On Women’s Empowerment in Malawi

To celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child today, I wrote this short narrative to give you a glimpse of what life for a young lady is like in rural Malawi.

Girls face discrimination and violence every day around the world. The International Day of the Girl Child focuses attention on the need to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights.

The following is based on a true story. It subtly shows the expected role of women in Malawi and the dismal recognition they receive socially. Enjoy. #SHEroesofMalawi

. . .

“Mr. Phiri, you don’t like me, Hame or Boolay! Mr. Phiri bodza!” blurts Raboni, Reverend Gama’s eldest son. Rev. Gama is my landlord and one of my village names is “Mr. Phiri”.

“Ya, you don’t like me, Raboni or Boolay!” repeats Hame. “Mr. Phiri bodza!”

“Ya . . . Hame and . . . and Raboni or Boolay! Bodza, Mr. Phiri!” comes Boolay, echoing from the rear as he scampers to catch up to his older brothers. His Chichewa is still uncertain but coherent – charming in that young, innocent child sort-of way.

Smiling, sisters Shaloni and Shamimu snicker to each other as they sit coolly on a bamboo mat under a mango tree. At fourteen years old, Shamimu is the oldest of the children.

“Oh c’mon y’all – you know I like you. I think all of you kids are great,” I say in Chichewa, on par with Boolay’s vernacular but in a sturdy, candid tone. “You know I do,” I add assuredly.

“Mr. Phiri lies!” Raboni sneers again. He thrusts his index finger into the dry, sunny air and wagging it at his two sisters he continues exasperated, “You give them big presents. You just gave Shamimu a new notebook!”

“I did because I can’t give Shamimu gifts all the time like I do you and your younger brothers. Do you know why? Because she is always working,” I say casually.

“Aaasaah what!? Lies, Mr. Phiri!” exclaims Hame, stomping his foot. His eyes narrow, lips curl and chest protrudes as he makes his case: “She does not work! She goes to school and plays, basi!” he asserts through clenched teeth.

“Ohoo!” Shamimu cries. “I’m tired now, Hame. Ask me why?”

“Because you are lazy!” jolts Raboni polemically, an impish grin upon his face. He punts a soccer ball he had been skillfully dribbling all morning at his sisters and they dodge it effortlessly. Walking with a stutter-step swagger and still adorning a waggish smirk, he foolishly moves towards me.

“C’mon Hame, ask her why?” I implore Hame sternly, glaring at Raboni contemptuously as I stand up cracking my knuckles. He leers big and turns quickly, sprinting a few steps while looking over his shoulder to see if I will pursue. With an empty expression, I lower myself into my seat stoically.

Without pause, Shamimu stands up impassioned. Tall and with a steady voice, she proceeds with all eyes on her:

“It’s because I woke up early to draw water from the borehole, cook breakfast, bathe your little sister and brother, do some quick laundry, finish the dishes, prepare you all for school, study my homework and finally,” she pauses, “ – getting myself ready for school!”

Fists clenched at her sides, she takes a deep breath and draws all of the oxygen out of the surrounding air. The birds stop chirping. The breeze tuckers out. The leaves lay motionless. Atlas shrugs.

Exhaling, she looks at me. I nod my head at her, proud. She swings her eyes back to her two heated brothers.
Enter a triumphant crescendo.

“That’s right. Shamimu helps you a lot and does a lot of work for your family while y’all play. She deserves big rewards for the work she does and sacrifices she makes. You should be grateful for her, your mother . . . all women.”

“Yes!” shouts Shaloni, jumping up to hug her much taller sister lovingly, her head coming to Shamimu’s waist.

Both of the older boys shrug and go silent, all fight abandoned. They know.

Boolay giggles as he pounces after a butterfly into the mango grove. I won’t be here when it comes time to teach him this valuable lesson. Perhaps his brothers will.

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