Mama Happy grew up in desperate poverty and only managed a primary school education. She was coerced into marrying the man who raped her at 17. But she fought hard for a better life for her daughters, and founded Perfect Vision before her sudden death at 54.
Mama Happy founded Perfect Vision Women’s Group in December 2019 and dedicated herself entirely to its success. Sadly in November 2020 Mama Happy died suddenly at 54, leaving behind so many dreams to fulfil. Thankfully her spirit lives on in her daughter Editha who immediately took over as chairwoman of the group. Shortly before she died, Happy sat down with me to share her full story. I was honoured, but it was still difficult to bear.
Mama Happy had an unbelievably hard life, but you wouldn’t have known it when you first met her. She was all smiles, warmth and very big hugs despite her small frame. Her strength was unbelievable and she strove so admirably to take younger women under her wing and help them learn new skills and work towards a better life. Her story is so incongruous with this strong, joyous woman – it is horrifying in fact. Born premature in the rural Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania, Happy was the last of five siblings. But by the time I spoke to her, three of them had long passed away.
Mama Happy told me of a very tough childhood after her father abandoned the family when she was young. Her mother had raised animals and grown coffee and bananas to sell on a little farm, but when her ex-husband married another woman she was barred from the land. “In the whole of my life I have never experienced the happy life,” Mama Happy said. And when she talked of her mother’s struggle she began to cry – not for the last time in our interview. “She was fighting too much to make sure us kids were growing. There were many of us,” she said. While the children were in primary school, their mother was travelling very far away to work on someone else’s farm and the children had to help her carry produce after school. Happy only managed a primary school education – at the time you had to pay for secondary school, and her mother decided that she could only put the boys through school.
They would be the ones able to help the family, she thought. One brother went into the army, but he was not the benefactor his mother had hoped. “He knew that he could help us but he chose to follow his father’s way,” Happy said. “He too left his first wife and had other girls.” Another brother became a pastor – and he at least used to help them, as much as he could in his own poverty. But then he died. At 16, Happy left for Arusha attempting to find work to help her mother. She found a job weaving scarves for a year before the business closed.
Then she had a job sorting beans. She met a man while looking through second-hand clothes to send home. He told her that he loved her, but she wasn’t interested – all she wanted was to ‘fight for her family’ she said. She refused to tell him where she lived, but that didn’t stop him – he followed her home to where she was staying with her aunt. One day she came home to find that he had turned up and told her aunt that he loved her. When he came back again the following day, her aunt cajoled her to “escort your friend.” “Don’t you see that this man is serious – that he wants to marry you?” she pressed. When Happy went outside she found that he had brought two friends with him.
They carried her away, took her inside a building and left her alone with the suitor. He then proceeded to rape her, she said. Happy was 17 years-old and a virgin. She said she was impregnated ‘on the spot.’ Recounting this Mama Happy was emotional, but not self-pitying. She didn’t think her story was uncommon. “In previous times it used to be like that – people would go direct to your family then steal you,” she said. “In the morning I decided to go back home because I didn’t love him.” After two weeks her aunt, who was a nurse, recognised that she was pregnant but instructed her not to abort the baby. She removed all the medicine she had inside the home to make sure Happy wouldn’t have access to it.
But despite forcing her to keep the child, Happy says she resented her for it. “Because I had no money at the time, even to buy food at home, the aunt decided to hate me,” she said. “Here in Tanzania when you are pregnant at home that’s when everyone becomes harsh to you.” The aunt told Happy’s family about the pregnancy and her mother was sent to fetch her back to the rural family home, but Happy refused, fearing she would be beaten. Happy had only told her aunt about the rape, so she had no-one to defend her. But when her mother came back again crying, earnestly wanting her home, she agreed to go. Three months later Happy gave birth to a boy who she named Kevin.
Doctors were on strike at the time and she tore badly during childbirth. She was very sick and taking care of herself so her family told her to go with her son to the father to seek treatment in Arusha. They told her to ask him “if he is serious and wanted to marry you or if he just impregnated you?” But when she arrived he didn’t even want to see her, so she went to see his brother to plead her case. The baby’s father came to see Happy in the evening and he was drunk – he took his son and he ‘threw him away’ she says, and then she was beaten. He said: “So what brought you here? Did you just want to tell me about your sickness, or did you want to tell my family your bad news?” Baby Kevin caught a fever and was taken to hospital but died at just 18 months old. By this point in the story Mama Happy was in floods of tears hunched over in the small office and I thought we should stop, but as always she wanted to fight through. As is traditional, Kevin was buried at his father’s rural family home. After the burial ceremony Happy’s family were asking him: “Are you sure that you don’t like this woman?” Happy says he cursed her saying: “I like her and she will never leave me. If she ever goes away from me she will never have children.” At this point Happy decided that she was never going to get married. But then her relatives advised her: “You know that your son is buried near him, so what are you going to do? You need to be near him – you should go back.” So she did and had a marriage ceremony – which, as is common, was not a legal union at this point. Of course, Mama Happy was miserable. “My heart was not there at all. I was living with a dictator person,” she said. Her husband ended up leaving Mama Happy with his parents and lived in the city, only coming back for holidays. She remained there and had another child – a daughter this time. Life was very hard, but it was about to become even harder. Her husband had two shops selling clothes in Arusha, but while Happy was pregnant with her third child, both burned down and her husband was paralysed in the fire.
