I was born in a very remote area in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) called the High Plains of Itombwe in South Kivu Province. I was actually the fourth child born to my parents, but the first one who lived. At the age of two, I contracted polio. As my mom had not been successful in delivering a male child, or even healthy children for my dad, he was culturally free to take another wife. In our culture, a wife is not fully considered a wife until she delivers a son. The birth of a son brings gifts of cows and other things in celebration, but the birth of a girl comes without any fanfare. So now, after more than six years of marriage, and my dad’s only child a polio stricken girl, he decided to to marry again.
In my community, when a husband takes a second wife, both wives bear a heavy stigma. The first wife feels the heart wrenching pain of rejection and humiliation. The second wife, usually in an arrangement occurring without her consent, is cast as the “second” and therefore illegitimate wife of her husband. Even though our culture allows the second marriage, religiously she is regarded as a mistress or even a prostitute.
My mother however, refused to take on this shame the culture required her to bear. She was able to somehow walk above all that. Children with disabilities are often regarded as a curse from God in the DRC — on the child for sure, but on the family as well. But my mom loved me with all her heart. Our extended family and community would continually challenge her investment in me, my mother brazenly, if not defiantly, went to great lengths to support me and protect my opportunity for a different future to the one they all expected . . .
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