It wasn't only that she had to drop out of school because her parents couldn't afford it any more; that day they also told her they had a husband for her: the wedding would take place in a month. Her mother showed her a picture: the man was in his twenties and looked handsome in his soldier's uniform. He was the younger brother of a neighbour in Mpika, a town in the northern province of Zambia. The neighbour and her parents had arranged every last detail.
The bride-price wasn't much, just around three hundred thousand kwacha, because I'm a Bemba, and the Bembas don't charge much for their women.
Three hundred thousand kwacha was the price of a calf. Edna was 17, and she found the marriage quite logical: what else could she do, since she had to leave school?
I didn't know him, but I knew his family, and my parents chose him. It was all right.
Her father was a retired civil servant and her mother a housewife. They had fourteen children: it was hard to support the whole family. Edna was a bit scared the first time she saw him: it was strange to think she was going to spend her life with him. But her parents had decided it, and Edna knew from her elders that elders are always right.
What would have happened if you hadn't wanted to marry him?
I don't know.
Edna laughs, she says that idea never crossed her mind. The soldier took her to a house near a military camp in Kabwe-Chindwin Barracks, in the central province of the country. Edna was quite happy. Her husband was kind and, in a year, a little girl was born: things were going well. It was true, though, that the soldier wasn't always at home. He was often sent away on missions for long periods. But when he returned, he used to bring her presents, and a new pregnancy. Sometimes Edna was upset: it was clear that her husband had been with other women during those missions, like that time he spent six months on the Namibian border. Looking back, Edna would think that it was then that the disaster began.
She understood him, though. A man won't be without a woman for too long, and her husband was no exception. She was faithful - things are different for women. When her husband was away, Edna baked pastries and cakes and sold them at the market. His salary was all right - in the meantime he had become a sergeant - but it was always good to earn some extra money.
The family had grown with two more children - two boys - when Edna's husband started feeling sick and weak. He didn't feel sick all the time, but every once in a while he would stay in bed for a few days, unable to stand up. Edna kept telling him to go to see a doctor. In the beginning of 2001, her fourth child, another daughter was born. Half a year later, Edna's father died.
At the end of that year, the family left for Kapiri Mposhi, a nearby town, to attend a funeral. Edna's husband was walking with his friends and relatives when he suddenly collapsed and was rushed to hospital where he later died.
Edna was faced with a new life: she had no father or husband to take care of her and her four children. She didn't know where to go, what to do. A couple days after her husband's funeral, she found a letter from him, that he had left in case he died. There, he said he had tested positive for HIV, but had preferred not to tell her.
What did you feel when you found that letter?
Weren't you mad at your husband?
Well, at first I was depressed. I got sick and spent two weeks in the hospital. But then I realized there were many widows just like me who had managed to go on, so I could manage too. Now I think it's not worth it to be mad at him. He's dead anyway, there's nothing I can do to him.
Edna supposed that her husband had caught the virus that time he was in Namibia. But that didn't change a thing.
"Of the 6.2 million young people living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, three out of four are female."
When she learned that her husband had died of AIDS, Edna knew she had to get tested, but she was afraid. For two years, she chose not to know. She suspected the worst, but she preferred to carry on as she was. One day, she got the courage and went to a clinic. She was told to come back a week later to get the results. That day, the nurse asked her if she was prepared. Edna was very nervous; she didn't know what to say. The nurse told her to go home, prepare herself and come back again the next day. At that point Edna knew the nurse was going to tell her what she had suspected all along.
"Now that I'm HIV positive, what am I supposed to do? I need someone to tell me what to do," she asked the nurse the next day. The nurse sent her to talk to the staff
at Corridors of Hope, an NGO that works with high-risk groups such as commercial sex workers and truck drivers, and with people living with HIV and AIDS. They told her that she was going to start treatment with antiretroviral medicine they would provide, that AIDS is not the end of the world, that with the treatment she could live in good health for years. And they taught her that being HIV-positive is not a social stigma: she had to face it, not hide it. In Zambia, about one out of five people is HIV-positive, and they are learning not to hide anymore. AIDS is a key issue in Zambia; street signs, newspapers, TV, the government and the people talk a lot about it. Almost half of the hospital beds in the country are occupied by AIDS patients, and the number of "AIDS orphans" increases every day.1
The disease struck Edna hard. In the past three years, two of her sisters died from AIDS. She stayed with them in their final days and took in their four children, along with her own four. A few months ago, she discovered her youngest daughter is also infected.
I didn't know my baby could be infected. I never thought a little girl could be HIV-positive.
What did you do when you found out?
Nothing. I had already learned about the disease and was able to accept it. Now, what I have to do is take care of her, love her, help her not to feel isolated.
Did you feel guilty?
No, that would make it worse. I was taught that if I focus on feeling guilty, I'll feel weak, stressed, and that's bad for my disease. I could die sooner and leave her all alone. Feeling guilty would be the worst thing to do.
The girl is six years old, and she also has tuberculosis. The doctors have to take care of her lungs before she can be given antiretroviral drugs. The government, with wide international support, strives to provide the drugs free, since most infected people can't afford them. Edna receives the drugs at the hospital in Kapiri Mposhi, the town where she lives now. In the hospital, most of the doctors are foreigners, Médecins Sans Frontières' volunteers. In Zambia there is a critical shortage of health workers, including doctors, because many Zambian health workers migrate within a few years of completing their training to England, the USA or Canada.
At the hospital, Edna receives a supplementary meal. She doesn't have much money and her diet - crucial to her treatment - is not what it should be. Edna makes some money as an HIV/AIDS educator for various local NGOs, and she continues to sell food at the market. She looks fine: active, curious, that big smile on her face. She has accepted the way her life has gone: that her husband cheated on her and infected her, that her sisters died of AIDS, that her daughter is also HIV positive - with that smile on her face.
How do you manage to accept so many things?
Like I said before, by talking to people, friends that are going through the same things. We are so many that I have realized that you can also live like this, being positive.
And what do you expect of the future?
Nothing. I want to do all I can to help my children live happily, maybe start a business so they can have a better life. I don't know, but that's it. I want to do something good for my children before I die.
Are you afraid of death?
I've seen a lot of people die. My brothers, my sisters, my father, my husband, they all died. I will die too someday, but I'm not afraid. The Scriptures say there is an afterlife, and I believe them.
How do you imagine it?
I don't imagine it. I can't imagine it.
Edna says she doesn't have a man in her life but she's not worried about that. Well, she would say later, there is a man courting her, and he even proposed. She told him she was HIV-positive and he said that didn't matter, that he loved her all the same. But the man is a merchant from another town who comes to Kapiri Mposhi every once in a while, and he's married. That's not a problem, though; he's willing to make her his second wife. In Zambia, customary law allows men to have several wives. Yet, Edna is not decided: she thinks her children might have a bad time with a man who is not their father.
Anyway, if I got married, he'd have to use condoms. I don't want him to get sick and go on spreading AIDS.
And he'll agree to use condoms with his present wife?
I don't know, I didn't dare to ask him yet