It was the flood that ensured that Ntonya Sande’s first year as a teenager would also be the first year of her married life. Up to the moment the water swept away her parents’ field in Kachaso in the Nsanje district of Malawi, they had been scraping a living. Afterwards they were reduced to scavenging for bits of firewood to sell.
So when a young man came to their door and asked for the 13-year old’s hand in marriage, the couple didn’t think about it for too long, lest he look elsewhere. Ntonya begged them to change their minds. She was too young, she pleaded. She didn’t want to leave. But it was to no avail. Her parents sat her down and spelled it out for her: the weather had changed and taken everything from them. There was not enough food to go around. They couldn’t afford another mouth at the table.
That night she lay down in bed for the first time with the man she had never seen before and followed the instructions of her aunt, who had coached her on the important matter of sex. Ten months later, she gave birth to their first daughter.
Everyone has their own idea of what climate change looks like. For some, it’s the walrus struggling to find space on melting ice floes on Blue Planet II. For others, it’s an apocalyptic vision of cities disappearing beneath the waves. But for more and more girls across Africa, the most palpable manifestation of climate change is the baby in their arms as they sit watching their friends walk to school. The Brides of the Sun reporting project, funded by the European Journalism Centre, set out to try to assess the scale of what many experts are warning is a real and growing crisis: the emergence of a generation of child brides as a direct result of a changing climate.
And time and again, in villages from the south of Malawi to the east coast of Mozambique, the child brides and their parents told an increasingly familiar story. In recent years they had noticed the temperatures rising, the rains becoming less predictable and coming later and sometimes flooding where there had not been flooding before. Families that would once have been able to afford to feed and educate several children reported that they now faced an impossible situation.
None of the villages had any way of recording the changes scientifically, or indeed felt any urge to do so. All they knew was that the weather had changed and that where they used to be able to pay for their girls to go through school now they couldn’t. And the only solution was for one or more daughters to get married.
Sometimes it was the parents who made the decision. For the good of the rest of the family, a daughter had to be sacrificed. She would be taken out of school and found a husband, one less mouth to feed. Sometimes it was the girl herself who made the decision and forced it upon her parents. Unhappy, hungry, she hoped that a husband might be the answer.
Carlina Nortino (main image, first left) sits with her husband, Horacio, in the dry sand that is all that is left of the river that once flowed past the village of Nataka in the Larde district of Nampula province, on the east coast of Mozambique. From the ground, there is nothing to see of the river. But a drone camera sent up to hover above reveals the ghost of the river, a darker line of green growth winding its way across the plain.
Carlina is 15, Horacio 16. They married when she was 13, two years after the river disappeared, she says.
“I remember when I saw people here fishing. I used to sell the fish, I took it from the fishermen and went to sell it to the village. There was water everywhere. I remember seeing Horacio with the other fishermen. But without rain, the fish died.”
Her family used to harvest as many as 20 50kg bags of cassava. Today it is down to one or two bags. She blames the lack of rain.
Horacio looks across to where the river once ran. “I can’t fish any more because the fish don’t have water any more. The water disappeared. Now I do agriculture. Before, the rain started in September and came regularly until March. Now the rain only comes in January and February and that’s it.”