Why Mwape Kumwenda Won't Back Down

Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images.
Mwape Kumwenda accepts the Courage In Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation in New York on October 21.
In her home country of Zambia, Mwape Kumwenda has a reputation for not giving up a good story, even if that means facing charges of treason, arrest, or staring down a crowd of angry thugs crashing through the door of a funeral home.

In Zambia, a country in southern Africa, Kumwenda said that widespread corruption has led to poverty and inequality. According to Transparency International, 42% of Zambians reported paying a bribe in 2010 and more than two thirds of people believe corruption has gotten worse.

"As it stands, the executive branch has the power to manipulate almost anything. The principle of the separation of power...it doesn’t work, because judges are appointed by the president," Kumwenda told Refinery29.

But that hasn't stopped Kumwenda and her team from Muvi Television from questioining officials at the highest level — including the president himself — about government-sanctioned murders, illegal evictions of thousands of people, and the forced marriages of young girls.

"My father once said, 'My daughter, you are so powerful. You stop a president, and you ask the president a question, and the president stands and answers you. You are so powerful!’” she said.

It's also made the mother of two the target of intimidation and threats.

"Sometimes, I go to an official function and I see the thugs there, ready to beat. They will be looking around for me and asking, ‘Where is this person...She is ridiculing the government.' But I tell them, 'You have to pay a price when you get into public office, because you are managing public affairs and public resources — and everyone wants to hold you accountable to that,'" Kumwenda said.

Kumwenda spoke to Refinery29 from New York, where she had just received the 2015 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation.

How did you decide to become a journalist?
"My move to get into journalism was that I would use the field to transform the lives of people. For me, getting into the career of journalism was more of a service to vulnerable communities. So most of my stories have been about human rights, community development, and advocating for poverty eradication; as well as good health, good nutrition, and good education for the people."

What is the current situation like in your country? What are some of the most pressing issues right now?
"There is so much insecurity. There is so much speculation and there is so much fear in the lives of many Zambians that probably others will lose employment, and this might widen the poverty levels in our country. It’s a hard time as we speak, and mostly when you look at certain things happening in this way, you tend to realize that the most affected are the girls and the women, because they make up the majority and they are managers of our houses.

"Traditionally, a woman is considered to be the manager of the house, because probably a man is going to be going out and looking for food and resources to keep the family. So when the man loses employment, the one who is more affected is the woman and the girl child. So this makes women and girls very vulnerable to all sorts of injustice.

"The other issue I think that is also of great concern is the high teenage pregnancy rate...More than 40% of the girls that enroll for education are not completing school because they are falling pregnant. Others are being married off at a tender age."

I had to lock myself and my cameraperson in the house. The people we had come with were beaten, others had their wallets stolen. My colleague’s camera was stolen.

Mwape Kumwenda, Reporter
How big of a problem is child marriage in Zambia?
"It’s a very big problem and I am happy that of late we have heard our leaders, our vice president in particular, who is a female, speaking about this issue. It's contributing to poor maternal health. Child mortality rates are getting higher. We can surely not allow this to continue and something really has to be done.

"The major problem we have is the poverty. In rural areas, where these cases are more rampant, they send off a child to get married because they want to get the bride price and make some money to sustain their living. Sometimes, these girls are 12, 13, 14, or 15 years old.

"You can hardly fight for the rights of these children, because even the laws themselves are just contradicting each other. We have the customary law, which allows that a child can be married off as soon as they reach puberty. And we have the statutory law, where the marrying age is 18 years.

"If you look at the criminal aspect of it, if a child is married off and forced to have sex, that is defilement and it’s a criminal, capital offense. But when people say, ‘We married her off because the customary law allows it,’ then the criminal law is handcuffed, because that other law allows it."
Photo: Courtesy of Frank Sibbuku.
Mwape Kumwenda reporting in Zambia. She has been the subject of intimidation from government officials for investigating corruption and killings by the military.
What is one the bigger stories you have taken on?
"The story that had been put me in the spotlight was a case where two men had been killed in the capital city, which is Lusaka. This was mainly because they were settling on a government-owned piece of land. The situation right now in Zambia is that the majority of the population are deemed squatters, because the process over requiring legal documentation when you want a piece of land is just too slow and too cumbersome. It takes years for one to get the necessary papers to document the estate. So most of the people have been deemed squatters.

