The search is quick and the results are assured. In less than 24 hours, it is over and you can return home with a beautiful wife.
Never mind that you are a stranger who has never set foot on the soil of Mandanda Village, Traditional Authority Kalembo in Malawi’s southern district of Balaka—the results are the same.
So deep-rooted is the culture of marrying off girls in the area that even the unripe 13-year-olds find themselves boarded off to live with men they have never seen before.
And so it was when I went to Kalembo on March 23 2013.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was at the home of Nini Chizimba in search of a wife. Nini greeted me politely and offered me a chair. To make an impression on her, I declined to use the chair.
Well, who does not want a humble man for your sister’s future husband!
Posing as a businessperson based in Blantyre, I told her that I am involved in cross-border trade as I buy merchandise in South Africa and sell it in Malawi.
Meeting the child bride
I said in a week, I would be travelling to South Africa on a business errand, but before I depart, I needed to find a girl to marry.
Some people, I said, had told me that there was a girl in the house who would make an ideal wife for me.
“It’s true that we have such a girl here, but she is at church. Let me talk to her on the issue when she is back,” said Nini.
When I wondered whether the girl, 15-year-old Sophia Vashiko, would accept my marriage proposal as she may want to return to school, Nini said she had doubts that the girl was interested in returning to school. That, as it turned out could not be further from the truth.
“I don’t think she wants to go far with education. Well, I should be honest; I want her to get married so I have someone to depend on. I don’t want her to mess around with men, so I would love if she found a man who would take care of her.
“Let me assure you that you will have her,” she said.
Assured thus, a deal was done. We agreed that I should return between 6am and 7am the following day.
“We normally go to the garden on Sundays, but because of this issue, we will stay home, so you will find us,” she said.
Before I left, Nini asked me about my church, and I responded that I am a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
“Wow! Then we will not have problems because we are all Adventists. Sometimes the issue of religion causes problems in marriage matters,” she said.
At 7:46am on the appointed day, I presented myself before the Chizimba family, eager to see the bride and my future wife.
Nini welcomed and ushered me to a mat at the veranda of the house.
Before long, Sophia materialised from the house and sat at the other end of the mat.
After brief pleasantries, Nini left the place. Now, I sat face-to-face with Sophia. I introduced the issue and asked her whether her sister had told her why I was there.
“Yes, she told me that you came yesterday looking for a girl to marry, but I told her that I don’t want to get married. Er, er, er….there is no particular reason for saying no,” she said.
At this point, Sophia was looking down, her right hand on her mouth.
She could steal glances at me before quickly turning her eyes away. For a while, she kept silent, only nodding and grunting answers to my questions.
Realising that I was making little headway in getting Sophia to embrace the idea, I asked her to inform her sister that I wanted to leave. When Nini came, I told her that Sophia had turned me down.
Angered by her younger sister’s ‘insolence’, Nini said: “Is it true Sophia that you have rejected his proposal? Or, you want more time to think about it? Shyness doesn’t pay. Even myself, when my husband proposed, I did not give him an answer the same day, but deep down my heart, I really wanted to say yes.
“This could be your chance. Where this man is coming from, there are many girls, but he has travelled all the way to come here to look for a girl to marry. You never know what God has in store for you. It could be that God has led him to you,” she said.
Before Sophia could respond, Nini turned to me and said: “Achimwene, [brother] I have all the hope that she will give you the answer you want. I made it crystal clear last night that she should say yes to your proposal. I told her that what I like most about this is that you are both Adventists.”
After taking leave of Nini, I asked Sophia to see me off.
As we walked away, I brought up the issue again. This time, she did not hesitate to say she was ready to be my wife. But she said she wanted to get married in 2020 because she was too young to be a wife.
“I am afraid that I may die while giving birth,” she said.
She also asked me to give her money to buy exercise books and pens to enable her return to school. I promised to give her the money when I return to Balaka to formalise the issue.
Sophia, who lost both parents, said I was not the first man her sister had identified for her to marry. She said two other men came from Blantyre, but she turned them down.
Another of her sisters, who lives at Balaka Boma, also brought her two other men, both of whom, she said, she rejected.
At this point, Sophia said she needed to return home, so we parted ways. Of course, I promised to keep in touch as we move towards our ‘marriage’.
She is looking forward to the day she would be called Mrs Sophia Kabango, which, if her sister’s word is anything to go by, could be very soon, not in 2020 as the future Mrs Kabambo hopes.
Like many other girls in the area, Sophia will have to succumb to the pressures of a society that wants her daughters to become wives even before they become girls.
The cost is huge
Experts say child brides are more likely than unmarried girls to die younger, suffer from health problems, live in poverty and remain illiterate.
Medical experts agree that premature pregnancy puts young girls at risk as child brides almost always bear children before they are physically and emotionally mature. Girls below 15 are five times more likely to die during child birth or pregnancy than older women.
