She is a woman trained as a historian and English teacher. But losing her sister and other relations to HIV and Aids and maternal related complications drove her to start advocating for women, children and refugees rights both in Malawi and overseas. She is the country director of Sight Savers Malawi. She shares her journey with Albert Sharra.
Who is Agness?
I did primary school in several schools in the North. But I went to Mary Mount Secondary School before proceeding to Chancellor College, where I studied History and English. I am a mother to three children Towera (29), Patrick (26) and Chatonda (16). I am married to Richard Ridley who is Scottish. We met at Chancellor College while we were both lecturing. After lecturing for three years between 1980 and 1983, we left Malawi for Scotland.
How do you describe your childhood?
I have spent much of my time in the northern part of the country which is also my home village. My late father was a primary school teacher and he used to transfer from one school to another. He is one of the few teachers who initiated many primary schools in the North.
My growing was both tough and good. We are 11 in our family and our mother who is still living was a housewife. I3 people living on a teacherâ€™s salary was not an easy life. We used to get a new uniform on rotation. They would buy one for the first born, and then the next turn would be for the second born and so on. I thank my parents that they managed to educate all of us.
On a positive note, living with a parent who is a teacher was an advantage to me. He encouraged us to work hard and we were always exemplary.
My mother is a disciplinarian. One thing that I learnt from her is to analyse situations and come up with solutions. It was not easy to make ends meet but she had a way of making it work. When I went to secondary school, I was doing piece work in exchange with money or soap to help me instead of just relying on my parents.
You are a gender, minority, HIV and Aids and maternal health activists. What is your story?
I left Malawi while pregnant with my first child. My childâ€™s birth provoked me to think of maternal and literacy issues that affected minority groups. I became a volunteer in adult literacy in Hamilton, Ontario City in Canada. Later on, I joined Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh Scotland as Press and Publicity Officer. My active participation and the provoking questions I was raising during our activities forced the members to appoint me member of the Scottish Council.
Around the 80s there was a perception that HIV and Aids was in black people. Pregnant black people were asked to bring everything that is used during giving birth so that they donâ€™t pass on the virus to whites. This touched me and I vowed to do something about it.
In 1988, I teamed up with some friends forming a group and training centre called Shakti Women against Gender-based violence. I was the development officer.
How did you find yourself advocating for rights of those affected by HIV and Aids?
In 1992, while in Switzerland, I learnt that one of my sisters back home had died of HIV and Aids. Then other close relatives succumbed to Aids and pregnancy related complications. This drove my passion to do something on this pandemic. My dream was accomplished when I joined World Health Organisations (WHO) as chief technical adviser between 2004 and 2006 in South Africa.
When I came back in 2008, I joined Maikhanda, a safe motherhood NGO in Lilongwe as executive director and we have done a lot in uplifting the health of women. I am currently with Sight Savers Malawi as country director and my roles are much focused on the disabled now.
What exactly can you say you have achieved for Malawi?
All of my achievements have been through working with a team or organisation I was attached to. But as a leader, I have been influential in most decisions made. When I was country director for Unaids between 2002 and 2004, I was among the team that wrote and worked hard on a proposal for Malawi to the Global Fund for a National HIV and Aids programme. As a result of the proposal Malawi got $190 million.
While at Unaids, in conjunction with NAC and Ministry of Health, I took a leadership role in a pilot programme that led to introduction of ARVs in Malawi. As executive director of Maikhanda, a safe motherhood NGO based in Lilongwe, my leadership has contributed largely to the reduction of maternal and new born babyâ€™s deaths in Malawi through various initiatives we have implemented.
When government introduced the quota system of admitting students into the University, I was one of the five individuals that worked on the petition against the idea while raising some issues needed to be looked at for the effectiveness of the system. With the majority of the members residing outside of the country, I personally took the petition and dropped it at the OPC.
Oh yes, you petitioned government on the quota system? Tell us about it.
I was not happy with the way that the quota system was introduced and the way the language of ethnic origins within Malawi permeated the discussion at this time. Whatever the intentions of the system were it only served to divide Malawians rather than to unite them. We did not receive a response, but I understand that the issue may be reassessed.
What is your life philosophy?
Everyone has chawanangwa â€” the potential or gift in life and if you work hard on it without looking back you succeed.
What have been the ups and downs in your career?
There is politics in distribution of services particularly in developing countries. You see that an organisation is in Africa and donors want their people to run the projects. They donâ€™t like giving senior positions to Africans.
What has been your drive in life?
My desire to do something to benefit others. I thank the Lord that He gave me leadership skills. I associate with people of all types without difficulties and I am foresighted â€” with the experience that I have and the ability to put things together so that I register success in all my activities.
Do you know your weaknesses and strengths?
Yes my weakness is that I am impatient when I see people not standing up for what is theirs. When I call and they remain seated I get impatient. My strength is that I believe that change is possible even with just a minor effort by working with others.