Tag: Southern Africa

In 2014, it’s unacceptable for girls in Malawi to be unable to go to school

Every Wednesday, Shakira Yakiti gets together with a group of at-risk girls at the Nampingunja School in the rural Mangochi district of Malawi. Their Girls Club organises home visits to girls who have dropped out of school to get married, works with teenage mothers to encourage them to return to school, interfaces with school headmasters to make sure the returning students are welcomed, and provides social support for girls facing serious challenges in a country where poverty is endemic, secondary school attendance for girls is significantly lower than for boys, and girls routinely get married and have children as teenagers.

Shakira said: “Whenever those girls come back, we sit down as a club to discuss what problems they’re facing and what problems caused them to drop out of school. Sometimes we even raise money to help them out if the problem is poverty, so they can buy soap and the like. We are always proud when we see a girl coming back to school.”

Shakira is a force of nature, slim and poised and speaking with the easy eloquence of a seasoned politician. When I met her, she was talking to a team of aid workers and visiting journalists jamming microphones in her face and jotting down her every word. She handled our questions fluidly and coherently, providing incisive answers and encouraging the members of the Girls Club to share their stories. As we left, we all agreed that her grassroots organising skills and her persuasiveness indicate a fine future in politics.

Did I mention she’s 13?

I met girls like Shakira across Malawi: bright, resilient, and working hard in their communities to make life better for women and girls. I also met girls who are hanging on by a thread, desperate to go to school but facing enormous barriers. There was Ethel, whose parents were too poor to buy soap for her to wash her clothes, let alone pay for her school uniform (the Girls Club got her soap and encouraged her to come back to school; Ethel is now enrolled).

There was Chrissa, who got pregnant as a teenager and had twins. The man who impregnated her is 21 and left her and the children for a more lucrative job in South Africa. She came back to school, despite being ostracised by some of her peers. “I don’t mind if they’ll be laughing at me”, she said. “I’m going to continue with learning.”

There was Christie, whose mother abandoned the family, leaving Christie to raise her six siblings alone and in extreme poverty. Her only way out was marriage at 14 and a child the same year. She dropped out of school after eighth grade, and wants to go back, but can’t quite find a way.

They face barriers that are cultural as well as practical. When family income is limited, paying for a male child’s schooling can seem like a better investment than paying for a girl’s. Cultural norms promote early marriage, and a lack of access to comprehensive sexual health education and contraception means pregnancy is common among young women – nearly two-thirds of women in Malawi have given birth by their 20th birthday. Adolescent pregnancy poses serious risks to the mother and the child: 65% of fistula patients developed the condition as adolescents, and infant deaths in the first month of life are 50-100% higher when the mother is under 20 than if she’s older. Girls who get pregnant are more likely to get married, and once a girl is married she quits school.

 Secondary school girls in Malawi. (Pic: AFP)
Secondary school girls in Malawi. (Pic: AFP)

Girls also face the practical challenges of getting to school in a country with a largely rural population. At another school in the Mangochi district, headmistress Molombo Basuro said some students walk as far as 16 km each way to a schoolhouse where there are no chairs, not enough exercise books, no electricity, a limited water supply and as many as 65 students to a class. With no boarding facilities, 32 girls who live far away currently sleep in one of the classrooms.

Seemingly simple problems become substantial barriers for girls’ education. Lack of access to soap and sanitary pads means girls miss school when they’re menstruating. No chairs make it harder to sit comfortably and focus on the lesson instead of modesty when your school uniform is a dress.

But the girls keep showing up, in large part thanks to innovative efforts led by community members and the girls themselves, funded mostly by international aid organisations. Some of the girls at Headmistress Basuro’s school have bikes, purchased by a joint United Nations program carried out by Unicef. The bikes mean the girls not only get to school faster, but safer – walking for kilometres along rural roads puts them at risk for harassment and sexual assault. Other Unicef funds go to things like soap, sanitary pads, school fees, supplies and exercise books.

Thanks to endemic corruption, though, these girls who are doing everything in their power to stay in school may see the few resources they have stretched even further, or taken away all together.

Cash Gate
The problem is a scandal called Cash Gate, where Malawian officials are accused of plundering millions of dollars in aid money from a country where 40% of the budget comes from donor funds. In response, many big Western donors are withholding aid until the Malawian government can prove that donor funds will be used appropriately. It’s a harsh decision, and not necessarily unfair – why funnel millions into a system that has proven itself to be corrupt?

