At 16, Tandu is well familiar with what it takes to be a mother. Of course, her lessons to get that experience were no stroll in the park.
Now, she wishes she could twist back the hands of time and remake her decision to stay away from anything that would damage her future.
The teen mother is a fourth born in a family of six and a Standard Eight dropout.
She says her mother could no longer afford to provide for her school necessities and that the poverty pushed her out of school.
“Eventually, I started dating a 27-year-old carpenter. At least, he was giving me hope that life would be better. We stayed for about six months in the love affair. I got pregnant; unfortunately, the man dumped me.
“I was very young and I remember my mother pursued the issue further to organisations that could help pin the man down, but it was too late. He was nowhere to be seen. The baby is now three months old,” she says.
Tandu, from Isyalikira in Traditional Authority Mwaulambia, aspires to become a teacher.
She feels shy, humiliated and used when she sees girls of her age in school uniforms, proudly carrying books and other learning materials.
“When the baby grows up, I will surely go back to school. I just hope some well-wishers will help me with finances because my mother cannot manage. She runs a very small business that only helps us with daily food,” she says.
Close to her home is Kawale Full Primary School just outside Chitipa Town, off the road to Karonga.
It is around 2:30 in the afternoon and most classes at the school have been dismissed for the next day. Senior classes resume at 4:30pm for two lessons before learners proceed for night studies.
One of the school’s teachers, Ruth Nkhoma, says they rarely sleep as even at home they are busy preparing for the next day’s lessons.
This is one of a few electrified primary schools in the border district which is also Malawi’s northernmost. It has hardworking teachers who are also inspiring their learners.
The school has high aspirations to make sure girls remain in school, do well and proceed to the next level of education.
“First of all, we have a changing room and we have water at the campus. When a girl is menstruating, she can clean herself right here. All we want is that they should not miss classes.
“Apart from that, at the end of every term, we provide gifts to the girls who have done exceptionally well in examinations.
The idea is to motivate them. Sometimes we have also come across girls who passed well in the primary school national examinations but they don’t have money. As teachers and parents, we mobilise resources so that the student continues with education,” Nkhoma explains.
But the school is not without challenges in its efforts to make sure girls learn. The fact that it is in a district forked between two countries of Zambia and Tanzania makes girls vulnerable to men who lure them with money.
“Men from Tanzania or Zambia come to Malawi with a lot of money; we call them Shillings. When these girls see the money, they are easily deceived. The only option that comes through their mind is to go with the men to Tanzania or Zambia to work for or marry them,” she laments.
According to Nkhoma, sometimes there is tug of war between teachers and some parents who would want to marry their girls off.
On his part, Senior Chief Kamene in the district says girls lack motivation for them to work hard in school.
“There are few or no role models at all especially in my area. They don’t have people to motivate them. We have also seen that some parents barely pay attention to their children’s education. They have no interest even when their children drop out of school or shun lessons,” he says.
He said as a traditional leader, he uses every opportunity that comes his way, even at funeral ceremonies, to advise his subjects to take care of their children by encouraging them to work hard in school.
The local ruler brings in another factor which he believes is contributing to high school dropout rates in the border district: technology.
It exposes children to a lot of ‘immoral’ materials which they want to try themselves and end up falling in trouble, he says.
He calls for more civic education so that children parry away elements that can endanger their lives and future.
Among those fighting for the future of these children are Mother Groups. They are significantly helping girls to prioritise education, despite that cases of early marriage are still high, according to authorities.
In 2019, the District Social Office said about 54 child marriage cases were recorded against 37 that were handled in 2018.
Still, Henry Mshanga, who is Senior Assistant Social Welfare Officer, says they are trying to control the situation.
He says while a community might be aware of an incident where a child was married off, most people do not care about reporting such cases to authorities.
“Currently, we have about 21 child protection workers who are trying to assist communities to understand child rights. We have partners who are also helping us.
“However, there are still more people in communities who choose to be silent when they come across a situation where a child is being married off,” he complains.
Recently, Secretary for Health, Dan Namarika, disclosed that at least 360 children are born every month in Chitipa District.
He said this is a result of, among others things, people being reluctant to embrace family planning and rampant early marriages.