Tribute to Mildred Mpundu

Photo by a.e.wolfOf Mildred Mpundu, journalism and HIV/AIDS

A Dedication by Henry Kabwe

Before Mildred Namwiinde Mpundu became a journalist, she existed as a child, a school girl and a responsible young lady.

Before she became open about her HIV status, she was one of the journalists doing their daily routines of writing to the publics that they served.

She worked for the Times of Zambia newspaper and was one of the first Zambian Key Correspondents of the Health and Development Networks (HDN) based in Thailand.

(Mildred is 3rd from left)

On November 13, 2007, I received a call from another journalist, Felistus Chipako that she had died.

November 13th is my birthday and I was on the way to Lundazi District, over 800 kilometers from Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka.

When I broke the news in the vehicle carrying an entourage of colleagues from the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zambia that were heading to add value to a local community radio station, Chikaya, it became apparent that a great person had been lost.

The delegation leader, Brian Lingela, the head of broadcasting at MISA Zambia, made the situation more emotional. He narrated that Mildred taught him in primary school before they both met again as media practitioners.

“She was like a mother to me. She used to call me ‘son’,” decried Brian, who later disclosed that he had plans to take Mildred to some herbal clinic which had promised miracles for people that need immune boosting.

When a lady called Dorcas died in bible days, a number of women she had helped tried everything to ensure that she lived and had unusually believed that God would to resurrect her from the dead through Peter, the apostle. And, it worked.

This is what everyone that saw Mildred’s health fail wanted to do to ensure that she continued living and being good to society.

For Mildred, wearing a smile even in the most challenging moments was as natural as blinking the eye.

She was a darling of everyone. “Yes dear,” was her catch word and the spirit behind the voice was so soothing and reassuring.

Whenever she rebuked you, it was like funny. She never offended in her correction but she did with so much emphasis and fortitude that it was difficult to ignore or disobey ‘the order’.

On my birthday last year, my life had become a nightmare. I was beaten economically, socially and emotionally.

Everything had gone wrong. My grandmother and mother had died within two months, and I was battling some financial challenges coupled with a bit of personal social issues.

The birthday that was supposed to be celebrated had become a bitter reminder of the people that were responsible of my being brought to this earth.

By this time, Mildred had become financially challenged. She and her child – that darling called Mate – had come to my office.

She could not watch me look like a bear deprived of her children and invited me to her favorite eating spot in town for a meal.

When I looked at her failing health and the sacrifice she made to just make me feel better, it made me shed tears whenever she was not focusing her attention on me.

That was my birthday last year and on this year’s birthday, she said ‘Bye’.

I had earlier called her a week before, on a Friday to be specific, to inquire about her whereabouts and how she was doing.

She told me that she had traveled to her father’s home in Kalomo District and was supposed to be back the following week, especially Monday.

On Monday, I remembered to call her and the sister indicated to me that she was not talking.

I thought it was one of those little relapses that come to those infected with HIV and are taking antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

However, it was not to be; the following day, she died.

I first met with Mildred when a features reporter under her desk, Gethsemane Mwizabi introduced me to her and told her that I was leading the Media Network on Orphans and Vulnerable Children.

She immediately inquired about the Media Network ostensibly referred to as OVC Media Network in two minutes and the next thing I saw was her hand reaching into her bag to pay the membership fee into the network.

I did not realize the amount of value, insight and hard work Mildred was going to bring to the organization, but it had definitely appealed to me that her commitment to children’s was unheard of.

She was soon to be elected treasurer and took up the responsibility of organizing events. I can imagine her budget for the last come together we had in that graceful handwriting.

The budget contained too many details but I knew how time wasting it was to try to compromise on the amount of things to buy for any event. In the end, she was doing the tedious lot and needed to be backed in all manner of ways.

Mildred was held dearly by both veteran, ‘middle-class’ and inexperienced journalists, including students.

She had mastered her art of writing so wittily but never thought of her position in the ranks of journalism when it came to getting advice on how she could do an article or some report better.

It used to beat me to get ‘bothered’ (I told her word was a command) to go to her lap top and go through her article or report to confirm whether it was good or not, and suggest possible corrections.

With no qualms at all, she would get on with her work and made her win a lot of awards in the journalism sector.

She was also a well traveled journalist. If there was one person I used to wonder how they kept moving to from one country another, it was Mildred Mpundu. I would sometimes rant against the idea of going to another country. Jokingly, of course!

It was in this period that we started noticing her health failing. She was always complaining of one aspect of ill-health or another.

Her food patterns also changed as she resorted to more health foods but rebutted anyone who indulged in junk food. Didn’t I start changing my eating habits when I did a long winding project with her? Well, I was commanded to and I did it with pleasure.

To her, eating the right food was vital to living with HIV. Although, she did not tell us her status by then, she emotionally condemned ARVs as a business venture by the West.

I was so scared of her words just in case she needed the ARVs.