And yet it’s girls like Shakira, Chrissa and Christie who will lose out.

There’s no easy solution. The Malawian government has a series of options, including allowing international auditors to evaluate the scope and depth of the corruption. Donors, though, have to make tough decisions: keep giving aid and essentially fund corrupt officials with little consequence, or pull aid with the knowledge that the ones who suffer most are the many Malawians who need basics like health care and education.

Nearly three-quarters of Malawians are extremely poor, living on less than $1.25 (US) per day. Over and over, the girls and women I spoke with emphasised that the most effective programs were the most local – the ones that were developed with leadership from girls, community members, health care providers and grassroots organisers, not outsiders parachuting in. But they need money to be implemented effectively.

The Malawian government needs to step up, and allow international auditors full access for an investigation. But donors shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And girls like Shakira, polished and intelligent as they may be, are still children – babies deserving support and protection.

Jill Filipovic for the Guardian

What Mandela means to me, a Zimbabwean

“S’khokhele Nkomo, s’khokhele Nkomo! S’khokhele Mandela, s’khokele Lorryhlahla!” (Lead us Nkomo, lead us! Lead us Mandela, lead us Rolihlahla!) we sang at the top of our squeaky voices. Up and down the maize field he made us march, brandishing our little hoes for Kalashnikovs. Our commander was my eldest brother Jabu and he did not tolerate slackers. No raspberry drink or a piece of bread for lazy “gorillas”, which is how we pronounced guerrillas. This was the early 1970s in our village in the then Selukwe District of Rhodesia. My young siblings and I had no idea who Joshua Nkomo and Nelson Mandela were, but they sounded and felt extremely important to big brother and our mum. She was an extremely shy woman. In fact, this was the only time I remember her ululating in public.

After the umpteenth denial of my favourite drink, I just had to ask: “But who is this Mandela? Isn’t Nkomo what we call our cattle?”

The shock on Jabu’s face was indescribable. How could I not know? These two men were going to free us. Free all of us black people.

“From what?” my junior primary school-going-self was not bound by anything.

“From all of this! All of this!”

His arm swept across the entire universe in front of us. I nodded my not-so-small head. That sounded simple enough. If anyone could liberate me from hoeing the maize, carrying firewood each Thursday and fetching water from the brook too early in the morning in June, then that was alright. Nkomo and Mandela peered at me every day from Jabu’s little notebook. They had to be kept hidden in case the police and our father discovered them. Father did not like any talk of politics in our family.

Then vice-president Joshua Nkomo greets Nelson Mandela on his arrival in Harare on February 13 1997. (Reuters)
Then vice-president Joshua Nkomo greets Nelson Mandela on his arrival in Harare on February 13 1997. (Reuters)

Forward to the early 1980s. I was now in secondary school. The name Nkomo had become synonymous with political ‘dissidents’; bad losers who wanted to prevent the rest of Zimbabwe from enjoying their independence. The mass media said Nkomo was bad, our lecturers at university also said he was a dissident. Jabu had already given up asking Nkomo to lead us anywhere, and was focusing on his football career instead. It was said Nkomo was not the one who had led our armed struggle for independence and freed us Zimbabweans, but the other one. I had never heard of this other one in the 1970s. We certainly didn’t sing about him on mummy’s maize patch.

Mandela was still around though, this time in colour! There was his smiley face, with the trademark dharakishon (hair parting), on his head. I learnt he was in prison. Suffering to free the people of South Africa. A few dozen of them were in my class at the University of Zimbabwe. They told me their stories. Sechaba’s father had been killed in prison, Linda’s mum beaten to death after a demonstration, Hlubi’s brother believed kidnapped and or killed by the police.

I cried each time I watched a play put on by the drama department. I read the news, books and watched television shows about Mandela and the other freedom fighters all for myself. This time I could toyi-toyi with meaning, not just because I was afraid of missing out on raspberry juice. We marched in solidarity with the youth of South Africa on June 16. Mandela’s birthday was a key feature on my calendar. On Africa Day we held vigils in Africa Unity Square in Harare. On October 7 1988, I almost lost a limb pushing and shoving to get into the stadium for a human rights concert held to call for an end to apartheid. Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour performed. I voraciously read every speech and watched every bit of footage of Mandela’s wife, Winnie. I liked her wigs, which looked exactly like my mum’s. She spoke fearlessly. Beautifully. I admired her. Sometimes I forgot about Mandela; Winnie represented him.

