“Death can happen at any time.”
Mukumbi Jescar (known as Jessie) lost her mom when she was an infant, her grandparents a few years later. Her father died last year. Over the years, she has lost many friends and relatives, including a 24-year-old niece, a teacher and mother to a year-old son, who died in April from yellow fever.
Like many people in Zambezi, Zambia, Jessie knows death as a constant. To her, this reality means she must protect the five children ages 7 to 19 she is raising alone in case she can’t see them all grow to adulthood. She bought them each plots of land as an inheritance “so that they have something” if she dies. She lives in a home on land owned by her oldest brother, Damien.
When she speaks of her brother, she smiles. After her grandparents died, Damien, a doctor, raised his younger siblings. He paid their school fees and encouraged them to further their educations.
These days, Jessie works as a teacher in Chilenga Basic School where she is loving but firm with her many pupils. On some days, she has as many as 48 students in her year-seven classroom. As she walks among the students, they sit up straighter, stop their chattering, pay closer attention to the Gonzaga students teaching them about storytelling.
For several years, Jessie has trained her students in traditional dance, and they have traveled to cities such as Livingstone to compete in a contest sponsored by the National Association of Arts and Music in Zambia. In 2014, they won second place. The competition takes place again later this year, and Jessie will be there with a new troupe. The dancing “reminds me of the old, old, old past, what my great grannies used to do,” she says. “I don’t want to forget about my culture.”
Just like her brother before her, Jessie’s hopes for her students and her own children are that they get their educations so they can live independently. “I can support my children,” she says. “I want them to be like that.
“They have to believe in themselves.”