One woman’s fight to uplift widows

55-year old Susan Damba has for the past 11 years struggled for the upliftment of the lives of widows in Uganda’s Luwero district.

Halima Athumani

“I don’t know how I am going to do this, but I have to keep fighting, get more widows to join us instead of them suffering and dying in silence.”

55-year old Susan Damba has for the past 11 years struggled for the upliftment of the lives of widows in Uganda’s Luwero district. The district is 64 kms from the capital, Kampala. As chairperson of the Luwero Widows Solidarity Association (LWSA), Susan leads by example. She runs a poultry business to support herself and the 1706 widows in the Association.

Susan the Widow Champion

Susan lost her husband Mathias Damba, in May 2003, to pancreatic cancer. She was left behind with six children to raise. Afraid, her children would go out of hand she sat them down and explained that in the given situation she was the father and the mother and she only wanted them to complete their studies. “They asked me how I would pay for the school fees with Mathias gone. I told them that we would till the land and earn from it,” says Susan. Determined to turn their lives around, Susan loaned money and bought 250 chickens to rear.

This paid for the school fees; sometimes in kind. “I would sell between 10-12 trays of eggs per day each at US$1.50” She also started supplying 50 trays of eggs weekly to Bugema University. Her second son was pursuing Mass Communication in the University and these supplies took care of his fees.

Susan lives in a two-bedroom house with her children, but she recalls that when her husband passed on the house was in bad shape. “Whenever it rained accompanied by heavy winds, the iron sheets would be blown away and water would fill the rooms.” The family used to take shelter in the kitchen outside the house and wait for the rain to stop. “I would cry but I ensured that my children didn’t notice.

I had vowed to end my pitiable situation. So I started saving for renovating the house.” She recalls paying for the timber, iron sheets and nails in installments. “All of us, my children and I, together, dug up the soil to make bricks for constructions.”

Three years later, in 2006, Susan started meeting up with the widows in her area. “As we discussed how to better our lives, I also urged them to work hard, many lived deplorable lives. What they didn’t know was that I wasn’t fairing any better than them, but I found the courage and words to strengthen them.”

Damba Susan, Chairperson of the Luwero Widows Solidarity Association

In the Buganda culture, land does not belong to the woman; it belongs to the children. Usually, after death of the husband, the in-laws step in to either take control of the property or sell it off for their own benefits.

“Many of the women told me stories about their in-laws evicting them from their homes and forced to pay rent. This is something that they couldn’t afford to do.”

For a widow, unsolicited advances accompanied penury. Men would want to sexually exploit or extract money from the harvest earnings, which would be very meagre.

“Some women remarry to support themselves and their children. If you have a girl child, the new husband sleeps exploits her too. Those who don’t, end up doing odd jobs in small towns for little pay, it’s a pathetic situation. But I was determined not to fall prey.”

Letter to the President

During one of the consultation meetings of the Association in 2006, a thought crossed Susan’s mind. She wanted to write to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni seeking support. She confided in some of the Association members. “Some of them were skeptical and asked me how would I do this?” “I told them that it was time for the government to take care of the widows. They after all did offer to support widows of the 1981-86 war that brought President Museveni into power,” she explains.

The National Resistance Movement government led by President Museveni had launched a guerrilla war to overthrow the late Milton Obote in Luwero Triangle. It is estimated that the 700,000 people were killed; most of them men and young boys, leaving behind thousands of widows.

“Our husbands may not have died during the war but we jumped over dead bodies and breathed in the stench of death, many of us slept in the bush.” Recalling the gruesome times, she continues, “Our relatives were slaughtered before our very own eyes and some women were raped, but the government forgot about them and never came out to give support.”

As Susan spoke about the past, the women at her Association were convinced. The area legislator wanted her to hand over the letter to him, since he had the ‘reach’ to the President. The President, on a campaign trail, had a stop over at Zirobwe town. The town was not far from Susan’s Busika town.

She and the others camped out at Zirobwe. “We waited patiently but the legislator didn’t hand over the letter. He asked me to be patient. I waited, in vain. it was a pity.” But the incident didn’t dampen her spirits. Susan continued helping widows, without any external support until 2010.

