My Sister Lost Her Battle With Breast Cancer And AIDS

In Inspirational Stories by Barbara Jacoby

By Brenda Dube




The pain of loosing my young sister Lilian 17 years ago from breast cancer and HIV/AIDS related complications still lingers in my mind as if it were yesterday.  My young sister Lilian lost her battle with breast cancer and HIV/AIDS related complications on the 26th of September in 1997.  She was born on the 29th of March 1963 in the small mining town of Zvishavane in Zimbabwe. I was the eldest and Lilian was the second born in our family of four girls and two boys.

Our father was a migrant from Mozambique who came to Zimbabwe in the early 1960s to seek his fortune like most young men of that era.  He found work at the Shabanie Asbestors Mine as a motor mechanic.  Like most families at the mine we all lived in these overcrowded squalid small box like houses which were built by the mine company for its workers. Two families shared one house which had six rooms. Our portion of the house was three small rooms with no bathroom or toilet facilities rather there were communal wash rooms which everyone in the compound used.

These communal wash rooms were just big concrete block rooms comprising of 4 showers in the middle of a canal like trench with a big hole at the far end of the wall. They were just big oblong open rooms without a door or roof.  When people were bathing all the dirty water would flow down the canal towards the hole by the wall leading to the sewage pipes outside.  Taking a shower also meant standing in the puddles of dirty sods of soap scrubbings pouring down other people’s bodies from the other showers.

“Our house was terribly crammed with our belongings and it was also full of crawling pests such as cockroaches and bed bugs. We had one big grey sofa which had big holes in it and many a rat made their comfortable home there.” Brenda Dube

There was lack of privacy in those wash rooms.  Regardless of whether young or old, all women and girls flocked there to take their baths.  I wonder how we all survived infections of all sorts.  Sometimes I look back and relive the feelings of degradation, lack of decency and respect for privacy in those wash rooms. As young children, we were subjected to all sorts of vulgarities there. Life was not pleasant at all in those mine compounds.

Our house was terribly crammed with our belongings and it was also full of crawling pests such as cockroaches and bed bugs.  We had one big grey sofa which had big holes in it and many a rat made their comfortable home there.  We acquired the sofa when my father picked it up from one of the Mine Managers who had thrown it away when they had bought a new one.  I have very fond memories of that sofa, I remember the happiness my sister and I derived from sitting and jumping on the old sofa which doubled up as a trampoline and a sitting place. We were too young and innocent to notice the poverty around us. We loved our old sofa so much that we spent endless hours playing with the rag dolls that our mother made for us.

At night, Lilian and I would sleep on the one single bed crammed in the corner of the house.  Since it was a small single bed Lilian would sleep at the far end of the bed and I would then sleep at the opposite end of the bed.  Every time I turned I would be facing her feet and she also mine as well. The other younger siblings all slept on the floor beside the old grey sofa.  The other room which was very small was the kitchen and the last tiny room was our parent’s bedroom.


Lilian when she was living alone.

It was fun going to school and we loved it.  Regardless of the weather we used to run the few 2 miles of dust road to the school without any shoes on our feet. I always remember one cold winter day when I had stumbled on a rock and hurt my toe. I did not feel the pain as my feet were numb from the freezing cold. I only found out later in the day that I had hurt my toe when the sun was up and when the classroom was a bit warmer. I was shocked when I looked down my feet and saw a pool of blood which was formed by blood oozing from my big toe.  That was only when I started feeling the pain, half my toe nail was cracked and the skin torn very badly.

Shabanie Mine was a melting pot of different cultures and religious beliefs carried by the migrants from their countries of origin like Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique who all converged at the mine to seek their fortunes. There was a lot of immorality as mines were a fertile ground for commercial sex workers to ply their trade.  My sister and I grew up witnessing the crime, violence, poverty and debauchery happening right on our doorstep.  Not a day would go by without us hearing all sorts of profanities spewing from the mouths of angry women fighting over this or that, mostly over petty issues like someone would be angry because someone would have taken their place at the communal water taps and so on.

We also had this very strange neighbor who used to bring different sex workers to his quarters. After his business was done he would beat the women a lot whenever they demanded payment.  I never liked him and I hardly greeted him when we crossed paths because I was very much afraid of him.  Almost every night we were subjected to terrible cries from those women whom he was beating. It was really always very difficult for us to get a good night’s sleep.

Looking back now I think that man was some sort of pervert with psychopathic tendencies, a real sadist for sure who somehow derived some sick pleasure from inflicting terrible indescribable pain to those women.

Women In Village

Life in the rural areas of Zvishavane (Siboza village). A young married woman preparing lunch.

I often wonder even up to now why nobody ever intervened or reported him to the police station which was only a few yards away from our house.  I do not even remember any of his victims reporting him to the police at all.  Perhaps, maybe they accepted it and took it as one of those occupational hazards they had to endure in their trade. All the people around us never reported the abuse either, maybe nobody cared enough to intervene I shall never know.  Each one I guess was too engrossed in their own business of survival to care much about the plight of those sex workers who were just considered as nonentities, people of no consequence.

