Part of me is angry with Modester.
She sits opposite me in the dim one-room house she shares with her husband and infant daughter. AIDS campaign posters plaster the hand-hewn brick walls, and a floral curtain has been tied back to reveal a small kitchen area. A radio, operated by a car battery—no electricity here—plays Malawian songs and Modester hums along. As she waits for the interpreter to translate my question, she deftly frees a breast from her halter-top and nurses Debra. Her nipples are charcoal dark and as large and round as tea saucers. She is compact and muscular, with arms made strong by years of hauling water from the well. She gazes at her daughter, who makes tiny slurping noises. I look down and rub my bare feet against the threadbare brown felt covering the floor. I am twenty-two, four years older than Modester, and yet I suddenly feel very, very young.
William, Modester’s husband, spreads a fresh layer of concrete on the porch. He looks at me and flashes an open smile.
“He is a builder,” Modester says through Martha, a young university student who is acting as an interpreter. He is ten years older, she says.
“How did you meet?” I ask.
Modester shrugs. “I don’t remember.”
But she does recall her family’s protests. Sixteen was too young to marry, her parents said, and they wanted her to continue her education. They wanted her to finish secondary school and get a job. But she never wavered—she knew what she wanted, and that was to leave school and marry William.
“Do you miss school?” I ask.
“I do,” she says. She adds that she once entertained hopes of becoming a teacher.
“Would you ever consider returning?”
She answers with a breezy yes.
And yet I don’t believe her. I want to believe that this poised, well-liked, young woman would continue her education, would help break the cycle of young motherhood and poverty that exists in this part of Malawi. But I find myself questioning her conviction. Maybe it’s the baby at her breast. Or maybe it’s the statistics: one-fifth of Malawian girls do not attend primary school; of those who do, two-thirds attend irregularly; 10.5 percent of girls drop out every year.
And so I find myself frustrated with Modester. In a way, the baby in her arms is a reminder that she won’t go back to school. And to me, this seems like a loss.
I arrived in Malawi several months ago with the aim of researching issues of gender inequity. I wanted to examine educational discrepancies between boys and girls, and to transform my research into a dance-based advocacy campaign for girls’ education.
But my lofty goals hit a series of snags. A partner organization lost funding. The executive director of another said my presence as a white foreigner was unwelcome. A third organization clashed too sharply with my values—I couldn’t stomach the ceaseless endorsement of abstinence. So I began working with Girls Empowerment Network, a nongovernmental organization that runs clubs for young women across Blantyre, including the community arts group where I met Modester. The group is made up of young women who meet weekly to play games and learn theater exercises, and they also discuss more serious topics like gender issues and family planning.
Like Modester, all the club members have left school, and most have adopted a new role: fully consumed mothers. When I join in warm-up stretches, infants jounce against their mothers’ backs. We play Telephone, and I whisper into the ears of nursing mothers. At the family planning training, coos and wails of infants interrupt speeches about contraception, child spacing, and unwanted pregnancies.
The group includes 16-year-old Agnes, whose brief foray into sex work left her with an infant daughter. It includes 17-year-old Epherina, who was an excellent secondary school student, but dropped out when she became pregnant. Like Modester, I can’t help but look at these young women and wonder how different their lives might be if they had not become pregnant, if they had stayed in school.
One Saturday, Modester and I take a long walk together. We cut through maize fields and past young children hawking roasted peanuts. Modester strides in front, her back straight and her head up, five-week old Debra swaddled to her back. At the market, she haggles for onions and bananas. She stares down the vendors until they drop their prices, and then she breaks into an easy smile, the same smile she uses to greet friends and passers-by. As we wind back home, she stops to play a game with a group of children, a kind of Malawian double dutch, and they laugh as they trip over the ropes.
The more time we spend together, the more Modester confounds me. Contrary to my expectations, she seems genuinely happy and comfortable in her role as a young mother. She tells me she would attend church more often if she had money for the minibus fare, but she raises few other complaints about her life. And in a country where men and women tend to occupy separate spheres, and where many fathers are completely absent, William strikes me as a remarkably involved parent. Modester tells me he is a good cook, and indeed, he helps prepare the traditional maize porridge nsima before lunch. When we walk to the soccer fields, he carries Debra on his chest in a baby rucksack and snaps open an umbrella to shield her from the sun.
When I think about the possibility of Modester returning to school, I remind myself of the challenges of education in Malawi. School fees are prohibitively high. The buildings are overcrowded, and often have poor sanitary conditions. The quality of instruction is often shoddy at best. And although young Malawian women who finish school stand a far better chance of leaving poverty behind, there is no magic bullet. At times, I think about Modester’s life in comparison to women I’ve met who have finished school, like 22-year-old Yamikani, who completed secondary school but lacks the funds to attend university. She spends her days at home now, and her life in many ways is not much different from Modester’s.
In this light, Modester’s choice to leave school and become a mother is much easier to understand—at least this decision was her own.
Back at her home, Modester places Debra in my arms. She hiccups. I expand my Chichewa vocabulary (“hiccups” translates to “chidikidiko,” which might be my new favorite word). Debra’s tiny, chocolate-skinned hand grips my pale index finger. I have grown comfortable with the once-heavy hush that fell over the room, but some questions linger.
“Martha,” I say, “can you ask Modester what she wishes for Debra?” I wait for her to translate this question.
“She wants her to be educated,” Martha says. Just as Modester’s parents wanted for her. Conversation falters for a moment. A buoyant Malawian song pipes out of the radio.
“The song is about life getting brighter,” Martha tells me.
Across the room, Modester bounces Debra on her lap and sings along.