I am Irina Manjomo an AGE Africa District Officer for Mulanje District.

Growing up was never easy for me, I was born in a family of 7. When I was 5 years old, I suffered from corneal ulcers and thus my right eye went blind, my parents divorced the same year, and we were sent to live with my grandmother in the village. Life in the village was very tough, the shoes we brought worn out and grandmother could never afford to buy as new ones, walking barefoot, covering more than 10 kilometers to school was the order of the day for every child in my community, I was physically and emotionally abused at home. At the AGE of 12, I was sexually abused and dropped out of school for a year because I was mocked by peers.

One day my sister brought a newspaper written in Chichewa and as I started reading. I saw a female lawyer. I took it and pasted it with toothpaste in my room and told myself I was going to be a lawyer so that I send the man who raped me to jail. The next school calendar I went back to school but all I could think of was becoming a Lawyer. At this point, I was 14 years old and all the friends I went to school with had gotten married. I used to start off at 6 am and got to school around 08:00 am because of the long distance, and this time around I was all alone, walking through the woods and fields. I used to attend classes 3 days a week (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays) because I was just too tired but I always wanted to go to college like my sister. Along the way, people would laugh at me thinking I was too old to go to school but that never bothered me because I had just one goal, “to be a Lawyer”.

Irina on her motorbike

My elder sister was intelligent, she struggled with fees because my dad abandoned us and was a drug addict. My mother, on the other hand, relied on small-scale farming. My sister was lucky enough and got selected to college she used part of her pocket money to buy us uniforms and exercise books. I moved from the village to stay with my sister as soon as she got a job after graduation. There is a saying in Malawi that; “When you educate a girl, you educate the whole nation” it is true, my sister was responsible for me and my other 5 siblings including my mother and cousins. She sponsored us through secondary school up to college.

I went to a national secondary where they integrate children with special needs. For the first time, I was learning together with visually impaired students. My teacher assigned me to help him one of my friend who was visually impaired, they struggled so much due to lack of resources and I was determined to help him and in turn, he also started teaching me braille and told me that I would make a great specialist teacher. My passion grew, I started volunteering at a nearby Rehabilitation Centre for children with disabilities.

I followed that path and in college, I studied Bachelor of Special Needs Education and took Social Work as a minor. I didn’t make it us a Lawyer but I fulfilled my passion to work with vulnerable groups in society. I landed my first job as a community rehabilitation officer for Malawi Council for Disability Affairs and later on promoted to Women and Children Programs Officer where I was working with women, girls and children with disabilities for 5 years.

I joined AGE Africa in July 2016. On my 1st day, it was All Scholars Retreat, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into but one thing I learned from the retreat was to “share my story” there were powerful stories from different successful women that day and I wouldn’t lie, it had a great impact on me. I had never shared my story with anyone and I thought mine was worse but there were women on that particular day that went through hell, made it in life and here they were sharing their stories. I was touched.

Views of Mulanje District

Before I joined AGE Africa, I wasn’t so sure if I was making the right decision, I was afraid of change, I thought I was destined to work in the disability sector as a rehabilitation officer. I took one step to try something new and here I am proud of the decision I made. I have grown professionally and as a person over the one year that I have worked with AGE Africa. I work up, get on my bike and start off to work. I spend the morning hours doing administrative work, attending district forums on girl education and other logistics. I start off in schools in the afternoon where I meet school authorities and attend CHATS with girls. I facilitate the selection of students for scholarships, provide guidance and counseling and home visits for my girls. I also monitor girls progress reports in school and encourage them where they need my support. I work hand in hand with teachers, mentors, mothers’ groups, chiefs school committees, Non-governmental organizations doing Girls Education and Sexual Reproductive Health Issues and the District Education Network to ensure comprehensive support to girls.

In as much as I am here to help girls, they have also helped me quite a lot. I was reserved, never believed in myself that much because of my background. Going through the manuals and attending CHATS sessions has also led to some sort of self-discovery, I didn’t know some of the hidden talents I have, more especially counseling and communicating with the youth. I started sharing my story with the girls and this has led to them opening up to me on different issues and sharing their stories as well. They relate to me on different levels. I have encouraged many girls who were on the verge of dropping out of school because of similar challenges I went through to hold own using my story as an example. Other than work, I also enjoy traveling and riding my motorcycle along the tea fields of Mountain Mulanje. I also love collecting artwork and designing random things for myself. I have the hunger to achieve more so that I can share my success stories with the girls. In short, I would say I am empowered to another level and keep growing each day and mostly learn from the people around me.