Hadija Nakato a widow and beneficiary of Susan Damba’s widow support association
The Association comes of age

Early 2011, Susan sought support from the district administration. All the widows were gathered around the district, an election was held and five representatives elected from each sub-county, county and at the district level. Beaming with pride, Susan says, “I was elected chairperson.”

The association was then launched in April 2011. The women, under Susan’s leadership, demanded from the district administration that widows’ day be observed. This was misconstrued as a beginning of a women political organization.

“I explained to the district officials that all I intended to do was make them aware of widows and their plight, they eventually agreed to it. On the June 26, 2011 widows’ day was marked and officiated by Government Minister. What Susan didn’t know was that on December 21, 2010 during the United Nation General

Assembly, June 23 was formally adopted as International Widows Day.

The UN ratified it as a day of action to address the poverty and injustice faced by millions of widows and their dependents.
In August 2011, Susan started approaching people for funds. “One of the persons I went to speak to was the President’s younger brother Salim Saleh. I presented a proposal to fund our projects. He was busy that day but promised to get back to me.” Two weeks later, she met district officials and a delegation from the President’s younger brother.

“I met them and they gave me US$14815. I used that money to buy chicken and supplied them to as many in the Association as I could.” The Association also trained women to grow garlic, manage piggery farms and make crafts like papyrus mats and baskets.

“Encouraged, I wrote another proposal to the district officials and they gave me $4444 without any hesitation.” Another 1000 chicken were bought. Though the Association, currently, asks members to pay a membership fee of US$3, Susan acknowledges that some can’ afford it. “So we agreed that those who can’t pay will given some chicken or pigs. But they will have to distribute, to the other widows, the chicken and piglets in the future.”

One such beneficiary is 50-year old Hadijah Nakato, a mother of six. Her husband passed away in December 2011. Due to poverty, four of Hadijah’s children had to drop out of school because she couldn’t afford their school fees. Hadijah joined the Association after she heard how Susan transformed the lives of women like her. Susan counseled Hadijah to work hard and not lose hope. “The most memorable day was when she visited saying she had got a sponsor and bought chicken. She asked me if I had a chicken house. Though I didn’t have one at the time, she gave me 150 chickens, all free of charge,” recalls Hadijah.

Hadijah now not only rears chicken for meat but for eggs too. In 2013 Hadijah made her first sell. “For the first time in my life, I earned $73 at-a-go money I had never had. I also managed to set up a better house for the chicken where I now rear 150 of them.” “Susan has neither asked me for a penny, for all the support she gives me nor does she accept any chicken from me,” Hadijah laughs.

Teopista Nakabugo also joined the Association in April this year. She met with Susan. However, Nakabugo didn’t start off on a good note. She was given beans and maize seeds to plant. They failed, as it was too hot. She is waiting for the next rains to plant the next round.

The government recognized Susan’s efforts. In May, she received a call that told her of her nomination to the Hero’s award. The National Heroes day celebrations were held in Luwero. Susan met President Museveni, a man she had always wanted to meet and talk to, for the first time. “I couldn’t talk to him that day either, but I felt proud that it was my efforts that got me to meet him at the end.”

Future Plans

Damba Susan, Chairperson of the Luwero Widows Solidarity Association

The Association now has a farm with 900 pigs, and a sizeable piece of land, on which some of the women who do not own their personal land till and grow crops. With a huge number of widows and orphans around, Susan is now looking at setting up an orphanage as well.

“Some young girls come and ask if they can leave their babies with me, but I can’t afford to take care of them.

I want to set up an orphanage where children and very needy women will stay.” International Widows Day was established by the Loomba Foundation to raise awareness of the issue of widowhood. 23rd June is significant because it was on this day in 1954 that Shrimati Pushpa Wati Loomba, mother of the foundation’s founder, Lord Loomba, became a widow.

Halima Athumani is a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. For more details you can reach her at [email protected] or on twitter at @Navilani.

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