Two years ago, Brenda Mkandawire was staring a bleak future with a baby bulge to nurse. The pregnancy forced her out of school in Mangochi and returned to Usisya in Nkhata Bay to rise from “shattered dreams”.
“My future was torn apart. I was aged 17 when I gave birth last year. On May 1 [the International Labour Day], I was in labour pains despite being too young to raise a baby,” she recounts.
Brenda married a man four years older. She personifies the story of nearly half of Malawian girls. According to the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, 47 percent of women marry before the legal marriageable age of 18 and a third get pregnant during adolescence.
But she is on the mend. Last year, she went back to school. The Form Three student at Usisya Community Day Secondary School also joined a tailoring group of 20 who fashion different garments to overcome poverty and hunger worsened by climate change.
In the cassava-growing area with postcard views of Lake Malawi, rains have become unpredictable, crop yield and fish catches are falling, and the population is rising rapidly. Visitors are no longer welcomed by widespread sights and aroma of soaked tubers and fish drying in the sun.
For Brenda, it was not easy to raise a child.
She recounts: “When I arrived from Mangochi, I realised that Usisya had changed tremendously. The mountains had lost trees, rains were erratic, hailstorms had become common, crops were wilting due to prolonged drought and fishers were coming home with empty boats despite going deep into the lake.”
“So, I joined the tailoring group because I was struggling to feed and clothe my child. We used to have one meal a day, just lunch. We couldn’t afford soap. I had to do something about it.”
Brenda and her colleagues received a two-month training in tailoring as part of Adapt Plan, a national initiative funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environment Facility to build rural communities’ resilience to climate change.
Every month, she receives about K30 000 after selling the clothes they churn out. In fact, most of her schoolmates’ uniforms are her offerings.
From the proceeds of the group trained by the Environmental Affairs Department, she has recapitalised her mother’s business. The mother-of-five orders usipa fish in neighbouring villages for sale in Lilongwe.
“When the business collapsed, mom was struggling to raise my siblings, my baby and me. So, I revived it and she has bought bricks to construct a bigger three-bedroomed house. I also bought eight goats. When they multiplied, I sold some to buy basic needs. The animals also provide manure for our degraded fields,” she says.
The tailors have formed a village savings group. They put together their savings and share low-interest loans for businesses.
“Presently, we have K423 000 in our strongbox,” says chairperson Njaku Thindwa. “This isn’t small change to us. It keeps our families going while many people complain about hunger and poverty.
“We’ll need it in difficult times. Besides, we stopped raiding the mountains for charcoal and firewood. We can afford basics and assets without felling trees.”
Mbwana Area Development Committee secretary Raphael Longwe calls for greater investment in strengthening Malawians’ resilient to climate change.
“Both fishers and farmers have been hit severely by climate change. The lake catch is dwindling and boats coming ashore seldom sag under the weight of fish. The charcoal producers need sustainable alternatives. Lucky are those trained in tailoring, baking, poultry and livestock businesses,” he states.
Nkhata Bay district environmental officer Owen Chikoti is happy that simple strategies such as tailoring, bakery and animal husbandry seen in Usisya, beekeeping and banana production happening in T/A Timbiri as well as irrigation farming and forest management entrenched in T/A Kabunduli are improving livelihoods of vulnerable communities in the lakeshore districts hills and valleys.
“Some onlookers misconstrue Adapt Plan as an economic empowerment project, but it shows the interventions are really helping communities adapt to climate change. People have improved incomes and food supply to keep them going when climate shocks strike,” he says.
But Brenda is worried with continued deforestation.
Facing the bare hills almost parallel to the shoreline, she says: “The trees are going one by one as people search for charcoal and firewood for cooking and processing fish. This is why we are having scanty rainfall and rainwater running off the ground easily wash away the fertile soils we need to harvest more, and the lake is being silted. Life will be harder.”