Years later my father began drinking heavily and he would be gone from home for weeks and sometimes months on end.  Talk was rife that he was cohabiting with other women called here in Zimbabwe “small houses”. However, despite all these speculations of infidelity my mother would quietly let him in whenever he remembered to come back home, thank God HIV/AIDS was not there in those days!  Our dear mother was a very submissive woman, quiet and very unassuming in many ways. I do not even remember her quarreling with my father. I only remember other women advising her to be grateful that he came back home at all.  And if at all she was to be grateful to the Almighty God for leading him safely back to her door step. So that was it, quarreling with a man was not sanctioned by the society let alone questioning him of his movements and whereabouts. It was a taboo, a social suicide, something not to be done at all.  So my mother remained quiet all the time.

One day after his numerous disappearances my dad came home and took the only decent items in the house which were the old Singer sewing machine and the old Sonny gramophone radio. He sold those items to a man who was waiting outside for a pittance, so we heard later.  We were now only left with just the old grey sofa, the single bed, an old table by the small window whose legs wobbled if one leaned heavily on it and a few plates and pots in the kitchen.

A week later my father returned and handed me a letter which I was supposed to hand over to my mother.  I ran and gave the letter to my mum but little did I know that our lives were going to change for the worst from that day onwards. In the letter my dad had told my mother that their 16 year old marriage was over and that she was to leave the house and go back to her parents. Our grandparents lived in the rural areas of Siboza not very far away from Shabanie Mine.  It was just a walking distance to the mine about 8 miles or so.

My mother nonchalantly ignored the letter. She just took it and put it aside. From that day onwards life became unbearable as we no longer had any money for food and groceries. Our father was no longer supporting us financially.  Young as I was, and fearing that we were all going to die from hunger, I came up with the idea of making and selling samoosas.  I had always liked to learn new things and I thank God that I had learnt to make those samoosas by observing a lady who worked for an Indian family making them.  So it was the samoosas that helped us to survive.  Every weekend I would make several hundreds of samoosas and my sister Lilian and my other young sister Matilda would go to the beer halls and sell them to the drunken patrons there who loved the hot peri peri spice in them.

Business was good and we realized some good profits. That time my mother was expecting and with that money she managed to buy all the baby items and also put enough food on the table.  In fact, I would say our lives improved remarkably well because we could afford to buy ourselves enough food and a few luxuries like sanitary pads, new dresses and some new pairs of canvas shoes.

Our happiness was short lived because as soon as my mother had given birth about two weeks later my father came home again. This time he brought with him a big truck and he took everything out of the house and loaded all the items onto the big truck waiting outside.  We were all commanded to jump in at the back with our meagre belongings and that was the end of our stay in the mine compound.  Since then I have never returned back to that place again.  We were taken to my grandparent’s home and dumped right in the middle of the yard and my father left us there without even a mere backward glance. I still remember how forlorn we all looked, me and my siblings, surrounded by our meagre items including the worn out grey sofa on the dusty ground.  My mum struck such a forlorn figure with a two week old baby in her arms and all of us around her with no means of fending for us.

Life in the rural areas was hard and brutish. My mother did not have any income and my uncles were not much of any help either, maybe they too had enough problems of their own for them to worry about us.  Poverty hit us very hard that time and we did not have any food or groceries so we ended up resuming the samoosa business.

Every weekend we would make the samoosas and my sister Lilian would travel the 8 miles on foot to Shabanie Mine beerhall to sell them and then return back home in the evening.  Gradually on some days she would not come back home at all and would only come back the following day.  Thinking back, now I realise now that was the time when she joined the world of commercial sex work. No one asked her, my mother and my grandmother too did not ask her why she was sleeping out. I guess it was acceptable as long as she brought the groceries and food items. I think there was this silent complicity all around.

Everything changed again in early 1979 when in the height of the liberation war struggle my sister and I had to flee the village because the war had intensified.   It was no longer safe for young boys and girls like us to continue staying there.  At that time Lilian was 16 years old and I was 17 years old.  It was not easy to find somewhere to stay. We were displaced by the war. I was lucky because I ended up staying with a man who later became my husband whilst my sister Lilian was not so lucky. She ended up cohabiting with different men for survival called “temporary marriages or small houses”.

Brenda Dube

Brenda Dube (Lilian’s sister).

A few weeks later after I had moved in with my husband he was transferred by his employers to work in Harare. Later that year my sister Lilian came and joined me in Harare. She stayed with us for few months but later left and moved in with a couple of her new found friends who were renting some rooms in the city centre.  I then lost contact with her for many years only to be told by a certain lady who knew her that Lilian was very sick and that was early in 1997. The lady gave me an address where I could find her and when I eventually I found her, she looked very ill. She had lost a lot of weight.  We both cried when she saw me and she told me that she had been ill for some time and that she had tried everything to get better. She also told me that she had also sought help from faith healers and traditional healers who gave her different diagnoses ranging from avenging spirits to witchcraft. Her bedroom was testimony enough for that. It was full of different herbal concoctions which unfortunately did nothing to improve her health. Eventually Lilian’s illness became so bad such that she could no longer stay on her own.  I sold all her few belongings and took her in to stay with me and my family.

