One of my first ever pieces of journalism was an article for New Internationalist – ‘Life without men’ – about the single mothers who were my neighbours when I was living in Botswana. The piece was also used in a press pack distributed by UNFPA (the United Nations Fund for Population Activities) to highlight an important global trend. My Children, My Gold charts my round-the-world journey to explore how the issue was playing out in other women’s lives. The research was financed by Oxfam and SIDA, the Swedish Agency for International Development.
Novelist, traveller and journalist Debbie Taylor takes us on a journey to meet seven remarkable women. In each of seven countries, she lives beside one woman – Hua in China, Meg in Scotland, Jomuna in rural India, Helen in Australia, Lydia in Uganda, Amal in Egypt and Maria in Brazil – learning about her work and her family, her fears and beliefs, her loves and losses.
Varied though their stories may be, their lives are made similar by dual enemies: poverty, which tugs them down to the lowest rungs in their societies; and patriarchy, which sabotages their attempts to climb higher.
Seven remarkable portraits show the humour, anger and sheer resilience of the women at the centre of what the author has called the Fourth World: families headed by a lone woman, which now comprise one quarter of all households in the world.
‘one of the most important books I’ve read in years… Her work raises questions central to the future of women, children and the planet’ Scotland on Sunday
‘by her dogged insistence on going where few bother to go, spending the time few bother to spend…Debbie Taylor has given us very special insights into the reality of single mothers’ lives’ People
‘Taylor is a sensitive and extremely thorough interviewer…seven beautifully-written and absorbing testimonies of courage’ Independent
Out of print but available from these sellers.
My Children, My Gold (excerpt)
(Lydia was a widow suffering from AIDS in Uganda, contracted via her beloved but unfaithful husband, at a time before effective drugs had been developed. This is how I first met her.)
‘I don’t want to be in debt to anyone, because they might make it difficult for my children later –’ She didn’t say ‘when I die’, but the words hung in the air.
Lydia was the fifth widow we visited that day, but something about the set of her chin, and the elegant way she carried her thin body, told me this was the woman I’d be writing about. Though she was alarmed by the Land Rover churning into the middle of her courtyard, she greeted us with great dignity, kneeling respectfully to the men, then conducting us politely into the main room of her little three-room house.
Though I’d visited four similar houses that morning, I was still shocked by the state of the place. Little toadstools sprouted at the bottom of the wattle-and-daub walls, and the unravelling grass mat on the floor was muddy and littered with red coffee berries. A heavy three-piece suite filled the tiny main room, but its crocheted covers were crumpled on the floor, and the seats were strewn with dirty clothes. In a society where a woman’s worth is measured by the order in her home, it was this disorder – more than the deep hollows around her eyes – that testified to the advance of Lydia’s illness.
I picked up a torn pink shirt and sat down, while Mr Ssennyonga [my Oxfam contact] launched into introductions. Lydia listened carefully, her hands folded in her lap; after a while, four young boys crept like shadows into the cramped room and clustered protectively around her.
‘Are they your children?’ I ask her, though Bonnie [my interpreter], and she nodded. A serious nine-year-old in black shorts held out a damp newly washed hand to be shaken. ‘Julius is my first-born,’ she said. ‘Then Gyavera is six, Bryan is four and Aloysius is two. Julius is in P4 at school, and Gyavera’s in P2. They’re supposed to wear yellow shirts now instead of pink. That’s why their pink things are not mended –’ She reached out shamefacedly and took the torn shirt out of my hands. ‘I haven’t bought the material to make their yellow ones yet.’
‘Does anyone help you pay for that kind of thing?’ I asked, wondering whether there was a kind brother or new boyfriend in the background. ‘I try to manage everything by myself,’ she said, bundling the other clothes together and taking them into the next room. ‘I pawned the boys’ mattress to pay for school fees, but I think I can get it back in two months. My uncle lent me some money last year to start my coffee business. He said I could keep it, but I want to pay him back. I don’t want to be in debt to anyone, because they might make it difficult for my children later –’ She didn’t say ‘when I die’, but the words hung in the air.
I wondered how much time she had left. Her eyes were clear and steady above prominent cheekbones; her flowered blouse hung loosely from narrow shoulders. ‘Are you afraid someone will take over the farm?’ I asked, and she nodded. ‘I heard my husband’s clan talking at the burial. They said “How will the widow manage all that land?” And: “What will the children do when she’s gone?” I lie awake with my heart beating fast every night. They are so small, you see – how can they protect themselves? I’m afraid the clan will take everything.
‘That’s why I started with the coffee – because it’s something I can do at home. I would get more money making clothes, but you have to sell them at the trading centre and I’m afraid of leaving the house in case something happens – they’ve already stolen a bicycle. And I think they took the title papers for the land – I can’t find them anywhere. So the only time I go out now is to the mobile clinic once a week – and then I give my cousin some money to come and makes sure everything’s safe.’
‘Didn’t your husband make a will?’
Lydia spread her slender hands eloquently. ‘How could I ask him to do that, when he was suffering so much? But he always said: “I want everything to go to my wife, because she helped me buy the land”. It’s true – I paid for half of everything.’ She gestured out through the open door at the skeleton of a large brick house beyond the courtyard. ‘We saved and saved. It was going to be our dream home –’ she trailed off.
I turned to Mr Ssennyonga. ‘Do you think she’s well enough to cope with the strain of having me around for the next week?’ He threw back his head and laughed heartily. ‘Don’t worry! She’s got two, maybe even five years if she’s lucky. She’s still working, and going to the clinic for treatment.’ So I asked Bonnie to explain to Lydia what being in the book would entail, and to ask whether she’d be prepared to tell us about her life.
The younger woman listened intently, but before Bonnie could finish she let out a little yelp of delight and clapped her hands. Then she collected herself and turned to me. ’Thank you,’ she said haltingly in English. ‘I am sorry I English not good. I want to speak to you.’ And she smiled radiantly into my eyes.
On the bare brown wall behind her hung a photograph of a soulful young man. ‘Is that your husband?’ I asked, and she nodded. ‘Aloysius Waswa.’ She spoke the name reverently. ‘He passed away on the second of April 1992.’ Just over a year ago. Beside the photograph was one other picture: a line drawing of a bearded man crowned with a halo. ‘Saint Jude,’ said Lydia fondly, and I caught my breath. Saint Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.