Warrior Princess is a story of many proportions, written with the primary purpose of inspiring you into action. Kasune writes, “I simply hope that my story, a story that echoes millions of others, will inspire you to join the fight against HIV and AIDs, and other preventable diseases”. Inspire it certainly does.
At the basic level, it is a story of how a young Lenje girl from a small village in Chibompo grew up , overcame her humble upbringing and other extraordinary challenges life throws at us. A journey which eventually led to meeting some of the most powerful leaders in the world and ultimately standing as a beacon of hope and inspiration. Raised by two HIV positive parents, a child among many, Warrior Princess narrates how HIV / AIDs took them away, leaving young Kasune to care for her many siblings, with no job and secondary school on her hands. It was not long before the rough times forced her to seek "sugar daddies" and ultimately forcing her to leave. In the end her ruptured childhood would move from bad to worse, driving her into double pregnancies and marriage to a man 25 years old her senior.
As Warrior Princess unfolds, it takes us on a journey of how Kasune found out her HIV status, as the Doctor pronounced that she only had six months to live. When many would simply fold, may be even committing suicide, she saw this as her calling! With remarkable determination and selflessness, Kasune pursued new ways to make a difference to the orphans and women affected by HIV/AIDs in ways that few of us would ever contemplate, even as she struggled with stigma, the church, traditions and financial challenges. This fight on behalf of the vulnerable will see her take the fight into White House and US Congress, helping fight for George W Bush’s successful $15bn fund for an HIV initiative in Africa. It is a remarkable story of hope and triumph.
By itself, it is an exhilarating read, but it’s much more than a story. Oozing on every page is a tapestry of issues that provides a real window not just on why the fight against HIV/AIDs is the greatest fight of our generation, but also the profound challenges Zambia faces and what it takes to shift them. Three particular issues are worth touching on this short review.
Undoubtedly, the most important issue is the link between poverty and HIV. Throughout Warrior Princess the face of poverty glares. We might even say that in many ways Kasune’s struggle against HIV is as much a struggle against poverty as anything else. It is poverty that led Kasune to relocate to the village after her the father lost his job in town. It is poverty that that led her parents not to afford medicines and ultimately took away her mother. There’s no greater example of the link between poverty and HIV / AIDs than the rampant growth in young girls and women living at our border towns as commercial sex workers for $10 per turn. Warrior Princess is spot on when it observes that extreme poverty robs people of thinking the long term. As one commercial sex worker observes “AIDs may kill me in months or years, but hunger will kill my family tomorrow”. It follows therefore that there can be no effective national strategy against poverty without successfully tackling HIV and AIDs and vice versa.
Poverty of course is also a mentality which leads to lack of attention to basic essentials. It devalues all else that is around it, including human life. Consider this observation of her mother’s condition when she lay dying on the hospital bed: “I can’t describe the foul smell in that ward. Many patients, including Bamaa, suffered chronic diarrhoea, and they didn’t have the strength to get to the bathroom, most suffering the same disease [HIV]. The hospital didn’t even have running water in the wards. Bakaba Banakashi, my aunts and I had to fetch water to wash Bamaa’s linen”. Many Zambians can testify to these poor conditions. Only the Lord knows how many people are killed by poor hygiene in hospitals and which are killed by the original diseases. But there is no doubt that many people would live longer if basic conditions in hospitals were improved.
Warrior Princess also points us to the problem of traditions. This is a sensitive issue. Many people, myself included, have a tendency to always view our cultural heritage in favourable light, often finding it difficult to discern where changes can be pursued to achieve greater welfare improvements that benefit society as a whole. When it comes to HIV & AIDs, it cannot be denied that our traditions often perpetuate and compound the challenges we face. Indeed, in so far as health is linked to poverty outcomes, these traditions may be doing more harm than good. Although Warrior Princess does not explicitly explore this out, the evidence is there for all to see.
