When she was a girl, Maria Tembo succumbed to her parentsâ€™ demands and went into marriage, missing out on her ambition to build her life on solid education. But for her, that was not the end of the dream. That is why today, at the age of 51, she is fresh from writing the 2012 MSCE examinations. Bright Mhango had a chat with her.Â
Â She could not go past Standard Eight because her parents forced her into marriage. Many years later, she goes back to her past to fix it.
Maria Tembo stunned people around Naotcha in Chilobwe, Blantyre, by enrolling as a Form One student at a private secondary school in the area.
â€œOne of my friends saw me with books and asked me what on earth I was up to. I told her that I had enrolled as a Form One student. She stood in shock and watched me go.
â€œMy children questioned the move and said I was too old for school. My husband was cool with it and on I went with school,â€ she said.
She is a plump woman, medium height with countable strands of grey hair starting to jut out of her natural black hair. She looks younger than the 51 years she has bagged and the eight children she has introduced to the world.
Tembo is wearing sandals made out of car tyres that are daringly dubbed â€˜Jesusâ€™ in many parts of Malawi.
She runs a food stall on the roadside and is almost always there; she said she leaves the roadside at about 8pm.
Tembo sells a colourful medley and compendium of assorted foodstuffs: green onions and lemons, â€˜Chineseâ€™ and â€˜rapeâ€™ vegetables, grey sun dried small to medium fish, red tomatoes and brown berries.
Her bench attracts a mass of flies and she has to keep wadding them off, but that doesnâ€™t stop the flies and her customers who now and then stop by to grab something for that dayâ€™s dinner.
Temboâ€™s sons come to chat her up and stand in for her when she has to leave the bench.
Most women who pass her greet her. She has lived more than half of her life in this part of town.
What passers-by do not know is that Tembo is not an ordinary lady.
â€œMy parents spoke against a girl child getting educated and when I turned 18, they made me marry. I protested, but at the time, culture had a grip on peopleâ€™s lives and I reluctantly dropped out of school. Even my husband knows that I never wanted to marry,â€ she said.
She spoke of how her parents sought to maintain the family ties they had with her husbandâ€™s family which culminated in her, a Tembo, marrying another Tembo from the same villageâ€”Ganjo in Traditional Authority Makhuwira in Chikhwawa.
Back in the days, said Tembo, having attained Standard Eight education meant that one could at least be employed in companies such as Stage Coach, but, ironically, she chose to concentrate on bringing up her children.
She has never had a job; the income had to come from the husband, Simphoriano.
â€œI once told my parents that I couldnâ€™t effectively help them because I donâ€™t have a proper income base and that it was their fault,â€ she said.
Her husband went into forced and sudden retirement when he got partially paralysed. This would have meant trouble for her and her children if the husband had not been wise enough to buy a piece of land to build houses that the family rents out.
The rentals were, however, not enough for the family and without the husbandâ€™s salary, Tembo decided to set up the roadside foodstuff stall to complement and strengthen the familyâ€™s income base.
She said she has always wanted to become a teacher and her quest to get towards that dream kept burning in her. In 1993, she attempted to enroll in Standard Eight, but for some reason she dropped out.
Tembo enrolled for Form One in 2009 and obtained her Junior Certificate of Education in 2010 with passes in subjects such as mathematics and English.
This inspired her and enrolled for her senior secondary classes at a private school in Chimwankhunda, a neighbouring township.
â€œBoys liked meâ€”to sit around me, to call me names such as Masteni (Mama), and I enjoyed it all. I have sat my MSCE examinations this year and if fate is with me, I want to go on and go to a teacherâ€™s training college. I want to be a teacher,â€ said Tembo.
She smilingly admitted that just like many boys at the school, mathematics was some nightmare, but said she is optimistic that she will make it.
Her favourite subject was biology, but some teachers advised her that at her age, she doesnâ€™t need to stress herself with the subject, so she dropped it.
â€œI did not just go to school out of foolishness or excitement. I was making a statement. If kids see me with books, they should know that school is important. Again, knowledge is a good thing. There are so many things I didnâ€™t know that I know now,â€ charged Tembo, her pride peeping through her chuckle.
She bemoaned the oppressive culture of her time that saw her go into marriage forcibly. She also decried Dr Kamuzu Bandaâ€™s policy of barring girls who fell pregnant from going back to school.
Tembo argued that there should be no age limit and conditions when it comes to getting education.
She tipped the modern girl child to take advantage of the ubiquity of private schools and knowledge, enabling policies to get all the education they can and not just dream of getting babies because â€œeducation is the future and runs things nowadays.â€
But even for her, it has not all been a walk in the park. Tembo had to skip lessons sometimes to attend to her sickly husband.
She said sometimes her children needed fees and she had to prioritise them. Her business also suffered as she had to knock off early to go to school.
But Tembo sailed through the quicksand with all the determination she could garner. She gave away her phone to concentrate on studies, and to avoid distractions while in class, she had to excuse herself from her churchâ€™s womenâ€™s guild gatherings.
â€œI stop selling here at 8pm and I would go straight to bed and wake up at 3am and study or practise mathematics up to 5am or 6am,â€ said Tembo.
Chilobwe has a great share of girls idling, clasping fatherless babies, running unemployed or falling into the sex industry.
Tembo said she joined a mothersâ€™ group that scouts for idle girls in the area to try to exhort them to go back to school.
She said she was one of the campaigners for MP for the area Moses Kunkuyu and claimed that the MP cannot pass her stall without saluting her; so, yeah, she is a politician too!
Her push to become a model came late for her family. So far, none has been to college, but all of them, except the youngest, have been to Form Four, not an easy thing for a low income family such as hers.
Her three daughters are all married, three boys are still staying with her while the other two are working as a teacher and a driver.
â€œMy youngest daughter visited me a week ago and I told her to go back to school. Marriage should not be a barrier to advancement, you know,â€ declared Tembo.