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Trodden paths to babies’ graves

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By Alick Ponje:

AMONG A FEW HEALTH WORKERS AT LULANGA HEALTH CENTRE — Sichinga

A small mound of red earth covering the body of an hour-old baby and the red roses on its top are still fresh in the shadows of towering trees which mitigate the sweltering heat typical of Mangochi.

The setting is a babies’ graveyard overlooking a range of bare and desiccated hills in Sub-Traditional Authority (STA) Lulanga in the lakeshore district’s North-East.

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Women, about 10 of them, walk quietly into the burial ground, the noise of their feet cracking dry leaves startling rodents and birds out of their habitats.

One of them is carrying a dead body, firmly trapped to her back. It is a scene playing out frequently in this part of the world where children as young as 12 years fall pregnant.

Only two days ago, the women were here—in the gloomy place—burying a stillborn baby that, among superstitious populations, seems to have invited another to lie beside it.

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“These deaths are strange. They are becoming too common,” a woman whispers to me as we watch, from a distance, mothers carry out their brief entombment ritual in the quiet yard.

The bereaved mother, a 16-year-old girl, is not part of this group of women among whom are those that have trekked to this solemn site more than four times the past three weeks.

The complications that led to the loss of the new life left her in a precarious condition. She was moved from the labour ward to the ‘female ward’.

There are some who talk of lakeside communities in Mangochi as some lethargic societies still stuck in the past with stubbornness and tradition.

But within that reflection is also the reality that the communities have their time so condensed that a lot of histories happen in one generation.

“I know that, as population grows, deaths also increase. But the deaths of babies are just too much. It is like someone has cast a spell through this community,” the woman laments.

But the situation at Lulanga Health Centre seems to offer a clue to the ‘mysterious’ deaths.

STA LULANGA— Girls are betrothed to older men

Day in, day out, young girls stumble into the maternity ward of the strained facility, seeking to bring life into the world—most of them, however, not physiologically and emotionally prepared to.

The facility does not have a running ambulance. In cases of emergency, they either call for one from Makanjira Health Centre, some 15 kilometres away, or Mangochi District Hospital, some 130 kilometres away.

In worst scenarios, they take the risk of assisting patients and, sometimes, lose them.

“More children are coming to the health centre to deliver. This shows that more children are getting pregnant,” a nurse-midwife at the facility, Victoria Sichinga, explains.

She and her fellow healthcare workers at Lulanga Health Centre have dedicated their lives to the service of humanity—to let the afflicted smile again and expectant woman carry their living babies.

But it does not always happen. Naturally, women’s bodies sometimes fail to sustain lives growing in them to the every end if they are not mature enough.

The problem is aggravated by inadequate resources for caring for the sick.

“Truth is resources will never be enough. We must all join hands in sensitising our people to the dangers of young girls getting pregnant. Some of them lose their babies or their own lives or both because their bodies are not mature enough,” Sichinga says.

Defeating the problems is, however, an uphill task in a community that still massages the tradition that young girls can be affianced to older men against their will.

Their parents treat them like some objects which, at certain points, should be sold off. So the girls live miserable lives, haunted by what they would eventually be doing with men they never choose.

“Fishers also lure young girls with money who then either drop out of school to get married or engage in unprotected sex and fall pregnant,” Sichinga explains.

In recent times, she has noted some improvement in the number of young people accessing products with which to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies.

Still, the progress is suboptimal. Thus, teen pregnancies continue to thrive in a location which also has few organisations working to clamp down on the problem.

On the other hand, while dozens of children, especially girls, are being withdrawn from marriages with some of them returning to school, most of them live with permanent scars of the pain they endure in the unwanted unions.

There even are parents who block their children from returning to school after their marriages are nullified.

Some traditional leaders also reportedly connive with parents to illegally bless teen marriages in their communities.

STA Lulanga claims that is no longer happening in his area of jurisdiction.

But several scenarios at the only health centre here reveal a perfect antithesis of the claim. Girls as young as 15 years are wobbling into the maternity ward of the small facility, heavily pregnant.

“I dropped out of school and got married after falling pregnant. My husband and I were both in primary school,” an innocent-looking girl, who has just given birth at Lulanga Health Centre, states.

And, in a way, STA Lulanga accepts that the battle against teenage pregnancies and child marriages is far from being won.

He imagines presiding over villages with well-educated and healthy people who contribute to the development of their communities where traces of poverty stick out like sore thumbs.

“It pains me a lot that we, in this party of Malawi, are often perceived as illiterate. Teen pregnancies and child marriages are contributing to this. We must change,” the chief says.

He knows that men stealthily strike deals with young girls’ parents to marry the little ones against their will.

“They do that even while far away such as in South Africa. The girls are betrothed to older men and receive gifts from the men. After that, they no longer find school attractive,” STA Lulanga admits.

Together with traditional rulers under his authority, they came up with bylaws which proscribe marriages before one turns 18.

Those who spurn the regulations— both heads of villages and parents— are slapped with penances of various degrees.

“For village heads who allow children in their area to marry, we even reach the extent of stripping them of the authority,” STA Lulanga says.

But, under the cover of darkness, some stubborn parents and local leaders still send girls away, to live with men they barely know.

The girls are systematically excluded from what they are supposed to enjoy as children. They are forced to give birth when they are not ready. Some experience stillbirths and live with permanent scars of robbed childhoods.

Their first fruits of the womb are quietly and sombrely carried by older women to babies’ graves with the trodden paths leading there telling tales of communities in need of redemption.

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