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How culture is denying babies motherly care in Malawi: The case of Chamzinda

In Europe, the bliss of motherhood is demonstrated by among others pushing a pram to supermarkets and other fancy places as the baby plays with all sorts of dolls as they move.African Mother

While in Africa, particularly Malawi, the mother is very proud at putting her baby on her back. The Malawian child, particularly in Ntchisi will always run to her mother when confronted with any danger, expecting to be put at the back for its safety.

 It is total deprivation of a child’s right to joy, care and love, demonstrated by women putting babies on their backs, if the child is denied the comfort of its mother’s back.

Nine months old Bright Chakhala from Bumphula, Taditional Authority Chilooko in Ntchisi plays around with his mates happily as any kid does. But there is one thing that separates Bright from the other kids; he has never enjoyed the comfort of her mother’s back since he was born.

 He has grown up, carried in his mother’s hands, as ‘Chamzinda’ the cultural practice in the area demands. It prohibits women carrying their babies at their backs until they pay the stipulated good amount of money to their Group Village Headman (GVH) as a way of introducing the newly born baby to him.

A visit to Bright’s home revealed that the boy could be carried around on back of his grand parents, siblings and anyone else but not his mother. It is a grave risk and offence for her mother to dare put Bright on her back; it’s a risk because she could lose the boy and an offence as she could pay a huge amount of money if discovered by chief’s informants.

“My daughter gave birth last year in September but has just started carrying her son only this Month, because we had not paid the monies to the chief yet,” confirmed Chakhala Mtima,  Bright’s grandfather, who adds that the practice is in several stages.

“We are supposed to inform the chief that our daughters have started menstruating, that they are getting married and soon after delivering a new baby. All these stages go with money and summed up, it goes to over K15, 000,” he said.

People in the area feel cheated but have no voice to shout against what they feel is an infringement to their rights.

As Chakhala says, overstaying of the practice made people believe that it was necessary though they felt bad about it.

“There is no way you as parent can publicize the menses of your own daughter, it’s bad and inhumane. Worse still we pay for only informing the leader about issues that does not really concern him,” he said.

According to Mackford Petulo, another parent who had a bad experience with the cultural practice said the practice has been there since time immemorial and keeps on treading on people’s rights up to now.

Petulo’s daughter gave birth to a baby girl. And after honoring the first two stages of menses and marriage, by paying K2000 and K3000 respectively, he had no money to pay the chief for the newly born baby as he is a common peasant in the village. Observing that it wasn’t easy keeping the baby in the hands all the time, he told his daughter to secretly start putting her baby on her back.

“It was very surprising and shocking that immediately she started putting her baby on her back her breasts developed sores and later into serious wounds that she couldn’t breastfeed the baby. We knew this was a result of disobeying the chief; we struggled to source the money and paid. And the mother’s breasts got healed within days,” said Petulo.

In Chamzinda, when the money is paid, the chief sends a representative, usually an old woman, who goes to put the baby on her mother’s back as a ritual of acceptance and welcoming the baby into the area. And the breasts for defaulters get healed after the ritual.

Petulo and Chakhala, as people who have stayed in the area for over 30 years, seeing the practice growing stronger by day, have strong feeling and belief that any disobedience to the cultural practice cost the lives babies.

Traditional Authority Chilooko, in whose area the cultural practice is deep rooted, says the practice is an old one and not relevant in current situation. He said the practice was done as a way of informing the chief what was going on in his area and that it didn’t cost that much as alleged by the people interviewed in the area.

He adds that previously the practice also was done to bring sanity in an area so that girls could not go into early marriages.

He said the chiefs were supposed to give a nod to any new marriage in his area. He said under the practice parents whose kids had eloped or whose girl had pregnancy out of wedlock were punished with a fine, which were usually, chickens. It was controlling indiscipline in the areas.

“In the past every communication to the chief was accompanied by a chicken as a way of respect. It was a good practice then because if one had no chicken to take to the chief, it was not a crime. It was done in good faith; it was a respect of some sort for any communication to chiefs,” said Chilooko

The chief said, “But over time some chiefs started demanding money and this made me to discourage the practice. If any junior chief was still demanding monies, then they are doing it secret and at their own risk because I would charge them with theft.”

But the Program Officer for Ntchisi Organisation for Youth and Development (NOYD), Clement Zindondo, whose organization has ‘Child Protection’ project in the whole Chilooko area, argued that the cultural practice was still there and continues to trample on innocent people in the area.

He says as much as the practice originated from a respect point of view, there was no way one could be suffering and struggling to source the money to communicate any message to the chiefs.

The officer says most rural poor people are under pressure from cultural practices like Chamzinda which depletes their pockets now and again for minor and irrelevant issues. 

“Chiefs are leaders; their subjects have to communicate to them freely. And if for respect sake, a chicken was okay, but now people go borrowing money to communicate a message to their chiefs. Worse still if they don’t pay anything they are punished by denying them some rights,” said Zindondo.

He said among others, NOYD was advocating for the chiefs to review some of the old practices that infringe on people’s rights so that they are amended to benefit the ordinary people.

However, Zindondo said was pleased to note that, with sensitization meetings, people in the area have started to understand their rights and have learnt to raise their voices whenever they notice any abuse of rights especially for children.

With interventions of Non-Governmental Organizations like NOYD, there is hope that Chamzinda which has out leaved its span, will see its exit and let children like Bright feel the warmth of their mother’s backs.

They will enjoy the milk from their mother’s breasts which will be free from sores and wounds emanating mysteriously after disobeying the practice which has nothing of value to the community apart from filling the chiefs’ pockets. 

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