AGE Africa Executive Director, Concepcion Gaxiola, recently spoke with Margaret Mwanza Gadabu, the Head of Chancery for the Embassy of Malawi to the United States. Mrs. Gadabu shared with Concepcion a bit about her journey through her own education and provided her perspective on the challenges girls in Malawi face when it comes to acquiring and completing a quality education.

Read their conversation to find out more and to learn why Mrs. Gadabu supports the work AGE Africa does.

The following interview has been edited and condescend for content and clarity.  

Concepcion Gaxiola: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with AGE Africa and being able to share a little bit more of your personal story and about girls’ education in Malawi. You are the Head of Chancery for the Embassy of Malawi in the United States. This is a remarkable accomplishment for anyone and even more remarkable for a Malawian woman, where less than 1% of women hold a university degree. Tell us a little bit about any challenges you faced in receiving your education and getting to where you are personally and professionally.

Margaret Mwanza Gadabu: Thank you very much, Concepcion, for the opportunity to share my present experiences, as well as have a small impact on the lives of girls who are struggling with their education in Malawi. I think the biggest challenge in my life was losing my mother when I was only 6 years old and then my sister when I was 11. While the impact of such losses may not be measurable in terms of education, they do have an impact in terms of the emotional support and the social life that a child has when they are growing up. Being a girl, you definitely need your mother to be there and you need someone you look up to, but on the other hand, I was also fortunate to have great support from my extended family. They gave me so much emotional and social support that I needed to succeed in my education, and I am so grateful for my extended family that supported me and played a big role in my education.

My greatest mentor has been my father, Sakaika Jacob Mwanza. He believed in me and pushed me to do my best and excel in my education. He had so much faith and trust in me that, I owe who I am today to him.

When I was a child my father emphasized the importance of science and math. He wanted me to pursue a degree in science at the University of Malawi at Chancellor College. I was selected to attend Chancellor College but was not accepted into the science program; instead, I was placed in the arts program. While I was excited to be accepted to the college of my choice, I felt my father would be disappointed in the program I was selected to participate. To my surprise, my father was proud of me and he continued to guide me through college and graduate school. His guidance and mentorship make me realize how fortunate I was to have him by my side throughout my education. There are many girls who are not as fortunate to have their fathers as their champions.

I graduated from university when I was 20, which is quite young. I started work when I was 21, so being young and being a woman sometimes may not be the best ingredients for a successful career. Often times, you are judged by your age and gender and not necessarily by your ability.

However, I have been fortunate to come across very supportive seniors who noticed my efforts and commitment to work in my professional career, and they have been a part of my success to where I am today. Two names come to mind, Mr. Kena Mphonda, who then was the Chief of Protocol, and I was working under him. He is currently the High Commissioner in London, as well as Dr. Dalitso Kabambe who at the time, was the Secretary for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, but is now the Governor for the Reserve Bank. They may not know it, but they inspired me and were mentors in my career, who recognized the efforts and hard work that I have given in my job. I am also glad that there are men out there who are supportive of the progression of hardworking women.

CG: Thank you for sharing. I know just from being in Malawi what a struggle it can be for young women to be supported, especially in a one-parent household. You spoke a little bit about individuals who helped you out as guides and mentors in your professional career, but what about teachers?

MMG: Definitely. Teachers play a big role in one’s education and the more qualified teachers you have and are exposed to, the more likely you are to overcome your hurdles in education. I was privileged from primary school to have great teachers. Teachers are the foundation, beginning from kindergarten, but you know in Malawi, many children who are not privileged may not go through kindergarten.

From my primary education, I had some of the best resources in terms of teachers. From there, I went to Marymount Secondary School, which is an all-girls Catholic boarding school with a lot of great teachers too and a lot of discipline. Without discipline, you may not be able to achieve your educational goals.

But, I am aware that there are so many challenges related to the social structure in Malawi, that some children may not be as privileged, especially children in remote areas. The schools in remote areas may not have the resources that they need – the trained and qualified teachers that are needed—to be able to get children through primary education, secondary education, and, for those who are successful, to get them to college.

Unfortunately, most schools in remote areas have very few trained and qualified teachers as trained teachers are not willing to be posted to remote schools because there is no running water or maybe there is no electricity, among other reasons. Regardless, the government of Malawi provides incentives for teachers to work in remote schools, but if they have options, teachers would rather stay in the cities and teach there, resulting in overcrowding of teachers.

There are so many young children with potential to do better, who are intelligent, but they are constrained because they do not have the privilege to have the best, most qualified teachers to take them through the school curriculum and help them to succeed in their different stages in education.