We Zimbabweans closely followed the story of Mandela and apartheid, not just out of neighbourly curiosity. Zimbabwe supported the anti-apartheid movement, provided support and arms and gave refuge to ANC members. Just as others had done for us. As a result, there were several fatal bombings in Harare in the late 80s by South Africa’s apartheid government.

Mandela no longer felt as remote to me as he had back in my childhood. At last I began to appreciate what my brother had tried to teach me all those years ago. I rooted for Mandela and his people to achieve what we had in 1980. He was going to lead ‘us’, to freedom, and I felt led by him. The South was no longer another country.

He was released from prison on February 11 1990, a day before my 25th birthday. There he was, just as I had imagined him, his face still as kind as I remembered. Winnie was at his side, in that wig! I did no work that day or the few days after that. I was free, too.

Nelson Mandela and his then wife Winnie raise their fists upon his release from prison on February 11 1990. (AFP)
Nelson Mandela and his then wife Winnie raise their fists upon his release from prison on February 11 1990. (AFP)

Fast forward to the 21st century. Nkomo has been dead since 1999, removed from this earth and largely airbrushed from history. He only gets dredged out when we need to use his name for present expediency.

And now, Mandela is gone. Each time I saw him and other older freedom struggle leaders of his generation on television, I simply thought of my dad who is now in his 80s. I wanted to rush and give them their bedroom slippers, a nice dressing gown, and a warm cup of cocoa. I am sure Mandela got that when he retired – unlike Nkomo who worked till he dropped, and others who don’t seem like they are ready for that warm cocoa yet.

I wish I had had the chance to sit on a cushion at Mandela’s feet and ask him: The Queen or Mrs Thatcher? What was with that hair cut? Boxing, seriously man? Did you miss Winnie? Otis Redding or Don Williams? Tambo or Sisulu, and don’t give me the political speak, which one did you really like? It would be just an ordinary conversation with an ordinary man who had extraordinary experiences.

I will always remember his kind face and his good leadership. (Reuters)
I will always remember his kind face and his good leadership. (Reuters)

I think of Mandela, Nkomo and other men of their generation as reminders of where we have come from. I celebrate them, their often forgotten wives and their children. These men embodied our long and painful liberation struggles. They brought us this far, they’ve had their time. Mandela gracefully handed over the reins to the next generation and stepped away from public life over a decade ago, yet he will remain in my memory and consciousness forever. He gave me, a black Zimbabwean and African woman, something to hold on to; to believe in. He was a good leader. I will always remember him and speak of him in this way to my granddaughters when they grow up; casting him not as a man with mythical or saintly qualities, but a mere mortal like the rest of us. And I’m sure they won’t raise a quizzical eyebrow and ask: “Are you sure, Gogo? Did he really do all those things or are you exaggerating?”

I was freed from carrying firewood and fetching water from miles away and, thankfully, from toyi-toying on that barren maize patch! Thirty and some years later, the blood still rushes through my head each time I watch old footage of “gorillas” singing liberation songs. I get goose bumps when they sing “Sikhokele Nkomo! Sikhokele Rolihlahla”. When I sing it now, it’s still “Lorryhlala”, deliberately, for a good giggle. I doubt Mandela would mind.

Everjoice J. Win is a Zimbabwean feminist and writer.

Linguistic adventures: Learning Mandarin in Botswana

My friend Sedimale recently signed up for Chinese language classes at the University of Botswana, figuring it would be an interesting challenge to add another language to her multilingual ambitions. “I might even wind up as a Mandarin teacher, go on a work exchange programme and move to China and find myself a nice Chinese husband,” she told me half-jokingly. Several lessons later, she seems to be having the time of her life. Apart from the empowering experience of learning a new language, she has made new friends from diverse backgrounds and her world has opened to a different culture.

A decade ago no one would have imagined that Mandarin Chinese would be a popular language to learn in Botswana. Nowadays it is fast gaining popularity in urban areas, with both the young and old vying for a place in the evening and weekend classes at the University of Botswana in Gaborone.

Due to China’s evident growing economic influence and the large number of Chinese in the country,  many Batswana are opting to learn more about the country, its culture, history, lifestyle and of course language, especially as there are many opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges.