"In part of Lusaka, there were more than 2,000 people settling on a piece of land that belonged to the state. These people had been occupying that land for more than 50 years. The state was scared they would lose this particular piece of land. On June 14, 2013, the state and, of course, armed military officers went around and were telling people to move out. There was no notice given, there was no court order given, and people were just being told to just move out of that piece of land.

"Now, imagine you have been living there for the last 50 years and you’re just told early in the morning, at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., you are told to leave this place. So obviously, there could have been some resistance on the part of the people. But they were not armed. The military people were armed, heavily armed, and what do they decide? They opened fire. They killed two men in cold blood.

"Everyone else is shocked. Everyone else is traumatized. You witness your father being killed like that, because those people had children, and the children were there...the families were all there just to witness that. It was a very sad situation.

"You take up the story, you do the story, and the authorities don’t want to act. Until now, no one has been arrested. They picked up the used ammunition from the scene of the crime, they have all that, and they know who killed who. But they are not taking action."

The military people were armed, heavily armed. They opened fire. They killed two men in cold blood.

Mwape Kumwenda, Reporter
What kind of threats and intimidation did you face from covering that story?
"The following day, we were doing a follow-up story. The leader of the opposition party was visiting the funeral house. And while at the funeral house, we were mobbed by political party [thugs] from the ruling party. They came running into the funeral house and attacked all of us physically.

"I was hiding in the funeral house, I had to lock myself and my cameraperson in the house. The people we had come with were beaten, others had their wallets stolen. My colleague’s camera was stolen.

"Sometimes, you would be surprised that such things happen and you turn out to be the only person reporting about it. Everyone else is scared, because the military personnel is involved, because the state is involved. I was called by the minister of defense and asked, ‘Why do you keep doing this story?’

"I told the minister, ‘I keep doing this story because you have done nothing about it.’ You killed two innocent lives. Their relatives and the public need to know why, because there was no court order. And under the law, military officers are not allowed to carry out an eviction. They can’t carry out an eviction, even if they own that piece of land.

"And what has happened? One of those killed left four children under the age of 15. The children have dropped out of school. The widow is unemployed. How does she survive? How does she take care of the children? And the government doesn’t care to say a thing, they don’t even care to provide for the children and the widow. She had to give up one of her children to an orphanage. She had to give up one of her children to be taken to a very remote area. And the government is still quiet."
Photo: Courtesy of Frank Sibbuku.
Mwape Kumwenda interviewing an HIV/Aids activist on prevention methods in Lusaka, Zambia.
You are also the mother of two small children. How do you balance caring for them with your work and are you ever concerned about their safety?
"I am so concerned about my children. I have two babies, a boy and a girl, they are very young, 9 and 4 years. I have to strike a balance, but it’s not always easy, because I am in a profession that is very demanding, a profession where we don’t sleep.

"We sleep with our ears on the ground. I have to find time to be with my babies, regardless of the busy schedule. And the issue of security is very important to me. Luckily, my husband is a police officer, so at least I feel a little comfortable that there is somebody to protect me...I can lean on my husband for protection.

"But also, my work centers on the truth. I am Christian and the Bible says, ‘The truth will set you free.’ So as far as I know, I am doing the right thing by telling the truth and so I am not scared of anything. I am ready for anything."

What is your advice for young women who also want to do this kind of social justice work?
"We always say that when you educate one woman, you help a nation or the entire community where that woman comes from. Because women are naturally kind, loving, and caring. So for women, you have to be passionate and concerned about the lives of others.

"We have to be ready to take risks, we have to be ready to look at other alternatives that are outside of our strength. We need to go an extra mile to see that there is indeed effort that has been made to help people lift out of that miserable life.

"I want to encourage a spirit of selflessness, of thinking about others more than you do about yourself, because probably, you are more privileged than the other person."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Video: Courtesy of International Women's Media Foundation.

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