‘Be Fearless’. Gender activist and feminist Tawonga Msowoya is on record advising.
Almost immediately she answers my phone call and I soon get a sense of someone who is measured and grounded in their outlook. By the end of our conversation I am left with the impression she is very mature for someone in their twenties.
She has never lived outside of Malawi the country of her birth. After we exchange pleasantries and comments on the relative time of day between her base in Malawi and mine in UK, we begin.
She reveals her roots are in Northern Malawi originating from a district called Nkhata-bay, however, she was raised in the city of Blantyre.
The youngest of her siblings she says she was quiet and reserved as a child. She grew up in a middle class household and was sent to an international primary school. Her parents wanted her to study one of the more prestigious professions but fortune had decided otherwise and she went on to study sociology. She has never looked back.
She feels her studies have imbued her with a sociological imagination and that this helps her perceive things in a much more objective manner where the interventions she is involved in are concerned.
Pamthunzi is an initiative she co-founded with several cohorts from the ‘Students With Dreams’ project she participated in. The word is taken from the Chewa language and means ‘shade’. It is symbolic of a space that affords the community a place to come together, share stories, interact and deepen communal ties.
Tawonga reveals that the schooling system in Malawi provides a slightly different pathway for private and state sponsored pupils. Typically privately educated pupils complete 6 years of primary school and then 5 years of high school. State sponsored pupils typically complete 8 years of primary school and 4 years of Secondary school.
Privately educated pupils also start primary school at a different age. This can result in a variance of state sponsored pupils being typically 1 to 3 years older than their privately educated counterparts when both sets of pupils start university.
The founders of the Pamthunzi project had identified and taken on board concerns raised by lecturers that many students entering university lacked a range of cores skills in terms of their oral and written communication ability. The project sought to address this.
While the project achieved some success in organising activities and raising awareness around literacy and youth development it also sharpened Tawonga’s focus on developing initiatives that are more collaborative across stakeholders from the outset.
We move on to the reason why she became a gender activist. She reveals the issues that women faced in colonial Malawi still largely remain unaddressed, particularly with regards to gender relations, laws and women’s political participation. She goes on to emphasise that pre colonial Malawian women had certain rights and roles in society that were largely affected by the colonial experience.
It is clear that organizing, strategizing and building solidarity will enable women to better tackle the structural imbalances they face.
She says that although it is not well documented, women played an active role and where instrumental in the push for the country to gain independence. She opines that the passion, focus and drive of previous generations is lacking, replaced instead by something that seems superficial.
While it is not easy to pinpoint why things have regressed Tawonga feels that the advent of multiparty democracy and plethora of NGO’s has fragmented the movement.
In terms of the younger generation she sites ‘co-founder’ syndrome as being a particular issue. Instead of aligning with an existing organisation each person wants to set-up or co-found their own initiative.
Tawonga clearly practices what she preaches. She currently works part-time for an organisation called Pepeta and is the national coordinator for the Malawi platform in her country. She initially became involved with Pepeta as a student and has since returned to the fold. The organisation aims to act as a unifying voice for female activists across the region. Its mantra can be summed up as ‘I am my sister’s keeper’.
Literacy and youth development are causes that appear dear to Tawonga. She would like to pursue projects that enhance the development of young people who are attending secondary school or below. One of the lessons she learned from the Pamthunzi project is that people are more set in their ways by the time they reach university. Younger minds are more receptive to change.
It will be interesting to see how she pursues her ambitions while striking the balance between engaging in a collaborate framework from the outset and aligning with existing organisations.
© 2019 All rights reserved - Ri Iyovwaye on behalf of African Global Networks (AGN) - December 2019