(Pic: Flickr / ilamont.com)
(Pic: Flickr / ilamont.com)

Botswana and China share good economic ties and a cordial friendship. China is Botswana’s third largest trade partner and one of the country’s big diamond consumers. In 2009, it was an estimated that about 6000 Chinese have made Botswana their home, with most of them settled in urban areas where they operate their businesses from. The Chinese are major players in the local construction, manufacturing and service provision industries.  In the past, China, through the local embassy, has constructed two primary schools and a multi-purpose youth centre. Earlier this year, China donated R100-million to Botswana for the implementation of various projects. One of them is the Community Natural Resource Management programme, which offers community-based organisations training, mentoring and coaching on resource management.

But away from official visits and trade agreements, the ties between the locals and the Chinese who live here aren’t that clear. There’s often a communication breakdown as many Batswana are not fluent in English, while the Chinese here only speak Mandarin. The language barriers have made it difficult for both parties to establish friendships and easy relations. Although they are often accused of selling cheap products, most of the Chinese-owned stores target low-income earners, and prices are often linked to the quality of the sold product. Even neighbouring Zimbabweans who work and plight their trade in the country regularly purchase goods from the Chinese stores here to re-sell at home.

There’s no shopping complex or mall in Gaborone that does not have a Chinese store. Most of them sell everything from green tea to hair pieces, clothes, shoes, bags and beauty products. There’s a local joke that the only thing you can’t get from a Chinese store is a baby!  The prices are usually low but bargaining is the order of the day. I have often bought my son toy cars and dresses for myself after negotiating a discount of 5 to 10 bucks per item.

The Confucius Institute at the University of Botswana, where Mandarin lessons are taught, opened in 2009. It now has 10 teachers, several volunteers and over 2000 students. To date, it has awarded 60 scholarships and a further 260 are expected to be rolled out between 2013 and 2016. Chen Zhilu, director of the institute, has confirmed the high demand for Chinese language lessons. Chinese is also a language option in the university’s BA Humanities programme and is one of the 25 top-ranked courses.

Learning Chinese in school is also an option – the institute has sites in two revered private schools, Westwood and Maru-a-pula, and there are plans to open sites in public schools too.

I will be taking up Chinese lessons next semester. In the meantime, my friend Sedimale has been teaching me the basics every time we meet. A few days ago, I caught my partner off guard when I clasped my hand to my heart and declared: “Wo ai ni” (“I love you” in Mandarin). He gave me a blank stare but this could all change in the next few months if I can convince him to join me in this linguistic adventure.

Keletso Thobega is a copy editor and features writer based in Gaborone, Botswana. 

Women dig into Zimbabwe’s male-dominated small-scale mining sector

The face of Lydia Madhoro (25) is dusted red from soil as she and her three female colleagues take a brief lunch break. They have been working since dawn on their gold mine in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland Central Province.

Their hand-dug shaft has reached about 10m in depth, and their conversation revolves around estimates of how much they will make from a pile of gold-bearing excavated rocks. The ore still has to be taken to a miller about 15km away to be crushed, after which it will be mixed with water and mercury to separate out the gold.

Truck operators who transport the ore charge them US$50 a ton, and casual labour used for the loading demand $10 for the same quantity. The millers charge a fifth of the gold obtained.

“We are at work almost every day of the week, going underground for the ore. This is extremely hard work that has been associated with men for a long time, but we are now used to it. We have to do it because, as single mothers, we must feed our families,” Madhoro told IRIN.

The four women formed a syndicate in 2011 to acquire their 0.8-hectare claim near Mazowe, about 50km northeast of the capital, Harare. Madhoro and her partners are certified gold miners and sellers from the mining town of Bindura, about 40km away. They paid about US$1 200 for the registration, prospecting licences from local administrators and surveyor’s fees.

In a good month, they make as much as $2 500 from the mineral, which they sell to the government-owned Fidelity Printers at $50 a gram. The money is divided among the partners in equal shares after paying the millers’ fees and transport costs; the proceeds have so far been used to build basic housing.

“Even though we are not yet making that much money, the good thing is that we have stood up as women to fend for ourselves. We are actually doing better than some men, and I am proud of the fact that I single-handedly feed my twin daughters and can afford money for their primary education, clothes and other basic needs,” Madhoro said.

