By Sam Majamanda:
Matilda Liyaya (not her real name) dropped out of school because she felt her age was not corresponding with the class she was in.
In fact, in Lhomwe culture, when a girl child reaches seven years of age she is ready to go through initiation ceremony known as chinamwali in vernacular.
If, for whatever reasons, the girl’s parents neglect this and she reaches 15 without going through the rite, which is a passage from childhood to adulthood, she can be called all sorts of demeaning names.
For decades, initiation camps have been a medium for instilling cultural values in younger generations of the Lhomwe and Yao tribes among others.
Matilda’s mother blames this tradition for dislodging her daughter from school since, after going through the initiation about a decade ago, her daughter went berserk.
“In the past, children were taught things that were not commensurate with their ages.
“There was a lot of vulgar and foul language in the initiation syllabus, something that led most children astray,” says Matilda’s mother who prefers to be called Nanjelema.
At 13, Matilda was taught how a woman is supposed to ‘satisfy’ a man in bed and was advised to undergo ‘cleansing’ soon after leaving the camp to ‘fend off any misfortunes’.
Cleansing in Lhomwe and other cultures is a figurative speech which means a girl that has undergone initiation has to sleep with a man (preferably older than her) to practise what she has learnt to avoid being cursed.
Amos Kolovi of Bona Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Jenala in Phalombe says the superstitious belief led to the destruction of many girls in the area and across the Lhomwe and Yao cultures.
Kolovi says, until the early 2000s, the belief was so overpowering that no-one could fault the practice.
“In those days, when one stood up to protest cultural beliefs and practices, the whole community would rise against them because they were considered as enemies of what we adopted from our ancestors,” Kolovi explains.
History of the Lhomwe and Yao of Phalombe and Mulanje holds that the belief derailed the development of their areas since most children (particularly girls) were denied education – a basic human right.
Matilda exemplifies this kind of loss considering that she fell pregnant and consequently got expelled from school a few months after undergoing chinamwali.
“When she came back from the camp, she went behind my back to fulfil what the Nankungwi advised her.
“She knew I would not entertain the idea but, I guess, she did it because children in our society take what the counsellors say as gospel truth,” Nanjelema explains.
She says, after the sex debut, her daughter went wild; going out with young men in the village, probably in an attempt to show off her acquired skills from the camp.
As Nanjelema’s version of the story goes, it did not take long before Matilda reaped the fruits of her deeds. She became pregnant barely 10 months after the initiation.
“My mother was disturbed and I also regretted it big time. This was the time I started realising that the lessons at the camp were bad.
“They taught us about sex but never touched on issues of conception and prevention of STIs and HIV,” says Matilda, now a mother to two girls, Chisomo, nine, and Amina, four.
Maltida stayed at home for two years, raising her first child and, when she went back to school after three years, her performance had nose-dived.
She, therefore, dropped out once again because she felt too old for that lower class besides the dismal performance.
Matilda’s case mirrors those of many others in cultures that initiate girls at tender age.
In this respect, Phalombe District Social Welfare Office initiated a tailor-made intervention aimed at bringing together all initiation counsellors with their traditional leaders to discuss how to conduct chinamwali without violating children’s rights.
Child Protection Officer at Phalombe District Social Welfare Office Emmerson Gama says the initiative, which was embraced by the stakeholders, has turned a new leaf.
Education, health and modified moral values are now accommodated in cultural initiation ceremonies.
“We jointly evaluated the initiation processes and removed all lessons deemed not suitable for children.
“In the end, we drafted in some lessons meant to encourage the children to pursue education, healthy living and responsible citizenship,” Gama explains.
He says, since the initiative was introduced, counsellors have been at the best of their behaviours with some even reporting colleagues who go against set bylaws to chiefs.
“We set by-laws that clearly prohibit traditional counsellors from teaching children obscene lessons.
“The by-laws also encourage every counsellor to be registered with the angaliba and anankungwi associations available at every traditional authority to ensure adherence to the by-laws,” Gama explains.
Weighing in on the initiative, Group Village Head Chimombo under T/A Jenala acknowledges that sanity has returned to cultural practices with the introduction of the associations of cultural groupings.
The associations, which are answerable to traditional leaders at various levels, also act as watchdogs for non-designated traditional counsellors who come to practice in areas without following proper procedures, Chimombo says.
“When setting up initiation camps, we conduct impromptu visits to check on the conditions of the camps.
“We agreed that children should not sleep in the cold, on an empty stomach or bathe cold water at the river, let alone being circumcised by counsellors but by trained health personnel,” he explains.
Chimombo further says, in the past, some of the practices that were happening in camps caused serious health and moral problems to children.
A local non-governmental organisation operating in T/A Jenala in the area of education, Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children (Cavwoc), appreciates the impact that the chinamwali cultural practice has had on education.
Cavwoc Field Officer in Phalombe, Linda Alimoso, hails the initiative. “We have been implementing a three-year project in the area; whereby, for the first time, we have seen a lot of positive outcomes after engaging the counsellors.
“These people command a lot of respect from the children, which makes them a relevant group to work with in bringing the desired change in children,” Alimoso says.
Meanwhile, one thing that remains a notable fact is the need for more capacity building among the custodians of culture so that the practices are in tandem with modern day requirements.
One of the counsellors, Lucius Katema, from Mkhwayi Village reaffirms the association’s commitment to work in line with government and non-governmental organisations’ guidelines.
“We have accepted the fact that we have an important role to play in helping government and its partners in getting rid of harmful cultural practices for the sake of a bright future for our children,” Katema says.