Afterwards, her health became so bad that she could not walk and was confined to bed. When we visited her one day, she could not come out of the bedroom. We were asked to go in.

On her bed, she struggled to speak and Mwiika Malindima from the Zambia Institute of Mass Communication (ZAMCOM), who is also a Key Correspondent for HDN, Glory Mushinge, the chairperson for training at MISA Zambia and Pastor Joe Mulenga were so touched.

She now started saying there she saw no need to remain in denial. She was going to face it and test for HIV. She went ahead to praise ARVs and how they had helped people living with HIV/AIDS.

It was a soothing experience that had left us hopeful that once she got on ARVs, things could get better. While chatting, her youngest daughter kept shifting among the three male visitors as from one husband to another and made the situation a little lighter.

When we left, it was clear that we had a big challenge and started wondering how we could of help.

She went to Teba Hospital where she was confirmed that she had HIV.

Before long, I received a text message while in a church in Mansa District tipping me to read The Post newspaper for that day. We had gone to visit relatives and watch the Mutomboko Traditional Ceremony of the Lunda people.

After church, we struggled to get the newspaper until we found a man who had it in a shop at a filling station.

We saw the story, Mildred Mpundu had come out about her HIV status and we got so emotional that our rather congenial trip turned out to become somber and quiet.

The following day, an indicator of the impact Mildred had created was to come.

Harriet Mulenga, a beautifully bouncing lady who had deteriorated in health due to HIV/AIDS called me.

She said she saw Mildred’s story in The Post and wanted to talk about her five years experience on ARVs.

I met with Harriet some three years earlier at a ZAMCOM media workshop on HIV/AIDS supported by the United States President George Bush’s HIV/AIDS program.

Since before of us are busy people, it was difficult to get in touch and get the story running somewhere, but Harriet kept my phone ringing and I kept reassuring her on the other side.

However, I did not know that The Post had graciously offered Mildred an opportunity to be contributing articles.

So when Harriet called me on a day when I was with Mildred, I talked to her about Mildred’s work and I handed the phone to Mildred.

They talked and became friends right there.

The following day, I was Mildred’s aide when we went to the Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Management Program (CHAMP) and the two women hugged like they had known each other for a long time.

Then we proceeded to the boardroom where the interview was to be conducted.

There was Mildred doing her work. She got her notebook and started interviewing Harriet.

How touched I was! I could not hold it and I sent a text message to the one who made me get closer to Mildred, Gethsemane, who later confessed that I was a strong man. Whatever, he meant.

This interview was very encouraging to Mildred as she confessed that she would also get better.

“Muzakaniona Henry nizakaina so. Ma hips yazachoka aya (You will see Henry how I will get big like this. My hips will protrude),” she said while showing how big she would become with her hands and we all laughed.

After the interview, the two people living with HIV kissed each other with Mildred carrying a bunch of pictures that showed Harriet as a ‘finished’ (her own words) and weak, and a happy ending of the now bouncy and beautiful lady.

I jokingly said “How about me?” and Harriet said mine was not supposed to be public. The laughing frenzy continued.

It was sad that Mildred died while I was in Lundazi. Monalisa Haundu, her friend and colleague in the OVC Media Network tried to organize a number of people to go and mourn our colleague, but it was too late.

I traveled from Lundazi, Chipata and Petauke Districts under a strictly rescheduled program but the long journey between Lusaka and Kalomo District where Mildred was buried betrayed me.

In Lundazi, those that knew her were beaten. Former ZAMCOM Director Mike Daka, the director of Breeze FM in Chipata said it was sad that a committed journalist like Mildred had died.

He confessed that she was the first journalist to start consistently writing about HIV/AIDS.

When I arrived in Kalomo around 11 30 hours, I called her number and I was told that the procession had already started off for burial at a farm.

I was told that it was difficult to know where the farm was and could do better to wait for the procession to come back.

I was in Kalomo for an extended period of time for the first time and my emotions could not allow me to stay on for the sake of Mildred.

I saw an ode to Mildred by Dr. Robert Mtonga after buying the Times of Zambia and when I tried to read, it was too much to bear.

Even the call boys at the bus station discovered that I had gone to mourn ‘Ba Mpundu’ when they heard talking on the phone.

The whole area had a sense of solitude and sent a strong indication of what Mildred meant to people out there.

Beyond one person living with HIV/AIDS like Harriet, a lot others have been encouraged by Mildred.

Beyond one journalist like me, a lot other journalists are inspired by the life and work of Mildred. Her advice to the media was blunt but helpful. “Never mess with the sources” and “I wish I listened to my parents” come out as strong conclusions of her advocacy.

And beyond one call boy, one Dr. Mtonga and one reader, Mildred’s impact will live as a testimony for all who have read and continue reading her articles.

Though dead, Mildred will continue speaking and touching lives.

Having shared a hope of the resurrection of Christ and the eventual glorifying of those that believe, she hoped for that better place; the place of rest and comfort.

We shall then see each other one day, “My dear.”

Bobby Ramakant-CNS