husband, David Schoefernacker, on the other hand, was not very keen on having a child.
“He wasn’t super interested,” is how Princess puts it. “He always took my two daughters Joy and Faith as his own children.”
Joy, 20, and Faith, 18, were born from Princess’s first marriage. (Princess was only 17 when she got married to a man 23 years her senior).
Princess thinks one of the reasons for David’s reluctance to have a biological child was driven by culture. (Unlike in the African culture, there is less pressure for a married couple to have a child in the West).
“But I always thought it would be nice for him to experience his own biological child,” she says.
Princess says David always cared more about her health and did not want to do anything that would comprise it.
In the end, however, it was Princess’ strong persuasive character that prevailed. She says she was encouraged by new scientific developments that gave discordant couples a chance to have a child without much risk of infecting the uninfected partner or the unborn child.
Besides, Princess had been enjoying good health for some years. She attributes that to her strict adherence to anti-retroviral treatment (ART).
When the couple visited Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, doctors gave them three options to have a baby, including artificial insemination, where Princess would use a syringe to deposit semen from her husband.
The other option was for the couple to have unprotected sex if it was determined that Princess’ viral load was very low and that her CD4 count was high.
Viral load is the measure of the level of HIV in the body. It is measured as the number of copies of HIV-1 per milliliter of blood plasma (copies/mL).
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the lowest levels of detectable viral load are about 40-75 copies/mL. The highest measure can be over 500,000 copies/mL.
Princess’ viral load had remained undetectable since 2002, meaning it was very low.
Research has shown that effective ART reduces the risk of infection for discordant couples.
And Manasseh Phiri, who is a leading HIV/AIDS campaigner, says society should not frown upon HIV-positive women who decide to fall pregnant because medical science now allows such women to have children.
“The most important thing is for an HIV-positive woman in a discordant relationship to get advice on how to get pregnant. There is nothing wrong with that,” he says.
Dr Phiri emphasises that before deciding to have a child, discordant couples should involve an HIV specialist and obstetrician to ensure that risks of infection are minimised.
He also advises that in a case where a discordant couple wants to have a child through unprotected sex, they should meet when the woman is fertile. This, he says, reduces the number of times they have to meet before conception can take place, thereby reducing the chances of infection.
But still, the idea of having unprotected sex with her husband baffled Princess. Her immediate reaction to the suggestion was: “Oh no, I can’t do this!”
She is full of caution even just talking about it.
“I don’t want to come out as someone who encourages people to have unprotected sex,” she says.
The third option was for the couple to have unprotected sex but with her husband undergoing post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) in order to minimise chances of infection.
PEP is a short-term antiretroviral treatment that reduces the likelihood of HIV infection after potential exposure, either occupationally or through sexual intercourse.
Princess refuses to disclose which method she and her husband used.
“I don’t want people to say ‘Princess did this, so I can also do this’,” she says.
She insists each method has to be determined and approved by doctors.
But the risk of HIV infection for her husband and unborn child was not the only challenge facing the couple.
Doctors had told Princess that because of her age, there was possibility of her child being born with Down syndrome.
She was also told not to keep her hopes of falling pregnant very high considering her age. In fact, doctors had given her between six months and one year to conceive.
But Princess was determined to have a baby.
“I’m an African woman, I’m gonna conceive very quickly,” she had joked with her doctors.
True to her word, about two weeks later, Princess was expecting. She describes her conception as a miracle.
David was shocked when she broke the news to him. She says her husband expressed mixed feelings.
Her two daughters were all the less enchanted by the news. Their initial reaction was: “Mummy how could you fall pregnant at your age, you’re embarrassing us?”
On December 13, Princess gave birth to Kulangila David Schoefernacker after two hours of labour. Kulangila is a Lenje word meaning hope.
“I had a normal vaginal delivery because as an African woman, I wanted to fully experience child birth,” says Princess.
She also refused to use a pain relief drug called Epidural block. Epidural is the most common type of pain relief used during labour and delivery in the US. The drug is injected in the lower back during delivery.
Halfway through labour, however, Princess found herself calling for the pain-relieving drug.
“I had prayed to God for a less painful delivery, but hey, giving birth is giving birth,” she says.
Now about two months old, Kulangila is said to have bonded with his father and siblings. 
“I’m looking forward to being spoiled by him,” says Princess.
She, however, regrets that she is not able to breastfeed him because of her status.
“I miss breastfeeding. I think it’s a great time to bond with your child,” she says.
Princess has also slowed down in her travels and speaking engagements. She now devotes much of her time to humanitarian work in Chibombo district where her village is, through an organisation she founded called Fountain of Life.
The organisation is currently trying to raise about US$217,000 dollars to build a state-of-the-art maternity clinic in Chibombo. About US$100,000 has already been raised for the clinic, which is at window level.
“We have also received donations worth US$350,000 dollars from a medical company in the US. Once the clinic is completed in 2016, it will be one of its kind and a great gift for the expecting mothers and unborn children in the community,” she says.
“Having had a great delivery and best facilities at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago has ignited in me more passion to raise support and funds to build and upgrade as many clinics and maternity wards in Chibombo as possible,” says Princess, who also has political ambitions.
Asked if she is worried that she would not see her son grow into adulthood, Princess said she was still happy that there were people who would take good care of him once she was gone.
And she does not rule out having a fourth child. Call her crazy and she won’t be offended.
Princess speaks highly of her mother-in-law, Linda Schoefernacker, who she says has been very supportive of her.
When Linda heard her son was marrying a woman who was HIV-positive eight years ago, her response was: “Well, if she can take care of herself, she can live long. I see people who die of obesity here in American.”
On December 1 last year, Princess tweeted:
“World AIDS Day - This Dec marks likely 20years of living with HIV (with great if not perfect health) and 17 years of knowing my positive status. All I can say, God has been good to me and am grateful. My ‎Speaking Event - Northwestern Hospital today at noon downtown Chicago, to medical students. To my fellow longtime survivors and those just diagnosed, let’s keep the faith and hope.”
No doubt Princess’ story could have ended a long time ago and with the same sad ending repeated in many lives across the African continent. But this is one story that seems to have many chapters and this one has just begun.

This article was published in the Zambia Daily Mail on March 1, 2015

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