Back from a UNDP assignment as gender advisor in Sierra Leone and now runningÂ SOTMACS consultancy firm in Lilongwe, Olivia Margaret Mchaju Liwewe shares with ALBERT SHARRA her passion for gender activism, her, family, her value for hard work and lifeâ€™s little lessons .
What is SOTMACS?
It is an independent consultancy firm which has consulted for government, the UN family and bilateral institutions, namely; UNDP Malawi, UNFPA Malawi, DfID Malawi, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), World Bank, National AIDS Commission of Malawi, Dan-Church Aid, Oxfam-Malawi, and Baptist World Aid Australia. Through SOTMACs, I have evaluated projects and programmes from a gender perspective in Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe among others.
We know you as a writer, gender activist and gender advisor. How did get into this?
Fr. Gamba of Montfort Press first approached me in 1996 to begin writing on womenâ€™s issues and approached me again in 2004 and asked me to be one of the editors of the Lamp Magazine. I began to regularly write on the opinion column of the magazine on various gender issues. I got myself in the women advisory corridors through my work with various organisations.I have worked as Gender Advisor for various development agencies, GTZ now GIZ, Canadian International Development Agency Program Support Unit and UNDP-Sierra Leone. Before I joined them, I worked for the University of Malawi as Womenâ€™s Programâ€™s Officer, a position that was funded by USAID under the HRID program that encouraged girls to study non- traditional subjects. I was also given the opportunity to work for the former First Lady as the then Country Manager Grant Hawes would second me to State House as the Gender and HIV/AIDS Technical Advisor for the First Lady Patricia Shanil Muluzi. I wrote her speeches for the African First Ladies meetings on Gender and HIV.
What are your most memorable achievements from this period?
The most significant occasion was when Her Excellency Patricia Shanil Muluzi delegated me to represent her at the African First Ladies Summit on HIV/AIDS that took place in Geneva in July 2002.
Usually, successful people owe a lot to their family and upbringingâ€¦
My father, the late John Bartholomew Mchaju Liwewe, was a teacher by training and worked for the Ministry of Education until he retired as Chief Education Officer responsible for all primary education in Malawi. It was after his retirement that Dr Kamuzu Banda appointed him first Minister of Natural Resources. He always went the extra mile in carrying out his duties . This rubbed off on me. My father was also very domesticated and gender sensitive. He, among other thing, made sure we looked smart before seeing us off to school. On many occasions, he personally combed our hair. He had time for us as children. Although he did enjoy his beer with friends he would first come home after work, check our home -work, ensure that we had supper together and tuck us into bed before leaving home for his beer. I find it interesting that I am now a gender equality advocate having been brought up by one of the most gender sensitive men and I believe I am who I am because he believed in women empowerment.Â He also religiously took me and my siblings to church every Sunday and instilled Christian values that greatly moulded me over the years. My mother, Agatha Evelyn Pondani Liwewe, was the house manager whoÂ taught me how to economically manage a home. She was quiet, hardworking and a model wife of her time. I wish she talked more but she rarely gave her opinion on issues. I love living in a clean home so I closely monitor those that help out at home and owe this to my mother.
You were recently on duty as Gender Advisor for UNDP in Sierra Leone. Tell us about this?
I worked under the Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery division. I set up and managed the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment Project which focused on piloting building peace with and for women in all Sierra Leoneâ€™s recovery and reconstruction programs. It was the first time for me to live in a country that had been devastated by war and which in so many ways is currently less developed than Malawi and yet it is very rich with the largest diamonds in the world.Â Freetown is one of the most beautiful cities in terms of its landscape and the people are very friendly.
Has being successful changed you?
I am one of those people that never change regardless of where I find myself. I am a down to earth person. God has blessed me with a number of successes in life but I think the greatest success is to know Jesus as my Lord and personal Saviour because am assured of the fact that God is in control of my life and that I am a partaker of His divine nature which takes care of a lot of unnecessary effort to achieve things. I think until one gets to grips with who they are in Christ they can hardly call themselves successful; they may have possessions and positions but may not be successful in the true sense of the word because they may lack peace of mind which is what we all seek to have.
What principles have helped you get this far?
Hard work and doing the best I can in everything I am responsible for, humility and eagerness to learn even from young people. Also, the uncertainty of life keeps me in check. One should never think that they have arrived or that they are better than others because fortune can change over -night. So, being simple, friendly to people at all levels, respecting those in leadership and being a team worker and are my biggest assets.
Women are sometimes not confident enough to take on challenges…
Women are normally blamed for not having confidence and yet their upbringing right from day one is strategically designed to deny them of self- confidence. It is the less confident woman that society calls a good woman and so most women are good women because they subscribe to that social value that applauds them for lacking confidence. Being a confident woman can be a lonely battle and you have to shout twice as louder than men to be heard! You have to learn to stand up all the time and swallow the most negative comments and verbal abuse that men seem to specialise in. For some of us, God just wired us in a manner that refuses to conform to the social values that limit our God given rights and potential to excel. Some men and women feel threatened by it and yet we cannot help being who we really are. I was blessed to have a father who encouraged my assertiveness. Men have a very big role to nurture women into confident assertive women. We need to put in place programs that will liberate men from intimidating women. The undressing of women in public was indicative of the significant challenge of lack of respect for women in Malawi. We need to maintain the momentum of activities that the Ministry of Gender Children and Community Development with the support of Womenâ€™s Rights NGOâ€™s and activists. The nation should continue to dialogue on the dignity of women in ways that will transform menâ€™s mind-set about women.
What has life taught you?
Once you factor Jesus into your life, relationships and interactions with people are always a blessing.Â I have learnt to appreciate the good side of people and accept that their bad side is what makes them human. Instead of trying to change people whose ways may not be pleasing to me, I change how I react to them because I have the power to change ME and this has helped alleviate a lot of potential frustrations.
Any weaknesses beneath that brilliant, superwoman exterior?
I am a perfectionist and since the nature of my work involves designing programs and drafting development strategies at various levels and writing reports, this translates in working long hours. I am also too generous and often get taken advantage of. Managing this is still work in progress but with Godâ€™s Grace, I am learning to do so.
Can you please tell us about your immediate family?
I have three children. The first born is my daughter Tamara Florence and second born is my son Ganizani Thomas and the third child is adopted and her name is Prisca Mary. Tamara is 33 and is currently on a Masterâ€™s Program while Ganizani works for the Ministry of Transport and Public Infrastructure. He is 25 and Prisca is 13 and in Secondary School. My children have been a source of strength and motivation to excel. I have always worked hard in an effort to ensure that they go to good schools.
You should have people you aspire to most, who are they?
Locally, I am inspired by Nancy Tembo (A Nabanda). I think she is one of the seasoned lady politicians in Malawi with a lot of integrity. I watched her conduct her campaign when she began her political career. She is very innovative and creative. She managed her constituency in a very unique manner and has a way of interacting with people in her constituency that makes everyone feel important. When she was a Member of Parliament she took time to read and to consult and was always well informed before she made any statement.
At your free time, what can we find you doing?
You will find me reading Christian books. I read books written by, Rick Warren, Myles Munroe, C.S Lewis, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osten and am currently reading David Oyedepoâ€™s publications. When I am not reading, you will find me gardening. I find gardening relaxing. I sometimes wonder why I did not study agriculture. I am also a great fan of exercising and so when I knock off early I take an evening walk with my son.