They never knew the cause of the fire, but Happy says his parents blamed her, accusing her of taking her husband to witch doctors. His brothers called her to Arusha to look after her husband, but Happy herself was hospitalised with bleeding during her pregnancy. She told the hospital she had to leave – her husband couldn’t even manage to go to the toilet – she had to help him. They had a little plot of land which they sold to try to start again. But when her husband left for town on his way to buy second hand clothes to sell, the door wasn’t secure and he fell out of the car. Fearing he would die, the driver abandoned him and while he lay on the ground someone stole all the money.
He was taken back to Happy by good Samaritans but he was very sick with a lot of wounds. Two weeks later she went into labour and headed to hospital alone. Her husband’s family still blamed her for her husband’s condition so she had no-one to be with her. She was meant to be having a caesarean before she went into labour and she was losing a lot of blood. She was given a blood transfusion in a hurry and that was how she contracted HIV – but of course she didn’t know it yet. She started finding lumps in her chest and then became very sick but didn’t recognise why. Again her husband was in Arusha, while she was in a village – and there was no-one to take care of her.
So she left the kids with her mother-in-law and ran away to her own family home. Her parents looked after her until she could return to her children. But finally her husband’s treatment of her began to change. He decided to marry her – officially this time. And after seeing how harsh his parents were being to her he took her with him to Arusha. She knew her husband had been living away from her and probably seeing many women, as is very common here, so she told him: “We should get tested before we do anything.” Happy said she had been faithful all the time she was apart from her husband but when she went to get a HIV test it was positive. She went to her husband and said: “See now you have led me to be a positive woman.” He begged for forgiveness and said: “I am your husband, you are my wife – we will die together.” So they continued having sex as usual for a long period of time. They were advised that they should test the husband too and discovered that he was negative. It was then they traced the source back to the blood transfusion. Happy told him: “Maybe God did this because he wanted to make sure at least when one of us passed away, one will remain with the kids – we have to stop having sex.”
So they decided to live together as ‘brother and sister.’ Happy became so sick that family members prepared themselves for her death and her children struggled to focus in school, thinking they would go home to find she had passed away. But despite the odds she got better and found work making food for international volunteers and in home-based care. After her unexpected recovery, she started asking herself ‘why am I supposed to be here now?’ “So I decided to do something to give hope to other mamas who are passing through a hard life,”
Happy said. She was part of starting a foundation, but she said they took her ideas and left her out. She received an ‘appreciation certificate’ and was made to leave because she didn’t have enough education or English to stay working with them. Three years later, after planning, borrowing money and finding her first mamas to join the group, she founded Perfect Vision in December 2019 and set to work building a group that would both break down stigmas and help women practically towards a better life. It got off to a strong start but then came Covid which shut down operations for four months. Regardless the group bounced back and was going from strength to strength before Happy’s sudden death.
She left behind a foundation that her daughter and the other mamas continue to build on today. Mama Happy gave everything she had to try to give women choices that she didn’t have. Even until the day of her death she was married to the man who once raped her. “In Chagga land it is very shameful for a woman to give birth at home. When you give birth at home they say that you are a prostitute,” Mama Happy explained. “So in order to prevent this, you give your heart to that man so they see you are not a prostitute. To give back respect to your parents.” Despite the couple’s relationship improving that scar doesn’t go away. “The life forced us to love each other,” Happy said. “
When I remember about the past I feel very bad about him, but because of our hard life we decided to stick together.” Her children and grandchildren brought her joy in her latter years. “Sometimes when I’m stressed I can go see my grandchildren – go to play with them and it helps,” she said. “Coming here [to Perfect Vision] helps too. If I feel stressed sometimes I can come along and laugh and laugh together and I feel better and able to keep going.” Listening to Mama Happy’s story made me feel physically sick – I had to go home and cry then sleep to rest my mind.
But I found her faith and hope remarkable. Her struggles were far from over – poverty and HIV continued to loom over her but she still believed one day things would be better and it appeared that for the time being her health was ticking along just fine. But I was mistaken. Mama Happy died suddenly on November 10, 2020. I was told she ‘fainted’ in the car on the way to the hospital (there is no emergency ambulance/paramedic service here) and never woke up. Her death is attributed to high blood pressure. Until her last day she was dancing away at Perfect Vision, a place which made her feel her life had a purpose and the future was brighter. She told me: “This is what I can do to help, what I can give, so when I go to heaven at least God will judge me kindly.”