"There are tangible gains for women who have joined the sector as small-scale miners, especially in gold and chrome, as they can afford household nutritional needs, pay school and medical fees, and even afford some modest luxuries." - (Pic: Reuters)
“There are tangible gains for women who have joined the sector as small-scale miners, especially in gold and chrome, as they can afford household nutritional needs, pay school and medical fees, and even afford some modest luxuries.” – Eveline Musharu (Pic: Reuters)

Breaking barriers
Zimbabwe’s economic malaise, now more than a decade old, is seeing women take on work that has traditionally been deemed the domain of men. Madhoro and her colleagues’ mining enterprise is far from unique, she says. She is aware of numerous women-owned and operated mining syndicates in the province, in districts like Bindura, Shamva and Madziwa.

Eveline Musharu, president of the 50 000-strong NGO Women in Mining, which helps women start mining ventures, told IRIN: “Women are breaking the barriers by venturing into mining, an industry that is dominated by men. There are tangible gains for women who have joined the sector as small-scale miners, especially in gold and chrome, as they can afford household nutritional needs, pay school and medical fees, and even afford some modest luxuries.”

The national NGO was established in 2003, and its members are mainly drawn from the ranks of the rural poor, the disabled, widows, single mothers and those living with HIV and Aids. Musharu said women are turning to mining as an economic lifeline because, given the vagaries of the climate, subsistence farming is no longer a guarantee of putting food on the table.

Madhoro’s route to mining began when she became pregnant by a teacher, dropped out of school and gave birth to twins. Her parents disowned her, and she went to live with her grandmother. When her children were six months old, she became an illegal miner. One night, after digging for gold along the Mazowe River, she was nearly raped by a group of other illegal miners; after that, she tried to make a living as a hawker. Then she learned about Women in Mining.

When she approached the NGO for advice on how to enter the mining sector, the organization suggested she form a women’s syndicate before applying for a prospecting licence. She chose her three partners because they were already friends and stayed in the same suburb in Bindura.

Boosting incomes
The six-year-old Zimbabwe Women Rural Development Trust (ZWRDT), which has more than 500 members and operates mainly in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces, also helps women get a foothold in the mining sector. More than 100 members of the organization are miners.

ZWRDT director Sarudzai Washaya said 35 of the members, all of whom had previously worked as illegal miners, had been coached to enter the sector legally, and have seen their incomes grow as a result. According to Washaya, mining legally has several advantages, including eliminating the risk of being arrested and having one’s minerals confiscated. Legal miners are also guaranteed of a formal market where they are safe from thieves.

“There is a lot of keenness on the part of rural women to get into mining as they realize the opportunities that the sector offers. Chiefs and district administrators help our members identify and obtain mining claims, and ZWRDT facilitates the acquisition of prospecting licences, and prospective miners pay a joining fee of $20,” Washaya told IRIN.

“We have realized that it is important to build confidence in women, [showing them] that they can perform just as well as, if not better than, the men who dominate the mining sector. In some cases, the women are now employing men, and a few have even managed to buy luxury cars,” she said.

Capital often out of reach
Accessing capital for mining ventures remains one the biggest obstacles for women. Mining equipment, such as compressors for milling ore and pumps to drain water from mine shafts, are generally unaffordable, and women miners have to resort to renting equipment at high costs, eroding their profit margins.

Virginia Muwanigwa of the Women’s Coalition in Zimbabwe, a national NGO for the advancement of women, told IRIN: “Because our society is dominated by men, it is difficult for women to produce collateral when approaching banks. They don’t have title deeds to land, especially in rural areas.”

She said, “If well supported, women can use their involvement in mining to fight the many livelihood vulnerabilities they face. Women miners can benefit a lot from a revolving fund that the government and donors can help establish and from which they can borrow, as banks are unwilling to lend them money.”

The lack of equipment makes mining an even more arduous occupation. “Some of the women have given up on mining because of its high demands and gone back to face poverty in the villages. There is need for the government to give us support because, currently, we are struggling to sustain ourselves in mining,” Washaya said.

The Last Fishing Boat

The Last Fishing Boat, a film by Shemu Joyah, is about the clashing of cultures when a white tourist makes sexual overtures to a Malawian woman who is the third wife of an illiterate but proud fisherman.

Shot on the shores of Lake Malawi in Mangochi last year, the film recently won yet another prize – this time at the Silicon Valley African Film Festival in California . It picked up the award for the Best Narrative Feature Film.

Earlier this year The Last Fishing Boat bagged the Best Soundtrack award at the Africa Movie Academy Awards, where it received five nominations.