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Getting initiation ceremonies out of school time

Written by  Marvelous Zinga

School children llike these trapped between school and cultural practices in Mangochi

Mangochi, August 31, 2017: Calls to keep all school-going age children in school and ensure that their right to education is free from interruption ring loudly almost everywhere across Malawi. 

Yet stories abound in some areas of children who miss classes because of their participation in cultural activities like initiation ceremonies

Mangochi is such one place. The lakeshore district is famed for this cultural practice of ushering its children into adulthood through Chinamwali for girls and Jando for boys. 

The cultural practice, held in high esteem among Yao people for promoting good morals in young folks, sometimes wears an ugly face because it keeps children out of school for a month or more.

Its timing has been a source of conflict between locals and authorities in the education sector. It usually coincides with the opening of schools after summer holiday.

Realizing the implication of the practice on education, some traditional leaders are now taking a leading role in policing the tradition in the district.

Tradition Authority Chowe has emerged as the major player in ensuring that initiation ceremonies do not compromise education through a clash in calendar.

 “I have made it a point to all village heads and group village heads in my area that no initiation camp should be conducted during school days,” says Sultan Chowe.

Any diversion from this call is attracting punitive measures from the T/A. Last year, some village heads that disobeyed his instructions were fined K140, 000. This act was a demonstration of seriousness from the local leadership in promoting education among children in the district.

To underline his passion for education of children in his area, Chowe used the money to assist less privileged girls to go to school by providing them with necessary learning materials.

The chief says his stance does not mean that he undermines initiation ceremonies. He describes the cultural practice as important to the Yao children because it is also a form of education but in a different set up.

“As a cultural passage for our children from childhood to adulthood, initiation is very important. The process moulds them and opens their minds on how they should conduct themselves in the new phase of life, adulthood,” the chief says.

But what he disagrees with is for the two forms of education to come into each other’s way.

When the cultural ceremony interrupts school calendars, there I have a problem. I will never tolerate that in my area,” Chowe says.

Although most village heads are toeing the line, some pockets of resistance remain.

Just recently, Chowe had to penalize another village head for disobeying the order.

 “Village Head Taliya did not wait for schools to close. He rushed with the initiation ceremony while children were still going to school,” says the chief.

This time around, the penalty was stiffer than just paying a fine. The T/A wrote the District Commissioner (DC) asking for the suspension of Taliya. His wish was granted.

“This should serve as a lesson to the rest of chiefs not to tamper with the education of our children,” Chowe says adding that his desire is to see children from his area go to different colleges and become graduates than primary or secondary school drop-outs.

Apparently, Sultan Chowe is not the lone soldier in jealously protecting children’s education in Mangochi. Senior Chief Nankumba has also joined this regiment of traditional leaders in wiping out initiation camps erected when school is in progress.

He is also penalizing some disobedient village heads in his area.

Recently, Nankumba dismissed two chiefs for defying his “no initiation ceremony during school period” order

The Chewa chief, whose area has a mix of Yao and Chew people, says he is always sensitizing his village heads to conduct initiation ceremonies within the period of school break, not beyond.

“Now that schools have closed, I have instructed my subjects to conduct initiation ceremonies. But they have to finish and torch all  initiation camps a week before school opens so that children can have time to rest and relax before going back to school,” Nankumba says.

Apart from interrupting the education calendar, initiation ceremonies also courts criticism from many quarters for contributing to early pregnancies and marriages. This criticism flies amid speculations that some teachings in initiation camps fast track children’s engagement into sexual practices after they graduate. 

Traditional leaders in Mangochi are fully aware of such cases and scenarios which may lead to high school dropout rates in the district.

Some community leaders are taking a new course to address the challenge. One thing is to engage chiefs in discouraging the alleged teachings of sexual skills.

“We are conducting meetings to eliminate any forms of teachings and practices that may end up misleading our children. We are engaging village heads by explaining to them the dangers of teaching children sexual skills while at initiation camps,” Nankumba says.

Fresh figures on school drop-out rate in Mangochi are hard to come by. But in 2012/2013 academic year, 14, 000 learners dropped out of primary school, according to official figures from the district’s education manager’s (DEMs) office.

This dropout rate represents a population of pupils in 14 full primary schools.

Anecdotal evidence in isolated places gives credence to an assertion that the situation is not improving. Recently, district commissioner Rev. Moses Chimphepo came across a worrying scenario at one primary school in Traditional Authority Chimwala.

“I was shocked to find that standard one class had about 200 pupils while in standard eight, there were only 40 pupils. Where had the rest gone?” wonders Chimphepo.

Apparently, some thin-veiled fingers point to initiation camps.

This prompted the DC to call for coordinated efforts from religious, community and traditional leaders in the promotion of children’s education.

  “We need a committed leadership to influence change in people’s mindset. Societies with high drop-out rates should begin to see the need for their children to attain education,” he says.


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