By Mark Michael

A dozen girls dressed neatly in school uniforms chant a poem loudly, drowning out the cries of vendors from the ramshackle street market outside the open window. They are the girls of Ng’ombe: 8, 9, 11, 12 years old.

“Parents, parents please: take care of us.
We are not supposed to be married at such a young age!
Mum, dad: take care of us.
We do not need to get married at such a tender age!
I am early child marriage.
I am a destroyer.
I destroy all girls.
They think that they are nothing.
They are poor as it is.
People in high positions, watch out for me.
I am early child marriage.
I am dangerous.”

Some of the girls know firsthand about “the destroyer” of early child marriage. But at Saint Matthias Community School, in the heart of the slum district in Lusaka, Zambia, they can be children again, with doors opened to new opportunities.

“Child marriage is something that has been in place for a long time without realizing its danger to families,” says Rev. Katete Jackson Jones, director of the Anglican Street Children’s Program, which established the school in 2011. In communities like Ng’ombe, families sometimes arrange marriages between their young daughters to older men so there is one less mouth to feed in the household.

Jones said pregnancies in girls as young as nine or ten are commonplace in the community. Because their young bodies are often unable to safely give birth, girls suffer devastating miscarriages or develop fistulae. Their husbands often abandon them, he added, leaving the girls even more destitute.

Joseph Mwale, head teacher at Saint Matthias, said he has rescued several girls from early marriages, returning them to their families and securing sponsors so that they can attend the school and be provided with a meal each day. Mwale also started the education and prevention program, and he wrote the poem that the girls have learned. He said he hopes that others in the community will hear its message.

Preventing early child marriage is an important goal throughout the Anglican Province of Central Africa, according to the Rt. Rev. William Mchombo, bishop of Eastern Zambia and the acting provincial secretary. Provincial officials have named the end of gender-based violence as one of their primary goals. Programs like the one at Saint Matthias that teach about the dangers of early child marriage help to protect some of the most vulnerable.

Saint Matthias is one of three schools operated by the children’s program to serve highly vulnerable children. In addition to girls rescued from early marriages, many of the students in the program’s schools are orphans; some had been living on the street, begging, or selling drugs. Homeless children are housed with local church families, with sponsors providing funds for meals, tuition, school uniforms, and books. In addition to the schools, the program provides recreation and educational support in three different Zambian towns, as well as an adult literacy program.

The program began in 1996, when the AIDS crisis had left unprecedented numbers of children living alone on the streets. The availability of AIDS retrovirals has reduced the number of orphans, Jones said, but many AIDS sufferers remain unable to work — and drug use is high in the community.

In communities like Ng’ombe the government-sponsored education system has simply been unable to keep pace with the growth in population. When Saint Matthias School first opened, the child population of the district was 87,000, and there were only spots for 10,000 children in the state schools. “Our goal is to help the community where we are based,” Jones says. “The best gift we can give to our community is education.”

Saint Matthias has grown to serve 330 children today. They attend in shifts, with four classes meeting in the morning and another four after lunch, all taught inside the dimly lit open hall that doubles as a church on Sundays. Blackboards are painted on the side walls, and the pulpit serves for the head teacher’s desk, the only one in the building. Parents help out by carrying water to the school, which lacks a well, and some mothers assist the four teachers.

Plans for the school’s future include installing a water system with toilets and building a larger complex. But other needs are more immediate, like repairs for the bus that was donated by Zambia’s Japanese embassy to transport students from a more remote part of the district. Until funds can be found to put the bus back on the road, the affected children will need to walk great distances or stop attending school altogether.

A long walk, though, can’t keep Dora Banda away from school. She walks over a kilometer from the one room house she shares with her mother. Aged 16, she has attended Saint Matthias since it opened. “The school has helped me to have knowledge and to learn to read and write,” she said. Banda said she loves her teacher. Her friend Grace Tembo, 14, adds that she has also learned a great deal at Saint Matthias and wants to become a journalist.

Mwale is proud of the progress his students have made; he said 100% of them passed the state exams last year. But he also gives thanks for the school’s spiritual curriculum, which is the foundation of its work. “We are standing on the Great Commission,” Mwale said, “go and teach in the world. We are telling them the Word of God, so they are children who know God and fear God and know what God wants them to do.

“My faith is boosted every day,” he said, “and it has encouraged me to go on in my life with God.”

Mwale said God gave him the opportunity to go to school — he was sponsored as a child to attend an Anglican school when his parents could not afford the fees. “Now I get to help other children get educated.”

His faith may be moving him towards a different kind of teaching soon, though. Mwale has discerned a call to ministry and hopes to return to the classroom as a student. He plans next year to study for the priesthood at Saint John the Evangelist, the Anglican seminary in Kitwe. Mwale is certain, though, that much of his work as a priest will remain with vulnerable children in this land where the need is so great and so many lives are being changed.

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