By Vitus-Gregory Gondwe
Ruth Shaba of Khosolo in Mzimba was divorced from a 12-year marriage. However, when this 38-year-old woman returned to her parents’ home, she found herself in the same circumstance she was in when she was a girl, long before going to her marriage.
Despite being a mother of four now, she still could not demonstrate to her children the authority a mother is supposed to wield in providing for them. Every time she wanted anything or when her children demanded anything from her then she would go to her father to ask for that help.
“It was demeaning because sometimes I could go to my father to ask him for something that my children had asked from me, he would sometimes tell me he couldn’t provide it and it was always embarrassing to go back to my children to report back,” she said.
The northern region of Malawi practices a culture laden with patriarchal values that sideline women. Marriages in the region involve payment of dowry resulting into the woman leaving her home to stay in the village of her husband, which becomes her new home.
The general feeling by husbands is that their wives left their maiden homes and joined them in their respective homes and it is therefore unheard of that they should have any say over land-related issues.
Mzimba, the biggest district in Malawi has strong patriarchal values and has practises that consider women as second-class citizens.
“We are trying to completely stop this,” says one of Mzimba’s traditional authorities Inkosi Mzukuzuku.
The chief though, concedes that since Ngoni culture guides Mzimba, for long, promoting patriarchal values that includes the dowry system in marriages means the woman would still play second fiddle for a while.
He said he had resolved a number of cases where all over sudden people would start saying a woman whose husband has died is no longer welcome in their village not to mention where there is a divorce where culturally men have insisted that a woman is not supposed to get her entitlements.
“Access, ownership and control of land for women is severely limited and restricted because in our patrilineal Ngoni belief this is in order,” said the chief.
Another tale is that of 35-year-old mother of five, Rhoda Jere, of Yolamu Village, Traditional Authority Khosolo lost her husband in 2006 when he died in a car accident.
“We married in 1996 and he never paid dowry as tradition demands and when he died, my husband’s relatives said they could not recognise me as their wife as a result,” she reminisces.
She said her in-law; a sibling of the deceased husband grabbed all the land she was farming on with her husband.
“Since he now rented the land out while some part of it was sold, I returned to my mother’s place where my uncle gave me one hectare of land which was very sandy and I could not produce high crop yields,” she said.
Sixty-two-year-old Margret Nyati who comes from Inkosana Mkhuzo Jere’s area did not lose her husband to neither divorce nor death. She however, could not enjoy life as it were, because her husband was exacting domineering on her that left her no breathing space.
“I had big problems in my family where it was only my husband who used to take control of all the proceeds even when it was me who was doing the work since my husband is sickly,” she recalls with shame with poverty that used to gnaw on her as a result.
This story could pale into a trifle life misshapen to many other stories women in the district have to tell. Fortunately, most such stories seem to be history of yesterday since they have today’s different tales.
The Ngoni culture would have perpetuated the plight women in Mzimba district were facing had Action Aid International, the global anti-poverty agency, not come to their liberation.
The agency started a project it calls Women’s Land Rights (WOLAR) which is using a system known as Regenerated Freirian Literacy through Empowering Community Technique (REFLECT) to transform the women to realise that they are right holders who only need to demand it.
This system is an innovative approach to adult learning and social change, which fuses theories of a Brazilian educator Paulo Freire with participatory methodologies.
“Reflect is a methodology that aims at empowering the people themselves to identify their problems and find solutions under the guidance of the laws that stipulate what their rights are,” explains Action Aid’s WOLAR Projects Officer for Mzimba district Wongani Mgawa.
The project rolling in the district’s four traditional authorities of Mbelwa, Mzukuzuku, Khosolo and Mabilabo is reaching out to over 575 women.
In the areas women have placed themselves in 23 groups that are known as reflect cycles and each cycle has about 25 women that meet three times in a week. During the meetings they discuss about their rights, they manage what they call village savings and loans as well as those that are illiterate acquire literary and numerical skills.
Knowing the challenges with cultural authority that reign supreme in Mzimba, Mgawa says they first trained the traditional leaders using available instruments like constitution so that the meetings women were holding in their cycles should bear fruits.
“We can proudly say we have managed to break cultural values within two years. However, the major challenge is that these are practices that have been going on for time immemorial and it cannot happen that we change the mindset completely,” he said.
Eventually, due to pressure from the women who had now realised their rights, one’s father and brothers and the other one’s husband relented and offered them land.
Patrick Shaba, brother to Ruth, says it was difficult to have their sister have her own piece of land because as it is culturally expected, they had already had shared the land amongst men folks within the family.
“The reason we gave her land was due to her plight and the new demands that started coming,” he said.
Prywell Jere, a Ngoni man who is husband to Margret Nyati, said they first thought that the project had come to destroy families.
“But after they explained to me in details, I ended up understanding and I think to an extent it is a relief because initially I used to think for her and now it is up to her to decide what we do with resources,” he said.
“I can now see that she is a very happy person, years of marriage with her have not elicited big smiles that I see on her face now, ever since she took charge of getting control and owning her own land,” he added.
Jere said men have to bow down to some of these cultural beliefs because eventually as a family, everyone becomes a beneficiary of the woman’s exploits.
Inkosi Mzukuzuku said the paradigm shift in how to treat women that Action Aid brought to Mzimba has also given him authority where he is now able to resolve cases based on the new knowledge, which is in line with the law.
“I have summoned all village and group village headmen within my area and I have reminded them what we agreed from the onset that women who cultivated tobacco or soya beans should be left freely to have their money and use it in the way they want,” he says.
Inkosi Mzukuzuku says initially, per month he used to resolve 10 cases related to denial to allow women use land as well as unfair use of proceeds from farm produce by the husbands and now he resolves a maximum of four cases a month.
“The most common ones were those where a woman was widowed and relatives of the husband wanted to snatch it,” he says; “it looks like we used to draw on our cultural beliefs more strongly than we would employ the law due to ignorance.”
Inkosana Mkhuzo Jere of Engalaweni who is the right-hand-man of the Paramount Chief Mbelwa says they are now working together with government to ensure that women exercise full rights in this democratic practice.
“We have now realised that we are equal to our women, and this necessitate that women access, control and own land and that they also have full control of the produce and its proceeds,” he says.
Ruth Shaba of Khosolo says as a proud landowner now she has cultivated maize and soya beans and she feels elated that she will not look over her shoulder when harvesting and there is already a market for her soya beans.
“Land can really give you power and save you from embarrassment,” she says with smirk that never left her face the whole time of the interview.