Imagine you were born in Malawi, the daughter of a chief and youngest of 12 siblings. Imagine that you moved away for college in a neighboring city and ended-up staying there and working there. Imagine that almost 30 years later, upon the death of your brother the Chief, the Elders chose you – his sister and youngest sibling of the surviving 11 kids – to take over the rule! Would you accept the challenge, being a woman in a position normally occupied by men? And if you do against, what would you do to impact your countrymen’s life, a rural people deeply attached to the cultures and traditions of the past?
Today, I am inspired by Theresa Kachindamoto of Malawi. Theresa was born in 1959 in Mtakataka on the shores of Lake Malawi, near the port city of Monkey Bay. She was the youngest of a family of 12 kids, seven boys and five girls. Her father was the Paramount Chief of Dedza, a district in the Central Region of Malawi, midway between Lilongwe and the Mozambican border.
The daughter of a Chief, Theresa was home schooled till her teens before she enrolled at Zomba Theological College, an institution established by the Protestant’s Church of Malawi in 1977. Zomba is a beautiful provincial town with its architecture reminiscent of its days under British colonial rule, when it was still the capital of the country. Zomba remained the capital for ten years after the 1964 independence, till 1974 Lilongwe became the capital.
Once she finished her education, she received joined the administrative staff of the College. She got married and had five kids, all boys. She enjoyed living in an environment where young people, especially girls, could change the course of their life just by earning a degree.
Theresa stayed at the college for 27 years till a fateful day of 2003 when she received a visit from a delegation of 15 Elders of her tribal royal family.
They had made the journey from Dedza to ask her to come back home. I should say it was more a summon than an invitation, really. Her second brother, Justino, who had become Chief of Dedza, after the passing of their father and her oldest brother, had recently passed away and the Elders council had chosen her to replace him!
She had never imagined she would receive a call of that nature. You must understand that though she had the blood of chiefs, and that her tribe, the Chewa, allowed for daughters to become chief, it was unlikely to ever happen to her as she had five other older brothers. What were the odds that the Elders would choose her, the youngest kid?
Theresa was dumbfounded by the decision. She had built a life for herself in Zomba and was raising her five children there. Going back to her hometown was the last thing on her mind. But when such a responsibility is bestowed upon you, it is difficult to say no.
The forty-four years old Theresa resigned from the college and came back to Mtakataka to be installed as the new Paramount Chief Kachindamoto VII, in succession to her brother Justino Kachindamoto VI. Inkosi Theresa, as she would now be referred to, was to be Senior Chief to a district of 550 villages and a population of almost 1 million souls, joining a select group of the 300 traditional Chiefs, the custodians of Malawi’s traditions.
As soon as she took office, Inkosi Theresa started touring the land, to rekindle herself with her district’s realities and figure out what her priorities were going to be. If it wasn’t for the leopard skin headband, unmistakable sign of her rank, you wouldn’t have differentiate from any other women. She approached everyone in all humility like she did her whole life, as a mother visiting her neighbors, not as Chief meeting her subjects. She stopped by every home, greeted every family, listen to their preoccupations, enquired about their kids, learned what they aspired to in life.
One day, she was walking home when she met a young girl carrying a little baby. The girl had a petite figure and couldn’t have been more then 12. The baby was crying loudly, so the Chief told the girl to take the infant back to her mother. She didn’t expect for one second what the girl was going to tell her in response:
“No, no, the baby is mine.”
Inkosi Theresa was utterly shocked! She asked her about the father, whom she learned was a thirteen-year-old boy! That night, when she went home, the paramount Chief of Dedza was feeling powerless despite her title and couldn’t sleep the whole night.
“Growing up as a chief’s daughter, I realized, I had been shielded from how people in our villages really lived.”
She was distressed to see little girls with babies strapped to their backs instead of wearing school uniforms! By the morning, she knew what needed to be done: she had to put an end to those forced marriages and sexually abusive traditions.
She knew it wasn’t going to be as easy done as it was easy to say. It was a wide spread cultural practice and the authorities did nothing to stop it, scared of the community backlash. Nonetheless, she could not see herself sitting idle while her community was full of little girls carrying babies, with husbands no older than their wives, teenage boys turned head of households! She had also heard of many stories of sexual abuses, with young girls from poor families preyed upon by older well to do men. With the high HIV infection rate in the country, she had no doubt that these traditions were in a way a death sentence for the young girls, in addition to trauma they would experience their life long.
The first step was to and see the Elders, the august men who had ‘forced’ her into Chiefdom. After the traditional greetings, she bluntly asked them:
“These children with babies crying on their laps, is this why you went to Zomba to take me back here?”
If she was there to confront them, their answer completely disarmed her:
“Yes, that’s is why we chose you. You are good with people and we want you to deal with this nonsense.”
She was so relieved, she smiled and simply said: “Thank you! Praise the Lord.”
She hurriedly went to her office and gathered her 50 sub-chiefs. Without wasting time beating around the bush, she asked them to use their powers to annul the existing unions and put an end to these practices.
“I told them, I am going to do it, whether you want it or not.”
The twelve-year-old girl she had met near her house was the first marriage she terminated! She told the girl’s parents that they must look after the baby, and she took the girl back to school.
