When I met 16-year-old Chikondi Phiri, she was struggling to lift a weighty load of firewood on top of her head. I offered her a helping hand, and initiated a conversation about why she was carrying the wood in the first place.
“It’s for my family,” she said proudly.
I could hardly hide the perplexity on my face. Chikondi’s slender frame and youthful appearance had me questioning what sort of family would make such a slight girl perform such a laborious mission?
Sweat poured from Chikondi’s brow as we attempted to lift a heavy bunch of branches in scorching heat, and when the task was completed, she walked off with the balance of a high-wire artist, and said, “See you”.
In Malawi, I see girls like Chikondi all the time. They’re usually either collecting water from a polluted river or carrying wood with babies bouncing on their backs.
According to the United Nations, women in sub-Saharan Africa spend 40 billion hours every year collecting water and up to 9 hours a day collecting firewood. Not only do the latter play a huge role in contributing to the 41 million girls’ worldwide not attending school; but also it is one of the many reasons why African women will likely be hardest hit by the impact of climate change.
My interest in understanding the link between gender and climate change in Malawi took me from Lilongwe to Kasungu, a northern rural town, where rainfalls have become increasingly far apart. In 2002, over 100 residents died in a famine brought on by drought, and the community has been picking up the pieces ever since.
On a visit to Nkhamenya Girls Secondary School, I spoke to a group of students about their daily “female” chores and what they knew about climate change. Many said the temperatures continued to drop over the years, forcing more girls out in search of wood to heat up their homes. Others said they knew children who had died due to smoke inhalation. In fact, worldwide, pollution in homes caused by burning wood kills about two million women and children a year.
Sitting there, listening to these stories, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of guilt when one girl asked me, “What is causing this climate change?”
I took a second to gather my thoughts before saying,
“Well, climate change is caused by human action, more specifically, the burning of fossil fuels which contribute to global warming – the heating of the Earth’s temperature.”
They just stared blankly. I knew I had to define it on more simple terms.
“You know those big cars that people drive here in Malawi?” I said, “Those cars burn poisonous gases which make the Earth hotter. You know those big factories with black smoke coming out of them? It’s the same thing.”
I further expanded on the greenhouse effect, and they seemed to get it. But trying to define climate change to Malawian school girls was like trying to paint a picture of hyper-industrialization in a country where vast, barren landscapes and an indigenous way of life are the norm.
Climate change is a condition not of Malawi’s creation – less than 0.1 metric tons per capita of carbon emissions, while Canada contributes 16.3 metric tons. Yet there are NGO’s working in Malawi who are promoting an idea that locals are somehow responsible. They implement projects to plants trees, and raise awareness about the issue. But where are the solutions?
The NGO focus on climate change in developing countries should not be on deflecting the problem, but rather figuring out ways for locals to cope with the change. Farmers will benefit more from learning to adapt to the temperamental weather, while girls would benefit from a cleaner energy source which would not involve collecting firewood.
As I left the school, I realized the weight and the importance of my visit.
To see a different perspective is the very reason we travel, we explore, and meet people like Chikondi who inspire us to comprehend a new outlook of the places we come from and the things we do.