She looks up in some wonderment, unused to questioning such a life for a child. She is not unusual. There are 18 tenant families on this tobacco farm in the Kasungu district of Malawi, each living in a straw hut. Only two of the other girls go to school, she says. Two-year-old Jackson Phiri stumbles past. He has a miniature hoe, fashioned by his father, Lazaro, because he cried every time he saw his mother and father set off for the fields carrying tools and wanted one for himself. There seems an inevitability about the lives of these children.
“I left school last year because I had no school materials,” said Tiyamike, her eyes on the ground and her voice quiet. “I liked school. I liked Chichewe [her language] best. I got very good grades. But my main problem was I had no exercise books and nothing to write with.”
Without a pen and an exercise book, she could not do schoolwork, her teachers pointed out. But she lives with her older brother and his wife and baby and they have nothing. “I help them in the fields,” she said.
She would go back if she could. “I would like to do nursing,” she said. Instead, she weeds, builds earth banks for the tobacco plants and sews the harvested leaves together to suspend them from branches so they dry in the air. Weeding is the worst. “It is a hard job,” she said.
Tiyamike is just one of many children in Malawi who see little future beyond the tobacco fields.
A report in 2011 estimated there were 1.3 million worldwide under the age of 14. The figures are hard to come by, but the International Labour Organization last year reported that child labour was on the increase, in spite of protestations that they are working to end it. “Child labour is rampant,” the report said.
Research conducted in Malawi revealed that 57% of all children in two tobacco producing districts were involved in child labour; among tobacco growing families, 63% of children were engaged in child labour