Don’t think change came easy to this countryside so deeply rooted in traditions, even amongst the sub-chiefs. At the beginning, some of them paid her lip service and did not follow her instructions. They quickly learned the cost of their insubordination. There were four sub-chiefs who resisted the most, all men. Well, she simply fired them, end of the story.
“I was furious! Women in our culture are not supposed to swear, but I am senior chief, so I swore at them very loudly!”
It wasn’t long before the men returned to see the Chief and beg her to give them back their jobs. They assured that all the marriages had been undone in their respective areas. Still, Inkosi Theresa sent people to check the information before she reinstated them. Once she confirmed the facts, she hired the chiefs back.
She was tireless in her efforts to see change coming about. She engaged everyone, community members, the clergy, the NGOs, asking them all to join forces to convince the most recalcitrant families to stop this and put back their kids in school, especially the girls.
She also established a ‘hotline’ of a sort. Inkosi invites people in the villages to watch out for child marriages and call her in confidence if a wedding is about to happen. She calls them her “secret mothers” and “secret fathers”. When she’s alerted, she asks the head of the village to come see me to let him know that if he wants to keep his title, he has to stop the child marriage.
It isn’t easy changing a culture, even for a Chief. Some of the men, who saw her as a threat to their way of life, tried to intimidate her, saying to her: “You are still quite young. Are you ready to die?”
Chief Theresa isn’t so easily scared:
“I just tell them to go ahead and kill me, because it is the only way they will stop me from protecting our girls.”
Inkosi Theresa knew it wouldn’t be enough to change her district, she had to fight to change the country, whose Constitution had no provision to protect the sacred rights of children. The Chief practically became a community activist, engaging in a tireless door-to-door campaign with the help of community leaders and non-governmental organization call for a law that banned early marriage. Her efforts to change the law of the law of the land had also paid off. In 2015, Malawi’s parliament passed a national law forbidding marriage before the age of 18.
Although this was a big victory and important milestone in her fight for children’s rights, Inkosi Theresa knows they need to take it one notch further if they really want to give a chance for girls to attend school and complete their education. Inkosi Theresa is now asking parliament to increase the minimum age of marriage from 18 to 21. You can bet she will succeed in this latest crusade.
The 59 years old lady is a real foot soldier, no pun intended: could you imagine she doesn’t even have a car? She tours her district by foot! It sometimes takes her up to 16 hours of walk before reach some of most remote places. When she arrives late, she spends the night and resumes her journey the next day. It takes her about five months to visit all the 550 villages under her purvey!
Her chosen path is not without hurdles. At times men in some villages meet her with a lot of contempt:
“Who are you to do this, to destroy our culture? You have come here to become chief and now you are destroying your own culture.”
To what she answers:
“Yes, I am a custodian of culture, but not this culture of young girls being forced to be married.”
Theresa could have annulled the marriages on paper from the comfort of her office. But she chose otherwise: it should be done in public for the whole village to witness and learn. And most importantly, it must be an unforgettable ceremony for the kids. To that end, she puts on her most beautiful ceremonial attire, the beads, the colorful robes, and makes her way to the village of the day.
After performing the annulment ceremony, she tells the newly separated spouses that they are now officially divorced.
“From this moment, you are married to the classroom. If you study hard, you could become a doctor, a teacher, or a police officer. You must have a vision for your future.”
One of these days, go and visit a school in this beautiful peaceful region by Lake Malawi. At recess time, you will think you’re in any other school in the world or at least any other school in rural Africa. Yet, some of these children gleefully playing in the yard were, not so long ago, forcibly wedded and were never going to have a normal childhood if it wasn’t for the fierce efforts of this uncommon ruler.
This sad aspect of the customary law is still in force in many parts of the country, but it isn’t any longer the case in Dedza. Thanks to this wonderful human being, the tide is turning on these abusive practices. In the 15 years since she was so unexpectedly installed as the Senior Chief of her native Dedza, Inkosi Theresa has annulled over 2600 child marriages, and sent the boys and girls back to school. She also arranges for the grandparents or other family members to take care of the babies born in those wedlock while their young parents attend class.
Can you imagine that she doesn’t have any dedicated budget for all this? Most times she buys the uniforms and pays school fees from her own pocket, when she can’t find patrons to help her in this noble endeavor. Fortunately, her growing notoriety in Malawi and beyond their borders helps her garner support for her noble cause.
Two years ago, Inkosi Theresa Kachindamoto was the laureate of the 2016 International Hrant Dink Award and the 2016 Jesse & Helen Kalisher Humanitarian Award. On International Women’s Day 2017, the Malawain Chief received a Leadership in Public Life Award at the 16th Annual Vital Voices Global Partnership Award Ceremony in Washington, D.C., USA. Vital Voices Global Partnership was co-founded by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The following month, she flew to Dakar to receive the New African Woman in Civil Society Award. UN Women and UNICEF plan to replicate her work with other traditional leaders in Africa and beyond.
You might be wondering what happened to the young 12 years old girl she met some 13 or 14 years ago, the one who prompted her to take on this extraordinary fight? She is now an accomplished twenty-something attending college and ready to take on the world. As a free woman!
Let me ask you: when you read the title to this piece, did you think it was a warning made to the INkosi. Well, no! “Don’t mess with fire” is the meaning of her last name, ‘Kachindamoto’, in the Chichewa language, her native dialect. Another troublemaker, wouldn’t you say?
Right Your Legacy, Inkosi Theresa Kachindamoto!