In addition, pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide, according to international studies.
Child marriage is a menace fuelled by poverty, culture, as well as lack of and inadequate formal education.
It is estimated that more than 100 million girls will be married during the next 10 years in the world’s less developed and developing countries, according to the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW).
Southern Asia tops the list with 48 percent—nearly 10 million—of girls being married before the age of 18. In Africa, 42 percent of girls are married before turning 18.
Malawi ranks 17 on the list of African countries where child marriage is rampant, with 46.9 percent of girls married before turning 18, says ICRW.
ICRW says early marriages condemn girls to lives of poverty, ignorance and poor health.
In most areas in Malawi, legal definitions of a child matter less, if at all. For some people, one ceases to be a child after attaining puberty, and marriage becomes the ultimate destination for the child.
Lega marrying age
The country’s Constitution pegs the marriage age at 18, but the same law allows a person between the ages of 15 and 18 to marry with parental consent.
Executive director of child rights advocacy organisation, Eye of the Child, Maxwell Matewere, said Malawi does not have a unified legal definition of a child.
“However, the laws available define and protect a child according to the purpose of that law. If it is elections, then the law would look at a child as person under the age of 18. If it is adoption, the age is 21. For protection from marriage and trafficking as well as labour, it is 16 years.
“Eye of the Child definition of a child is any person who is below the age of 18 years, but Malawi’s child rights framework is characterised by minimum protection for children due to lower age limit for the end of minority.
“Section 23 of the Constitution defines a child as a person under the age of 16 years. Malawi has also recently enacted the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act No 22 of 2010 whose main objective is to consolidate the laws relating to children by making provision for child care, protection, and the administration of child justice. The Act defines a child as a person below the age of 16 years,” said Matewere.
Village head Mathuwa of T/A Sawali in Balaka said the culture of marrying off young girls is pervasive in the area.
Mathuwa said in 2011 he dissolved a marriage involving a 13-year-old girl and a boy aged 16.
“In the past, it was even worse. NGOs have been coming here to fight the problems, but there is little change. We, chiefs, have done all we could to end the practice, but it still persists. We don’t want girls and boys to be forced into marriage before they turn 20. Young people should not be forced into early marriages,” he said.
Village Head Mussa of T/A Kalembo said poverty is the source of the problem.
“The problem is that such marriages do not last here. Besides, the number of needy children is growing,” said Mussa.
Even churches in the district have entered the fray as they seek to put an end to an age-old practice.
Gret Beselemu, director of youth for Ngwengwe Seventh-Day Adventist Church, said the church has been dealing with such issues for a long time.
“We received reports of Sophia’s issue, but we did not intervene because we felt it was a domestic issue. However, we sensitise the community against engaging in the practice,” said Beselemu.
Secretary for Ngwengwe Catholic Church in the area, Stella Ziyabi, said efforts by the church to stop parents from forcing their daughters into early marriages have been blunted by the attitude of the parents who believe they can do as they please with their children.
“Poverty is behind all this. As a church, we continue to engage parents to refrain from forcing their children into early marriages, but the situation is far from improving,” said Ziyabi.
Paul Mutano, head teacher for Ngwengwe Primary School, said early marriages have compromised the future of many girls in the area.
Mutano said the number of girls in standards four, five and six is usually high, but the figure drops from standards seven to eight.
“Most of them fall pregnant, some get married while others drop out because of poverty,” he said.
Mutano said in 2010, the Standard Five class had 71 pupils, most of whom were girls. Today, the class, which is in standard eight, has 13 pupils, nine girls and four boys.
“I have been at this school for three years now, but we have never had more than 15 learners in Standard Eight. The current Standard Seven class has 22 pupils, 13 girls and nine boys, but the figure will invariably go down when they reach Standard Eight,” he said.
“Some girls marry while in Standard Four,” said Mutano, whose school has 743 pupils.
One of those pupils is 16-year-old Marble who dropped out after falling pregnant in 2012.
Marble has a two-month-old child. She said when she was 13, a man, whose age she put at about 30, came to her family to ask for her hand in marriage.
Marble, who lives with her mother following her parents’ divorce, said the man did what is called kutomera, a practice whereby a man pays the family of his future wife something to secure her hand in marriage when the girl reaches the required age.
By doing kutomera, the man commits himself to marrying the girl when time is ripe. After kutomera, the man is not allowed to sleep with the girl until the prescribed time.
Marble said both her and the man’s sides endorsed the idea. At the time, she was in Standard Four. However, when she reached Standard Five, Marble fell pregnant by the man, but to her shock, he bolted.
He is nowhere to be seen today.
“Life is very tough. I have to do piecework to earn something to help the child. I don’t know whether the child’s father will ever return because nobody knows where he is,” said Marble.