It is harvest time! Since April, farming households that sowed and toiled in sweat have been reaping in smiles and droves. But in Mzimba, it is not only mounds of maize, groundnuts, beans, pumpkins and potatoes that meet the eye.
Visiting Enyezini off the tarmac connecting Ekwendeni with Ezondweni you are likely to meet groups of women walking from one village to another carrying basketfuls of the finest fruits of the new harvest and chickens on their heads.
“If one of them is not going to her in-laws, she will be visiting her best friend,” says Chipapa Mothers Group member Kate Moyo.
This is just a glimpse of Chisiki, a cultural practice which loosely means authentic friendship.
In their reasoning, their ancestors’ envisaged chisiki strengthening bonds between women regardless of their backgrounds. The special friends could be those one first met in school or marketplace, on a bus trip or just a walk, at a funeral or wedding, in hospital or anywhere women meet.
“When the rains are over, we take time to share the harvest as a way of expressing thanks and fondness. Of course, the host, who receives the gifts, also takes time to give the visitors a treat, starting with tea with milk and rice with chicken,” explains Moyo.
But a tradition that allows special friends to spoil each other so generously has become the reason some girls marry before completing primary education, locals say.
“If one has a son and sees a girl while visiting a friend, the mothers get talking and make arrangements for their children to marry. Most girls are trapped in teen marriages because their parents used them to deepen chisiki or usebele,” says Moyo.
So common is the tendency of sharing girls in Mzimba where parents propose girls for marriage on behalf of their children working in South Africa.
The tragedy with prearranged marriages—be it chisiki or kutomera—is that it objectifies girls into a currency of some sort, makes them brides at a tender age and deprives them the right to decide when and who to marry.
In Moyo’s setting, 10 girls drop out of school due to early marriages every year.
In an interview, Chipapa Primary School head teacher Esther Chavula attributed the loss to poverty as well as pressure from parents and peers.
“The number of teen pregnancies and marriages used to be very high, but has been going down since mother groups—trained by Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom)—started lobbying against harmful practices,” said the teacher.
She reckons the volunteers visit the school three times a month to interact with the girls. They also conduct home visits to encourage dropouts to return to school.
“Through this, two girls have left marriage and returned to school,” she said.
Through their inroads, Moyo and her colleagues have compiled a dossier of reasons some girls end up in marriage prematurely. These include childish perception of marriage as a rose tree without thorns, peer pressure, lack of mentors and role models, failure to appreciate the importance of education as well as escape from poverty and ill-treatment, especially for those that are orphaned.
At a training organised by Creccom with funding from the Swedish arm of Plan International, the women outlined the importance of school inside out—saying dropping out is like jumping from a frying pan into the fire.
“School is more than learning to read and write,” said Esther Chirwa of Matuli Mothers Group.
In her words, experience has shown that girls who stay longer in school “grow up to become self-reliant—for education is the only way a girl can develop her life, family, community and country without even relying on a man.”
By contrast, girls who drop out of school due to teen marriage and pregnancies have a high likelihood of experiencing birth complications, worsening poverty and gender-based abuse.
Yet Chisiki is just one of the cultural practices conspiring against girls chances of staying in school and marching on until they get into the corridors of higher learning.
Chirwa delved deeper into the reasoning behind the hideous side of such practices as Chisiki: “Some girls end up in pre-arranged marriages because their parents want grandchildren or a bride price.
“Most parents keep boys in school while rushing daughters into marriage. They think: ‘What good can come from girls. They look at girls as cows, a source of lobola.”
At a time one out of two women aged 20-24 admit marrying before their 18th birthday, some people in the rural setting seem to know that girls are not brides. They say this is derailing global efforts towards gender equality as well as empowerment of women and girls.
“Nearly all parents want their children to marry good suitors. But when girls marry young, they are at risk of early pregnancies, birth complications, illiteracy and poverty,” she says.
Ensuring mothers’ ties do not become their daughters’ dungeons could be a vital step towards ending the listed dangers. Girls are too precious to be exchanged like goods.