CG: As you know, many of the girls that AGE Africa works with walk tremendous distances to get to school. We recently shared a story about Violet, she is an AGE Africa scholar who walks 18 km each day to get to school. Violet is the only girl in her family and the youngest of four children. Her family does not agree with her attending school and having dreams of being a radio host. Yet, she takes care of her chores every morning and then walks 18 kilometers to school. Violet is determined, works hard, and has placed in the top 10 in her class. What do you think motivates girls like Violet to walk such long distances just to get to school? And what would you say to girls like Violet who are not supported by their families, who want to realize their dreams?

MMG: First and foremost, I would like to say that it is amazing to learn that there are girls like Violet who have a passion for education, who are willing to walk 18km just to get to school without having the support from their family because she knows that this is right for her. I think that is a great characteristic to have in a young child and I hope that it is nurtured in her because it is going to take her far in life.

Having said that, with challenges in life, including poverty, you can do one of two things: 1) You can either be defeated by your challenges or they can make you become a better person. Violet probably realizes that education is her only option to get out of poverty. She may be aware of other options for young girls in her community, which include early marriages, and she may have had personal experiences with her peers or family members who have taken that path, and has probably seen the vicious cycle of poverty they have experienced. 2) She may realize that, for her, that is not the path she should take if she wants her life to be different. She realizes that education is her only option, and that is why she is motivated every day to walk that long distance, to do her chores as expected of a girl in a community like hers, and then walk 18 km just to get to school because she knows what she wants, which is a better life for herself as well as her family. The examples and consequences of early marriages may be surrounding her, and her desire to be different is what gives her the zeal to wake up every day and go to school.

To answer the other part of the question, what would I say to girls like Violet who do not have the support that they need from their family is to believe in yourself because AGE Africa believes in you. I would encourage her to look up to role models, like Ida, who, with the help and support of AGE Africa, was the first graduate to graduate from the University of Malawi Chancellor College. If she looks up to girls like Ida, then she can stay focused and before she knows it, she could be just like Ida.

CG: What can you tell our supporters about the unique challenges girls in Malawi face in getting an education?

MMG: I think that the major challenge that girls face in getting an education is poverty. It is a push factor that may often lead to quick and short-term solutions, obscuring the long-term, sustainable solutions. There are girls who desperately want to get out of poverty and find themselves with very limited options. When their families are unable to provide food for breakfast or a uniform and shoes for school, girls may opt out and seek casual work instead of attending school. Unfortunately, some girls turn to prostitution or marry young because they think they will be taken care of economically. In fact, some of the families and parents may encourage girls to get married at a young age because it will lessen financial pressure at the household level. These are realities of poverty.

In addition to that, the perceptions and expectations of the role of a girl at a household level puts a lot of strenuous pressure on girls. They have to balance household chores and school, like Violet, because it is expected of girls to stay home and do the household chores. It is not wrong to help out in the house, but if it is an expectation, it may also come at the expense of your education because, instead of studying or being in class, you are expected to perform the roles that a boy, or your sibling, is not expected to perform. As a girl, you have responsibilities which a young boy is not subjected to, reinforcing the belief that young girl is less privileged than a young boy.

We also spoke about the challenges in social structures, not having trained and qualified teachers, but then on the other hand, not having the right physical infrastructure, such as schools within walkable distances, is also a major challenge that girls face in getting an education in Malawi.

CG: What motivates you to help Malawi’s girls outside of your work at the Embassy, such as participating in AGE Africa’s 10K A Day?

MMG: First and foremost, I realize that the situation of girls in Malawi is a dire one. Secondly, I know that it is reversible. It is not a permanent state and can be reversed for the better. Thirdly, and most importantly, is because I relate to it, as a woman. As a girl who was born and raised in Malawi, I know what girls go through, struggling just to get an education. I am where I am today because of the privilege of a good education and I want to give back to my community and my nation.

CG: What words of encouragement do you have for the runners of the upcoming AGE Africa 10K A Day?

MMG: First, I would like to sincerely thank them. By participating in the run, they have made a conscious decision to help change the trajectory of girls’ education in Malawi. As they are running, I want them to know that every step that they take to get to the finish line is a step closer to changing the educational needs of girls like Violet in Malawi. So, let them be encouraged to get to the finish line because, by doing so, they should know that they can change the destiny of one girl who may have a significant impact, not only on the nation, not only on Malawi, but on the global stage.

CG:  I appreciate you sharing your story with us. I will say, I am so impressed by the amount of women who represent Malawi at the Embassy here in Washington, DC, and I think it speaks a lot of not just the administration in Malawi, but also of the resilience and the determination that so many women in Malawi have, to be able to represent their country on the global stage. Thank you so much.