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Paramount Chief Theresa Kachindamoto is one of 300 senior chiefs in Malawi. According to Malawian law, chiefs are the custodians of tradition who have the right to change or abolish cultural practices. Chief Kachindamoto, who has traditional authority over 550 village headmen and almost one million residents in Dedza district, near Lake Malawi, is leading a campaign to end early child marriage in her district and to prohibit sexual initiation practices that are both physically and psychologically harmful to young girls. Although Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Africa, since 2012 Chief Kachindamoto has stopped 2245 child marriages and annulled more than 330, sending all of the boys and girls involved back to school.
This is her story.
I am a descendant of tribal chiefs in Dedza district, the youngest in a family of seven boys and five girls. I am married with five boys of my own.
I was schooled at home and after that, I was selected for Zombe Theological College. I went on to work at the college as a secretary for 27 years. After my father passed away, my brother took over the chief’s tasks and later my second brother took over. But it was the royal family who eventually came to Zombe to ask me to go home to become a chief. Because I am the youngest in the family, I thought, why me? There were those other brothers of mine for them to ask. But they said to me, “Whether you like it or not, we are going home.” I said, “Why did you choose me?” Because in our culture—a woman cannot be a chief. They told me we were going home together, whether I liked it or not. So I had no choice–I went home.
Very soon after I was installed as a senior chief, I walked around to see my family. I came across a girl, a small girl, with a baby crying on her hip. And so I went to her and asked her to take the baby to her mother. The girl said, “No, no, the baby is mine.” She turned out to be twelve years old. Her thirteen-year-old husband was playing football close by. I was shocked.
I went home and I didn’t sleep. Early the next morning I went to see the royal family who had come to Zombe to make me a chief whether I liked it or not. I asked them one question: these children with babies crying on their laps, is this why you went to Zombe to take me back here? Their answer was yes, that’s is why we chose you. You are good with people and we want you to deal with this nonsense. And I said, thank you—praise the Lord.
This twelve-year-old girl, hers was the first marriage I terminated.
I told the girl’s parents that they must look after the baby and I would take the girl to school. That girl is now in college.
It was at that time that I called upon all the tribal chiefs and asked them please, for me, from today forward, these forced, arranged child marriages cannot continue–not as long as I am your chief. Yes, I am a custodian of culture, but not this culture of young girls being forced to be married. The matter was taken higher and the law was changed so that marriage cannot take place if the child is below the age of 18. We wrote a memorandum of understanding and bylaws, and if any chiefs in my district disobey them, I dismiss these chiefs. I want these girls to be educated, whether anyone wants it or not.
In our culture, you are rich when you have many children and grandchildren. When you have gardens, the children and grandchildren go to work like slaves–and the garden will be finished fast. The children and grandchildren also go to the lake and sell some things, then the guys give them fish and sometimes, trade sex for four or five fish. This is not a life for children.
Another culture that I forbid in my community is called rumba kusasa or dusty gracing. When a small girl has started her monthly period, she is believed to be grown up. They take about 10 or 20 of these girls to the bush, where there is a hut. The girls are blindfolded, and then a man goes in to take away all “infant dust” by having sex with each and every one of them.
There is also hyena culture where if a couple doesn’t have any children, the husband’s family and the wife’s family get together and hire a hyena–a man who goes to the childless house and has sex with the wife. She is told that there is someone coming to her home to have sex with her, that her husband’s family and her own family want grandchildren. She must go to her house at a certain time and be in her bedroom, waiting. She is not to tell her husband. If the girl does not become pregnant, then they hire another hyena and then another.
In Malawi we have many people with HIV and I have become a champion of sensitizing people about HIV and AIDS. I don’t want this culture in my area of these practices with a few men having unprotected sex with so many girls. As long as I am their chief, I want to protect these girls from being infected with HIV.
Today, before they get married, couples must get checked, and if they are healthy they can continue their vows. But if they have HIV then they must start their medication and the marriage will not take place.
I have worked hard, with help from my committees, to sensitize people in Dedza district. It is challenging work because culture changes slowly. Some people still want their girls and boys to be married and have babies very early, and they will try to make this happen whether there is a law against it or not. But today, if a girl child gets pregnant, she is sent to her parent’s home, gives birth and can breastfeed for six months. She is then looked after and taken by the “mother groups” to school.
I have help in the villages from people who watch out for child marriages. If a wedding is about to happen, my “secret” mothers and fathers (I call them my spies, my eyes and ears) come to my house or telephone to inform me. A few days later I contact the village headman to come see me. I tell the head man that I have many eyes, and if he wants his title then he must stop the child marriage–or I will dismiss him.
With this help in my villages, I now have almost 600 boys and girls in classes who would have been married instead of in school.
But there are many challenges. A lot of parents lack school fees, uniforms and shoes. Some of the children go barefoot to class. They can’t afford to buy an exercise book or even a ballpoint pen. It takes four years to finish. The school is too far to return home each day so the children must stay there, where they find accommodation close by. When they can’t pay for school or housing, the parents will say, “Go to your chief and see what she can do to pay for you–she wants you to go to school.” So when they come to my house I tell them I have only a little money, but the rest I will try to find.
Some of these fees are paid by the Ministry. Also my honorarium—my salary as chief—goes to school fees, to make a good example. Some NGOs also help me to pay for school (It cost 27 euro for one year).
Also, I have a big garden. I sell bags of rice, and sometimes we sell maize, and that money helps my family and also helps to pay fees for these children. Once my husband said, “Yes, we know you are chief, but you take everything to your girls. What about your own children?” And I said, “Well, you are their father, you are responsible for them!”
I would like to start job training centers so that the children can use their education, gain skills, and earn for their families. Not long ago some parents came to my home with their children who had finished form four. They wanted to thank me for what I am doing and what I have done, but after two minutes they were quiet. Then they said, “Now after these four years, the girls are just sitting at our house doing nothing, so what is the meaning of education? You have wasted our time because in these years we could have had grandchildren. It is better for them not to be educated but to be married to a boy because we want more grandchildren.”
We have two girls now who go to college. Creating scholarships for the girls would help more girls go on to university or learn skills. I really do believe that when you teach a girl child you teach a whole nation.
Today, one of the greatest challenges for me is transportation. As the senior chief of the Dedza District of over one million people and about 550 villages, I need transport to reach them, to sensitize the people of my tribe to end the practice of arranged forced marriages and other bad cultural practices.
Walking to each village, I start at six a.m. and reach a village about four p.m., sometimes sixteen hours of walking. I arrive late and must spend the night, which can be dangerous as some people don’t want me there, as they don’t like that I have stopped the culture of early marriage. Sometimes they have asked me, ”’Who are you to do this, to destroy our culture? You have come here because you are chief and you destroy your own culture. Our sisters should be keeping this. Do you want to die soon?” And I have said, “Well, die soon? Yes, I can die soon. Just let me finish my mission first.”
It takes me five months to walk around all the villages, and I go with my team. If I can have a van for myself and my helpers, then in one day we can visit three or four villages.
I pray that my problems will be solved.
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