A key cultural challenge is polygamy, which is best exemplified by Kasune’s father who had a staggering 24 children, from multiple previous marriages. I have found that often when the issue of polygamy is discussed among our people it is often dismissed as a Tonga phenomenon. Warrior Princess is helpful in once again bringing to the surface what is clearly a national obsession. One in four married women in Zambia is in a polygamous relationship making HIV/AIDs extremely contagious. Equally obstructive to the fight against HIV/AIDs is the menace of witchcraft beliefs and associated practices. When Kasune’s young sister was dying due to HIV/AIDs, the father concluded “there is a neighbour who has put a curse on this baby. A large poisonous snake with a flickering tongue is swallowing this baby”. Such beliefs are sending many of our children to the graves. One of my saddest experiences was during the period we were burying my cousin in Ndola and found myself walking through Kantolomba cemetery. At every turn graves were marked with children less than 2 years old, robbed of their future due to bad practices and the menace of HIV / AIDs.
Culture and traditions are certainly important but to be a force for good, it is important that we tackle and make progress against the unhelpful elements. It is vitally important that traditional leaders continue to take a leading role in fighting HIV/AIDs. This fight demands empowerment of traditional leaders to take a role in refining and re-envisi oning traditions in light of modern understanding of the challenges we face. Sexual cleansing, initiation ceremonies and other things mentioned in Warrior Princess must be mediated through a prism of a proper modern understanding of these issues. There's progress being made by some chiefs who recognise this imperative. Leaders like Chief Macha have stepped up calls on other chiefs "to discard cultural practices that do not add value to their subject's livelihood...and to move with modern technology and civilisation”. Similarly, Chief Mutanda, an ardent HIV activist, recently called on Government to sensitise chiefs on the negative aspects of practices such as "sexual cleansing". More than ever the country needs such progressive attitudes.
Finally, Warrior Princess powerfully demonstrates the potential of new forms of communication in the hands of an authentic and daring champion. The media plays a central role in shaping the successful struggle of Princess Kasune Zulu. Her break with Radio Icengelo and ZNBC TV established her as the leading advocate for change in the country. Radio was particularly instrumental, as it allowed “listeners to disclose their hopes and tears in anonymity”. Indeed Warrior Princess right observes that, “in a country like Zambia , with poor infrastructure and little access to television and newspapers, where over seventy languages are spoken, radio is a powerful weapon to educate, inform and encourage”. It is the vernacular dimension of local radio and its anonymity that makes it so potent. However, the media is a necessary but insufficient condition for change. To really effect change, information must have “change agents” that are able to communicate at a level that people understand and can relate to. In Princess Kasune Zulu we see both working in perfect harmony. We have a vulnerable, but fearless and determined young woman using all the tools at her disposal to maximum effect. Ultimately, this is the greatest lesson to this generation as it seeks to break the cycle of disease and poverty. If Zambia is to forge ahead we need people like Kasune Zulu, with the “never give up” approach to life.
At a personal level, I found this a deeply encouraging read for two reasons. First, this is a story of faith in Christ Jesus triumphing over the despair the world throws at you. Throughout the book we drawn by one constant theme – God was at her side. Time and time again when all else looked bleak, she was drawn to her knees. It is a huge encouragement to those that have placed their trust in Christ to know that Jesus is real and making a difference in the lives of his people. But there’s another lesson. As I have read the book with my wife, one thing kept drawing us to discussion. The recollections of village life and the suffering of many of our people. The book sparked memories of my own childhood in Luapula, moving at one point from a comfortable dwelling to the village. Floods of memories flowed as I remembered the joys and challenges of rural living in Kafimbwa, Kambwali, and of course, Mwansabombwe. It is encouraging that these experiences will always be with us as part of that rich tapestry that is our heritage. It is that heritage which should inspire all of us to follow Kasune’s path and make each moment count. More importantly Warrior Princess is a wonderful reminder to never forget where you are from. I am convinced that what makes Kasune Zulu is her strong faith in God and strong sense of identity as a Zambian!
This is an extraordinary book. We all need to read it. But more importantly, every Zambian child deserves to read it. It is a wonderful opportunity to inspire our young people and spur them to greater heights. In a country where heroes are defined by independence struggle or money siphoned through corruption, the story of Princess Kasune Zulu is truly a wonderful breath of fresh hope for our people!
Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2013