While other children play football or watch cartoons at home after school, nine-year-old Gift Phiri goes to work.
After his day at primary school in Mchengautuwa, in Malawi’s northern city of Mzuzu, the nine-year-old goes home to start work, hammering sharp-edged metal sheets, shaping them into charcoal cooking stoves. Gift, who lives with his grandmother, two younger siblings and another relative, started making the stoves after being trained by his grandfather when he was six.
His grandfather, who had provided the only source of income for the family, died earlier this year after a long illness. So Gift took up the mantle as the provider for the family.
“When my husband was alive, he was the one providing for this family by making cooking stoves while I would sell them in town or by going door to door. Now, all I have been left is Gift’s skill and ability,” says his grandmother, Rachael Banda, 57, sitting on a thin mat inside the clay-floored house.
Before moving in with his grandparents, Gift lived nearby with his parents until they divorced.
“The man [Gift’s father] disappeared soon after the divorce and I don’t know where he is and he has never reached out to us. My daughter stayed with us for a while but after seeing the condition in which we were living, she went out in search of work but she rarely got in touch. I guess she is struggling,” Banda says.
“I feel very painful that I took care of my children and now I have to take care of their children,” she says. “But [it] is my blood, what can I do?”
Home is a small, one-bedroom house with a clay floor and walls and a roof of iron sheets, grass and plastic bags. The sitting room – just big enough to accommodate five people – is where Gift and his brothers sleep. It is also where the metal and iron sheets for making the stoves are kept. During the day, the room is also the kitchen.
Gift says he can make up to 10 cooking stoves a day, but it gives him very little time for his homework. His grandmother sells the stoves for about a dollar apiece. But the market has become flooded with other people making the same product and demand has gone down.
Before they sold five in a day, now it is one or two, barely enough to buy food.
“When my grandfather was teaching me, I was very young and I just took it as part of playing,” Gift says. “But now I understand that I need to work for us to eat and have school uniforms and exercise books. I get very tired and I have been injured many times during the process. I don’t have time to play.”
Charles Mzomera Ngwira, the chief for the area, is concerned about children like Gift, as the family will sleep on empty stomachs if they fail to sell any stoves. “There is a need for tougher laws to protect the children, even when the parents have divorced,” he says.
The government minister for social welfare, Patricia Kaliati, describes the practice of husbands running away from responsibility after divorce as “rampant nowadays”. She says the aim of child courts is to look into those cases.
She says the government wants families with children whose fathers have absconded to come forward for help.
“Let them come forward through the district social welfare offices and they are going to be assisted. They can even come to me, my phone is on all the time,” Kaliati says.
Eye of the Child, a project from the Firelight Foundation, which champions child rights, said child neglect was on the rise, in line with an increase in child marriage for girls. More than 40% of girls in Malawi are married under 18.
“Child neglect is a huge problem in the country and we’ve handled many cases. Mostly, it’s about fathers not taking responsibility for their children,” says Memory Chisenga, media officer for the charity.
“You find a young girl who is pregnant being married to a young man who is not economically empowered, not ready to be a father and does not even understand the role of the father or what the laws say about fatherhood and child maintenance. You find that the mothers end up being the only ones taking responsibility for the child. As a result, you find so many children; some going to the streets, and some lacking basic needs,” she says.
According to the 2015 Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, during divorce, both spouses have a duty to support each other and any children. “The non-monetary contribution of each spouse shall also be taken into account when determining the contribution of a spouse to the maintenance of the other spouse or children of the marriage,” it states.
But most marriages happen traditionally and very few women know they can legally demand compensation or support for the children after divorce. The most realistic financial option is for a woman to remarry.
There is limited recent data on Malawi’s divorce rates but according to a 2003 study, lifetime divorce probabilities are between 40% and 65%, and remarriage is commonplace.
In his school uniform Gift looks neat, transformed from the dirty, solemn-looking boy working on the floor at home.
“I would like to be a teacher when I grow up. They look smart and know a lot of things,” he says.
“Gift is a very bright student, hardworking and friendly,” says his teacher at primary school in Mchengautuwa, Annie Kalasa. “He is always present for school and readily participates in the classwork.
“Of course, I do understand the unfortunate situation back at his home but I am glad that his grandmother is available for him. We do have other students in his situation and others who have parents who can’t provide for them even when it comes to buying face masks. It’s very bad to watch as a teacher.”