MARGARET CHISANGA, Sinda
BEHIND Chiwuyu Primary School in Sinda district, Eastern Province, is a gigantic tree which stands as a boundary between the school and a village situated just behind it.
The tree provides a large area of shade from its massive branches and serves as a meeting place for school meetings.
As the Chiwuyu pupils gather under the tree to listen to the Regional Psychosocial Initiative (REPSSI) group of students that is in the school to discuss issues relating to teenage pregnancy, three young boys perch up in the fallen branches of the huge tree. They are settled away from the pupils and behind them is a herd of cattle grazing.
I motion to them to come closer and sit on the same side as the pupils so that they can have a better view; two of the boys heed my call, the other one just stares through me and hangs on to his branch.
About an hour into the REPSSI community talks, there is a rustle which disturbs the herd of cattle, and immediately the young boy in the branches swings into action, calling out, motioning and hitting on the ground near the cattle to direct them away from the houses, and towards an open field I later learn leads to a stream. The two other boys leave the group and follow to help him.
Intrigued by this image of three tiny boys expertly directing over 19 cattle to change direction away from the village homes, where they may otherwise cause havoc, I decide to tag along.
It turns out one of the boys, 9-year-old Bula, (It could be short for Brian) is an expert cattle herder, having been doing it since he was 5 years old.
“I am in charge of two separate herds of cattle, the large one belongs to his grandparents, Bula says as he points to a young boy named Dave. Dave has recently been enrolled for primary education.
“This is my job,” Bula says, “sometimes my friends escort me when they have nothing much to do, but sometimes am alone.”
Speaking in Chewa, Bula narrates that he started heading cattle about four years ago for a family in the village after an arrangement between his parents and the man who he simply calls Ambuya (Grandpa). He says he has already been paid one bull after herding cattle for the same family for three years. He believes the bull was given to his parents but has never really seen it.
“Am usually up by sunrise,” Bula says, indicating time by motioning the position of the sun.
“I’m would love to attend school one day, maybe after I am given my next bull,” Bula answers when asked about education, however, when Calvin Machila, a module facilitator under the REPSSI community development course, asks him if he would like to take care of an extra herd for the price of a cow, Bula shows more interest.
It turns out the practice of young boys herding cattle for a number of years before enrolling for primary education is common in this part of the province. The practice is not considered child labour, but rather seen as part of the traditional way of life of the people.
The International Labour Organisation defines child labour as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. In this part of the country, it is not clear whether children herding can be classified as child labour. However, it is clear that the practice has a negative effect on the attainment of education for the young boys.
‘In the northern part of the province, it is usually the elderly who are tasked with taking care of the cattle, however, in the central part of Sinda, Katete, Nyimba, it is usually the young boys who are in charge,” Mr Machila explains.
Masuwe Primary School headteacher Maximina Banda says the downside to this practice is that boys will usually start school quite late, while others may lose interest along the way as they feel that they have already owned cattle and would rather concentrate on increasing the number of their own herd.
“Sometimes the young boys feel intimidated when they find younger girls more advanced in education, and in the process they stop coming for class. Added to this is the fact that they reach puberty while they are still in primary school, increasing the risk of them being involved in sexual relations,” she said in an interview.
Traditional and political leaders, on the other hand, say the practice is retrogressive to Government’s aim of increasing education levels in the country.
Sinda member of parliament Masautso Tembo said compelling children to herd cattle on a full time basis for years is detrimental to their progress.
“Our aim as government is to ensure every child has access to quality education. And we have made great strides in ensuring schools are built near the communities, so the parents have no excuse for not taking their children to school,” he said.
According to the United States Department of Labour Bureau of International Labour Affairs Child Labour and Forced Labour reports, in 2016, Zambia made a moderate advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labour.
“The Government hired additional labour inspectors and approved a new development assistance framework that aims to prevent the worst forms of child labour. The Government also supported the development of programming to empower adolescent girls and reduce child labour in rural areas,” the report reads.
However, the report indicates that gaps remain in the legal framework related to children.
“For example, the Education Act does not include the specific age to which education is compulsory, which may leave children under the legal working age vulnerable to the worst forms of child labour. In addition, law enforcement agencies lack the necessary human and financial resources to adequately enforce laws against child labour,” it reads.
As Government continues to work better modalities to ensure children have access to education, little Bula follows the herd towards the river, further down, out of site of the school, where he really should be.