Blind, HIV positive and striving

HARARE - She is blind, living positively with HIV and has been abandoned by her policeman son.

But Gracious Vela’s situation is far from grave.

At one time, odds were so staked against her that the 49-year-old Gwanda resident was tempted to think God had forsaken her.

A widow, Vela found the going tough with threats by her father-in-law to evict her from her marital home only worsening matters.

The eviction threats still stand but that has not stood in her way.

Today, thanks to sheer determination as well as community support, Vela is leaving a dream after she grabbed an opportunity that came her way at a time when her situation was the most dire.

A community project loan came in handy for the mother-of-four. Borrowing money from the loan project, called Income Saving and Lending Project, Vela started a small poultry business that is fast becoming her rock.

She is now comfortably paying fees for two of her daughters and is taking care of an epileptic four year-old grandchild.

“I started this project with just 50 broiler chickens. I was also growing garlic and spinach on the side and it worked,” she tells journalists on a tour of Matabeleland South Province with the National Aids Council (Nac).

“I did not allow the blindness and my HIV status to stop or slow me down. I have the responsibility to take care of my daughter and my epileptic grandchild and also to ensure that I am strong enough to take care of myself as well because I am all they have,” she says, oozing confidence.

Vela has managed to save enough to buy land where she plans to build a home in the town.

Building her children’s future is also something close to Vela’s heart.

“I am trying to raise money for my daughter to go to nursing school after she finishes her Advanced Level education. I have a daughter in South Africa who helps me out from time to time,” she says, before turning to the darker side which though embodying the stigma still surrounding HIV and Aids pushes her to work harder.

“My eldest son, who is a policeman in Bulawayo, wants nothing to do with me and his epileptic child. So I borrowed money to start this chicken project and I grow vegetables to sale so that I can pay the bills monthly,” she says.

Vela proudly speaks of how she overcame challenges and continues to brave the everyday headaches associated with Zimbabwe’s harsh economic environment.

“Just yesterday, the city council workers had come to disconnect the water because I had an outstanding bill of $55 but I managed to borrow from my neighbours. Having no water here would mean my chickens would die and I cannot have that,” she says, showing a defiant vein.

Like many in the poultry business, her biggest challenges are the price of feed and transport to markets.
“Because Gwanda is on the outskirts, we have to get the chicken feed from Bulawayo. And some people do not care whether you are blind or not, they charge $3 a bag. Sending someone to get the feed is even more expensive because they can come back saying it was stolen,” she says.

In Matabeleland South, many women are widows or household heads as men trek to neighbouring countries in search of jobs. Some never show up again, or in some instances, return in body bags.

Such circumstances have forced women here to become the new bread winners.

Speaking at one of the income-generating projects at Beitbridge’s Bhavalelo district, village head Innocent Sibanda describes men in this region as “irresponsible”.

“Many men in these communities do not see the need to take part in these projects. Most of them have become lazy and irresponsible and leave all the work to the women,” he says.

Sibanda says as the elders of the community they have tried to get young men to participate in the projects.

“They don’t have the drive,” he says.

It does not need convincing to believe his words.

Out of 49 villagers in a vegetable project here, only one is a man.

“These projects have gone a long way in helping orphaned and vulnerable children in the community. The income generated is used to buy uniforms and exercise books for the children,” he says.

“Fathers and their sons, I mean men in general, are not concerned enough to get involved. They would rather go and search for work across the border,” he says.

But, with such projects bringing life to rural areas here, women like Vela are learning to do without men, successfully so too.

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