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How Power and Gender are Rewriting Culture in Malawi

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Chief Theresa Kachindamoto

Published in celebration of the 2017 International Women's Day

In 2016, Malawi's cultures were brought under international scrutiny for three main developments. The first two include the wanton killing of people living with albinism and the sexual cleansing of girls as initiation into womanhood (something we expressed some strong reservations about…twice), respectively. Two phenomena not quite worth writing home about. The third, well, much better.

Theresa Kachindamoto’s story stood in fresh contrast to the usual cultural procrastination to respond to modern day challenges affecting human rights, social development and personal progress. It raises the voice against opportunistic and archaic manipulations of human behavior in Malawi but also works on behalf of those dealing with the stubborn roots of discriminatory traditions in Africa and elsewhere.

When Chief Kachindamoto saved 300 girls from marriage in 2016, she was normally not doing an extraordinary thing. Notably, because during her chieftaincy, she had already saved at least 550 more and had pulled the zipper on an appetite for cleansing virgin girls in sexual rituals that perpetuate the dominance of prejudice. The male being the textbook solution for the female’s purpose of being.

As traditional chief, custodian of tradition and descendant of the deity, her actions were not necessarily dependent on the invocation of her three attributes. Nor should it be confused with the personification of chance. It was much simpler. It took the esteem of a proud woman, and more importantly, the authority in her role as Traditional Authority (a.k.a. chief of chiefs), to say “NO.” With this single-syllable word, the patriarchal structures that have perpetuated the suffrage of girls and women in pursuit of traditions that are unresponsive to the times, were shaken. Although it was not easy to break through established practices, they listened. The repercussions? Great.

For a woman whose second name connotes all the horrors of the indulgence in carnal relations with fire, literally, her acts in real life prove a completely different calling.

The immediate take away from Theresa Kachindamoto’s adamancy to challenging the status quo will be the guarantee for these 300 girls to have a chance at life. Several months later, many of these girls would have been mothers, if they were lucky. Chances are that they would, by now, have undergone reproductive health complications their young supple bodies were not ready for. The mothers and fathers of these girls would be sighing with relief that the married child is no longer a financial burden on them.

Yet, several men would be satisfied with the pleasure the young wives would have brought them, and would have perhaps only gone as far as empathizing – not agonizing – with the doom their ailing health sets forth early in life. In the ideal scenario, there is always a good chance another young wife will come to continue from where the other one left.

Importantly, Chief Kachindamoto's determination infuses the possibilities that will catalyze progress for girls to complete secondary education, a feat that the United Nations believes, if nothing changes, requires over 90 years to materialize.

The not-so-great part of the bigger story is the protraction of the idea that women have to stand for themselves, if change for women is to happen. Although surely male chiefs in Malawi have and continue to address gender-based discriminatory practices, it is clear that none have come close to the intensity and extensiveness of the impact Chief Kachindamoto’s demonstrates to the world today. While stories as one of T.A. Tsabango of Lilongwe permeate the waves for his use of gule wamkulu, who employ their most potent weapon, i.e., a good scare, to chase children from homes so they can attend school, the good chief falls short of putting in place measures that keep children in school. Particularly girls.

In spite of the variation in Malawi’s traditions, the two broad factions that make matrilineal and patrilineal proclivities still have implicit and overt preference for males, respectively, when one invokes the power dynamics between men and women in various life's dimensions. And the consequences of tipping the scales in favor of one sex have demonstrated evidence of how the welfare of society at large eventually falls short. This should make the equality between men and women a community, and at a larger scale, a national concern. It means men, as much as women, have to look into the situation of the empowerment of women and girls as a way to level the playing field that will unleash the great potential of women in the Malawian society.

Yet, these efforts, in a country that is hesitant to heed to the whispers of development, risk going to waste. For the full measure of Chief Theresa’s accomplishments can only be felt if the promise of education is fulfilled in a functional schooling system, one that presents real opportunities for girls (and boys) to get an education. This website has argued about Malawi’s education before, and still believes today that the journey for improving schools, particularly those in rural locations as Chief Theresa’s, is yet to start.

Until that day, Chief Theresa is doing it everything in her human capabilities, seeking goodwill support while at it, to put girls back to school whenever she can. And while doing this, she has established criteria to punish those chiefs under her watch that deviate from the new norm.

Accolades and ululations, both in the homeland and abroad, have tagged the Malawian female chief since the news of her momentous achievement on the 300 girls in Malawi’s Dedza District. In December 2016, she was named recipient of the Jesse & Helen Kalisher Humanitarian Award. The reverberation of her heroism around the globe has taught kings and queens, presidents, celebrities and ordinary people about what willpower can do for gender equality. It has given the world’s leading gender organization, UN Women, a concrete platform on which to display the assertion that breaking discriminatory practices is an important piece of the puzzle in addressing structural barriers that traditional institutions have erected in the face of women’s advancement.

It will take more than excitement in the local and international media and the recognition of foreign award-dispensing platforms to ensure Chief Theresa’s efforts bear their full fruition. An authentic display that appreciates the intricate nexus between culture and development is one that can only be made on the ground, at least to be led by Malawians in development interventions. What is crucial is what Chief Theresa's role in the lives of women and girls teaches the executive leadership in Malawi, by illustrating the effectiveness of traditional leaders in charting the paths that cultures take in changing times. In this vein, we maintain that the reaction of President Mutharika to the exposure of Mr. Eric Aniva, the hyena, is an example of how government was inadequate in solving the cultural problem of girl initiation rituals.

It is evident that a louder echo will only resonate farther if all chiefs eliminated traditions that no longer bear value in today’s world. But for the changes to take root in Malawi’s development, they will have to be intercepted by an education system that works for all, and a political leadership that wills it for the poor and marginalized to have a share in the piece of the pie.

Theresa happened. She has asserted herself a pioneer who is not ready to look back.

Next is what Malawi will do to embrace her efforts as potential to change course for Malawi’s traditional leadership system, and ultimately, for Malawi’s long-term development.


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