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Condemned to poverty

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Chipiliro Nyoni, an 11-year-old girl lives with her uncle MacDonald Matewere, a tobacco tenant in Rumphi who came from Thyolo last tobacco season.

She rarely attends classes at Bembe Primary School because she spends most of her time in the field.

Deep within the little girl’s soul is a future nurse.

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One Wednesday morning, I followed her to Chisinde Village within Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe in Rumphi West, at an estate which is close to Nyika National Park.

As learners were on holiday, I found Chipiliro weeding tobacco on her apportioned area.

Matewere says that is what his boss demands.

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“What happens is that when you have children who are in school, you ask for permission from the boss, allowing you to send children to school. However, many bosses give us a deaf ear when you dare to tell them. They want our children to work in the field because they argue that they feed the whole family to work in the field,” he says.

“Due to our poverty, we do not argue. We do not have courage to report even to the police because we fear they can chase us and lose payment of part of the work,” he says.

From Rumphi West, I travelled 20 kilometres to the northern part of the district.

As I crossed Lunyina River, I came across Richard and Peter Ngwira who do not know their age.

From the look of their faces, they could be in the range of 11 to 13 years old.

Their father Boston Ngwira has been a tenant for six years. All along, he has been hoping from one estate to the other.

It was around 11 am and Richard and Peter were busy watering tobacco nurseries.

Asked on the progress of their education at the nearest Kanyerere Primary School, the boys did not mince words, saying they do attend only when free.

“We go to school when the boss is not around. During harvesting period, we completely stop attending classes. This is the time when the boss spends most of his time at the field. They think we can be stealing tobacco,” Richard narrates while looking at the road where the boss parks his vehicle.

Their teacher Aggrey Kachali says over 100 learners drop out of school every year, especially during harvesting and grading time.

He says it is difficult for teachers to monitor the performance of tenants’ children because most of the time they are home.

He says it is sad that some of these children are intelligent but their future looks doomed despite having potential in their education.

“It is normal here that children drop out of school, especially those coming from the estates. We can say that education is not their priority but working is the fields. This has been reported to the Ministry of Labour and we do not know when this will be stopped,” Kachali says.

At Chozoli Primary School in Rumphi Central, the Head teacher Oscar Mwakwawa says many learners do not go further with their education.

“You know that Ministry of Education introduced code numbers to the learners. Now these learners go back to their places of origin or other estates without getting school transfers that include code numbers. As a result, they are not allowed to continue with their education where ever they go. Others got married prematurely,” Mwakwawa says.

As testate owners admit stopping the children going to school, they also push blame to the tenants that they are yet to appreciate the importance of education over fieldwork.

Stella Kawonga is an estate owner and employs four families.

She says the two sides share the blame.

“The problem is that when you employ a big family, you spend a lot feeding them. Sometimes we allow children to go to school, however some tenants deliberately stop their children from going to school because they want to increase workforce.

“But we cannot rule out that some bosses do not allow their tenants to send children to school. Farming is business and people are supposed to work for the food,” Kawonga argues.

Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe says he is aware about child labour in tobacco fields but says the absence of the by-laws restricting bosses and tenants is fuelling the problem.

Chikulamayembe says it is high time children were kept in school all the time.

He says abject poverty in the area is the major contributing factor to child labour.

“The problem is how we run our country. People are poor. The rich are very powerful over the poor.”

“However, we know that due to the absence of the by-laws, the problem is deepening its own roots. I am therefore saying I will engage my subject on how best to arrest the problem so that whenever we find such cases, people should be summoned to pay a goat and other livestock,” Chikulamayembe says.

Civil society groups in Rumphi say introducing more projects to civic-educate both famers and tenants on child labour and education can help to change the current situation.

Vice-Chairperson of Rumphi Civil Society Network Flument Mkinga says Youth Net and Counselling introduced a project civic-educating people on child labour in Mwazisi Area to arrest the problem but it did not yield huge impact because the district is big.

“NGOs need support to fight the problem. Remember many of these children are from Central and Southern regions. Therefore, if we keep remain slient, we are killing education in the country,” Mkinga says.

Employers Consultative Association of Malawi Programmes Officer Emmanuel Magomera believes the tenancy labour system should be abolished.

Magomero says the association is ready to ensure that the transition after eliminating the tenancy labour system is smooth.

However, government believes amending Employment Act of 2000 to accommodate wage bill system can arrest the problem.

Ministry of Labour Henry Mussa says the current situation for tenants is thangata which was happening during colonial rule.

“We have to look whether to maintain tenancy labour system or to abolish completely. Once we abolish it, we will go back to the normal wage bill system. The current situation is encouraging child labour system which also affects children education. We also see human trafficking whose source is tenancy labour system,” Mussa says.

Implementation of programmes and projects in time remains a challenge in the country; hence, the future of thousands of children remains in shambles.

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