Deep in Dibaya territory, in the sleepy village of Tshimbulu, in Kasai Central province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), lives a resilient woman with multiples. Multiple challenges. Multiple tasks. And multiple children. A twin herself, Mwambuyi gave birth to four sets of twins, one set of triplets, and four singles—15 in all! On camera Mwambuyi’s day seems short, but her daily life is an endless struggle for survival.
Wherever I go, I try to let my camera lead me, while my heart pulls me in the direction of inspiration, motivation, the beauty of the African story. In this story, I witnessed hardship, and resilience, but little hope. My heart broke. As someone who overcame a life of hardship, I carry hope with me wherever I go. But life can squeeze you and crush you so hard, and hope can be elusive.
Pathfinder International sent me to tell the story of families like Mwambuyi’s and demonstrate the importance of access to family planning in the DRC. My lens focused on one woman, but it told the story of many, including efforts by community organizers trained and supported by the Pathfinder project to inform these communities about reproductive health.
Deep in the countryside, the neglected and undeveloped road to this village is a precursor to what one encounters upon arrival—a village so remote even Coca Cola hasn’t reached it. With no access to banks, they put what little they have in mattresses. With few cell phones, and certainly not “smart phones,” many follow news on radios strapped to their shoulders. Most days their only hope is to get enough today to make it to another tomorrow.
The village of Tshimbulu is located 946 kilometers from Kinshasa, the capital city of the DRC. The village is full of multiples. While Mwambuyi’s family of 15 ranks among the highest, average family size is seven with ten or eleven not uncommon. These families live on hope. Hope that they will find a little something to eat and fire wood to cook it over. Mwambuyi’s family eats in shifts, consuming whatever the meager 2,000 FC (about US $2) will buy them in a day, if she’s lucky to have gotten it when she sells firewood or cassava leaves from her community farm. On many occasions, Mwambuyi does not light a kitchen fire at her home. Her day starts at dawn and ends late at night. Like any mother, when one of her children falls ill, she may stay awake all night long. The odds of that happening with any one of the twins, triplets or singles is all too great. She has a heart of gold in a country full of precious minerals, but her heart cannot feed, cloth, or shelter her children.
Changing with Technology
Choice is a word of privilege. While it’s true that many women like Mwambuyi choose to have many children, often neither their education, means, nor cultural expectation as a wife enable them to choose wisely about family planning. Mwambuyi’s husband works as a security guard for a Congolese national railway company. Though he is technically a salaried employee, he is rarely, if ever, paid by the company he works for and instead relies on tips given by passengers whose wares he guards while in transit. Born in 1978, 38-year old, Mwambuyi accepts her duty as a wife and accepts the consequences with a stoicism unheard of in the modern world of ultra-planned pregnancies. Her nine pregnancies were carried to term without the assistance of ultrasound, and only the last was done by cesarean. Instead medical personnel detected the faint heartbeat (but only once multiple heartbeats) with the traditional listening device—a tube pressed hard into the mother’s abdomen. Mwambuyi gave birth to her first four single babies without any problems. On her fifth pregnancy, at a clinic five kilometers from her former home, the attending medical personnel informed her she was having twins. Her second set of twins was a surprise at birth. As was the third set. Six months into her ninth pregnancy Mwambuyi felt ill, but she still had to attend to her twelve other children, as her husband was often away and would return only occasionally late in the evening or in the very early morning. Although during her last pregnancy she was again told she was having twins, she gave birth to triplets, indeed a huge surprise and even bigger worry!
More than a dirty dozen
Despite Mwambuyi’s positive spirit and willpower to raise her fifteen children almost single handedly, every day is an immense challenge. For many families throughout Africa, tradition dictates that a woman’s mother send her a sibling or a relative to assist with family chores–cooking, feeding the other family members, fetching firewood and water from the river–until she’s strong enough to resume these activities. For Mwambuyi, that was never the case. Her one-bedroom grass-thatched hut has a mattress, a kitchen, and a family room to house fifteen children, four chickens and four rabbits. When one of Mwambuyi’s children catches a cold, it spreads like a bush fire. When one or two or three or four suffers any type of illness she is on nonstop duty.
If her instinct tells her she needs more help, the following day she awakes very early, wraps her baby or babies on her back, and walks five kilometers to the nearest clinic, stopping to rest in the shade only briefly, as she knows she must arrive early to beat the queue.
Reality through the Lens
We arrive at Mwambuyi’s home at around 11 a.m. She is ready with her platoon of babies–some with clothes, some bare chested, some with protruding stomachs, but all quite active. Mwambuyi is in her Sunday best, with a hair weave to boot! The “community based distributors” (those who go door to door to disseminate information) and health workers are all seated and having her sign releases. We are set to conduct an interview with her about reproductive health. It’s all a bit surreal.
Camera rolling, I can see in Mwambuyi’s eyes her pain, struggle, and perhaps a bit of hope. She is resilient. She is not giving up, she is determined, but she is also very tired and burdened by the life she’s been handed.
Mwambuyi’s glimmer of hope is that programs like Pathfinder International’s found her before fifteen became sixteen or more. Working with local leaders, teachers, educators, and church leaders the non-profit organization attempts to educate communities about family planning, breaking down centuries of cultural proclivity to having many children, which are considered a blessing and mitigate inevitable deaths.
Mwambuyi, has no set schedule to her day, but rather takes each as it comes. She waits, for her school-aged kids to return home to plan what they will eat for dinner. Two of the older kids rotate shifts every day to harvest cassava leaves and find firewood, often walking a few miles from their home in order to put just a little food on the table. Mwambuyi is a dream chaser, hoping each day there will be enough food. Some days she does not cook at all, but on days she does, the children eat in shifts, and often the older ones skip, so the little ones can eat.
Arriving with food for Mwambuyi to cook, I let the camera roll as her children’s excitement fills the space. Mwambuyi has to cook early, around 5 p.m., outside her hut and eat before the sun sets, as there is no electricity in this village and darkness comes quickly. The children sing and jump around, hands holding tight as a sign of unity, celebrating their only meal of the day. They had not eaten the previous day.
One of the older girls sets the table. It is very small and cannot accommodate all the fufu (cornmeal mash) and vegetables Mwambuyi cooked. Most will eat on the dusty ground. They are dirty, but water is scarce and bathing is a luxury they rarely enjoy.
The following day we arrive back at Mwambuyi’s house just before the bigger kids leave for school. Mwambuyi has not dressed for guests. This is the real deal. Breakfast is not an expectation, but we offer biscuits, and the triplets and their twin siblings eagerly accept, eating them with the fufu leftover from the night before. The older kids are dressed and ready to head to school, wearing only flip-flops on their feet. They leave on empty stomachs.
The Daily Grind
Daily chores consume Mwambuyi’s life. She has no time to socialize. The implants she received to prevent further births are a blessing, but raising 15 children would be difficult in the best of circumstances. The DRC, like most developing nations, has no welfare programs, no school feeding programs, no soup kitchens. Mwambuyi, like most of the women I interviewed, was afraid of dying and leaving her children completely helpless. The immense energy she expends in the fields yield little results, but at least help some of her children attend school some of the time. Many of those who have benefited from the family planning program, using implants as a method of birth control, have since become educators and champions in their own villages in the campaign against uncontrolled births. They are grateful for the education and support to help them take control of their lives. But their children are already in this world, and they struggle every day to survive in it.