I did my best to find a cure for Lilian but to no avail.  I remember taking her to various doctors and all the medications that were prescribed did nothing much to improve her health.  One doctor who seemed to care a bit more requested various medical tests including chest X-rays and mammograms.  The Doctor eventually told me that my sister Lilian had advanced breast cancer which had spread to her lungs and other organs apart from her being HIV/AIDS positive.

The Doctor advised me to take her home quickly to die because she did not have much time to live. I was devastated. It was very painful for me to see my sister deteriorate daily.  In those days in 1997 in Zimbabwe Anti retroviral drugs were not easily available let alone good treatment for cancer.

Even up to now I am still haunted by her groans and moans from pain every night. Lilian was not on any strong painkillers like morphine. I was mentally and physically exhausted from catering for her needs since I also had a full time job during the day. Daily I would bath and feed her when I got back from work in the evenings. I would try to coax her to eat a few tiny bits of food but most of the time she had no appetite for food. It was not easy especially during the last days to make her eat anything.  This really burdened my heart and for some time I was stressed trying to balance work and my caregiver role.

One day when my sister had taken a turn for the worst I took her to the main government hospital. When we got there we saw many people with sick relatives and the queues were very long.  I felt like giving up and returning back home.   I remember overhearing a doctor yelling to a woman who had brought in her sick son to take him back home and wait for him to die as he had no cure for AIDS! He was practically yelling at her on top of his voice. It was very unsettling and I felt this hopeless feeling wash over me. At that moment I felt right away that I was just wasting my time.

After more than 3 hours of waiting we finally went in to see the Doctor the already overworked, stressed doctor. He did not mince his words.  He told me point blank to take my sister home (referring to the village) since she did not have much long to live. I felt very sad and held back my tears. I did not want my sister to see me crying for fear that this would depress her furthermore. All through the consultation my sister remained silent.  And at that point I felt it deep in my heart that she had accepted her fate. I sensed too that she had lost the battle and the will to live.  I think from there onwards she just gave up on life and let go.

The thought that my sister was dying was very terrifying and hard to accept. I knew I had to prepare myself and my family for the inevitable. Lilian was dying. On our way home Lilian said to me she never knew or thought that she had breast cancer. She said that she thought the painful lump under her arm was probably caused by her swollen lymph nodes due to the HIV/AIDs virus. I felt very sad.  I wanted to cry there and then but had to struggle hard to hold myself in check because I did not want to make it worse for Lilian to bear. I felt like crying again when she thanked me for all the love and care I had given her during her last days.  I had to struggle hard with this big lump of emotional pain which was stuck in my throat.  Lilian was very brave right to the end, she never feared death. She had this quiet acceptance of it all as if it was something easy.

Even nowadays in our country, Zimbabwe most women especially in the rural areas do not go for mammograms due to lack of finance, information and adequate facilities at their local health clinics.

The following day I prepared for the long journey back home to the rural areas with a heavy heart.  My sister said good bye to my children and some of the children from next door who used to come and keep her company.  She told them that she was going home to die and that they would never see her alive again.  She told them her death wait was over.  I was very touched when one little boy came and held her hand and asked her if she really was sure that she was going to die?  In his innocence he asked her if death was painful to which Lilian said no it was just like going to sleep.

I felt a big lump well up my throat and I rushed back into my bedroom and sat down on my bed. I then let go of all the pent up emotions that I had held tightly bound in my heart.  At that moment the floodgates were opened and big drops of tears came tumbling down my cheeks without stopping for a while. Saying good bye to a loved one is very hard and emotionally draining. It is not easy.  It felt like as if a knife was cutting at my heart and tearing it into small pieces which were never going to become whole again.

Lilian passed away the same night we arrived in the village. My poor mum was so overwhelmed with grief. She just could not stop weeping. I felt very weary and exhausted. I felt as I had walked miles and miles on foot. Indeed this journey of pain had been a long and painful one. Watching my sister die slowly in pain in the absence of strong painkillers was the worst experience ever and that killed my soul.  It took me a very long time to get over it and to accept that she was now at peace and that she was no longer in pain, may her soul rest in eternal peace.

The experience of observing my sister going through the pain of breast cancer created in me a burning desire and a great yearning to help the disadvantaged women in my country especially those living in the rural areas.  Women living in the rural areas do not have access to basic medical care due to poverty, deprivation and lack of financial resources from the government.

My hope and wish is to set up a memorial Trust Foundation in honour of my late sister Lillian called The Lily Breast Cancer Helping Hand Foundation. Its main focus would be on the early detection of breast cancer by providing free mammograms to disadvantaged women in the rural areas. The Foundation will also offer psychosocial support for women affected and infected by HIV/ AIDS.

I am therefore appealing for assistance from funding organisations willing to explore the funding possibilities to ensure that the foundation becomes a reality. For more information please contact me, Brenda Dube on the following email address:

I would be most grateful for your support. Thank you.


stories of those inspired by people with Breast Cancer!