Catherine Gotani Hara is the First Female Speaker of Parliament in the history of Malawi, a lawmaker with the country’s main opposition party, Malawi Congress Party (MCP).
She has served the country in various capacities both from the professional sphere to political spaces.
“I thank God for the opportunity. I am humbled,” says Gotani Hara who lists being first female Speaker in a population of 17.1 million with a 52 percent more women. She is overjoyed to have been elected by members in the closely contested ballot cast.
“They believed in me and trusted me to deliver and do the job.”
Gotani Hara first made it to Parliament in 2009. Having lost in 2014, she has made her comeback in May 2019 and was elected Speaker of the House in the process.
Gotani Hara’s successes stem from an age of hardwork, becoming mature at a young age.
“I was raised by my father. My mother died when I was 11 years old. She was my inspiration, before she died she used to say, I want one of my children to go to Kamuzu Academy.” The most prestigious post primary institution at the time still as prestigious today.
“In 1986 in standard 6, we sat on the dust. Learners from Kamuzu Academy sat on chairs.” Gotani Hara, re-counts an event she attended while in primary school.
The oldest of four at the time, she wanted to do it for her mother, she went to Kamuzu Academy in 1988.
At that time Kamuzu Academy used to take three students, per (home) district-not city settlers. She was in Lilongwe coming from Mzimba as her father was a civil servant.
For the first time, selecting students from the three cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, Gotani Hara from Area 43 Tsokankanazi Full Primary School was one among two boys. Prince Chibwana and Lindani Phiri.
“My mother was on cloud nine, she was very happy.”
“My mother had a very difficult life growing up. She was not raised by her parents. She always said, I didn’t manage to go far. The gap that I did not fill I want my children to fill.” Though she didn’t go far Gotani Hara says she was a very intelligent woman.
She would wake Gotani Hara in the early hours of the day to study. As pupils used to write entry examinations to go to Kamuzu Academy.
She was so determined. Her mother, with the little money she had, hired a female teacher, to coach her and give her extra lessons after knocking off at 3 pm.
“Her life story was a sad story. I just felt that I had to make my mother happy, she believed in me.” During her second term in form 1, Gotani Hara’s mother passed away. She says,
“It was heart-breaking.” Her mother had pushed her so much. But left her with her siblings, the youngest four years old, before she could see the fruits of her effort.
“At this point, I want to thank my father, I know people say it is mothers who will raise children. In him I had a mother and father. He single-handedly looked after us.”
“I know there are men out there who feel they cannot make a change in their girls, I did it without a mother, but with a father.”
Women empowerment is not for women, but men have a role, says Gotani Hara who, from Kamuzu Academy went to Chancellor College for a Bachelors of Arts in political science.
The following year when she was in her third year, having joined university in second year as a Kamuzu Academy graduate; there were elections for leadership in MCP local wings. Still a teenager at the time Hara contested for party secretary and won.
“Everyone from Kamuzu Academy felt Kamuzu looked after us” We easily joined the party feeling kinship with Malawi’s first president Hastings Kamuzu Banda. She says most positions were filled by students from the school.
“I remember honourable Gwanda Chakuamba then MCP member, came and organised a party. Of course at that time we were doing it for fun. We never knew how far we would go.” There were those that supported other parties such as UDF.
“We were a wing, I was not thinking of going far with politics, it was but a hobby in college.”
Gotani Hara reunited with serious politics in 2004, when deep political interest began to build. Prior to 2004, Gotani Hara worked as project officer with Department for International Development (Dfid), a job that allowed her to interact with Cabinet ministers.
A fresh graduate from university, she met people who mattered, she lists Aleke Banda, Minister of agriculture at the time as one of them. He encouraged her to use her work experience in politics, to which she was hesitant at first.
Aleke Banda made her believe it was possible for her to make it. “He was exceptional, if you agreed on a deadline, he submitted on the dot or earlier, then I got interested.”
With Dfid, Gotani Hara learnt negotiation skills and interrelationship skills. She worked on projects across Malawi Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
She negotiated with various ministries of trade, agriculture and health. She is the epitome of the Banja La Mtsogolo clinics establishment in Malawi. She played a critical role in linking the Malawi government and getting funding, from the British government.
The skills she will now use to negotiate with the Executive another arm of government.
By 2004, she decided to attempt politics. She was no longer working, but running businesses. Between that period and 2009, she recalls former president
Joyce Banda as having helped her find her feet in politics.
“She would sometimes invite me to her constituency to see what they do as members of Parliament.
She would meet chiefs, cook for chiefs, she [Banda] without herself knowing, built me in being a member of Parliament.”
Then state legislator Patricia Kaliati also took her through political steps.
Gotani Hara as an active member of the National Assembly in 2009, was immediately appointed Deputy Minister of Gender and Deputy Minister of transport. When leadership changed in Banda’s time, she was minister of environment and minister of health.
All these have built the politician in Gotani Hara. Who vows to run the House with rules, standing orders and the Constitution for decorum, and order. She has become Speaker of the National Assembly at a time political tempers threaten to start a fire.
“If the chamber is hot, heat goes out. It doesn’t end in the chamber,” says Gotani Hara.
On being Speaker of Parliament, businesswoman, wife and mother, she says support from her husband has been key.
“He’s the best. He has sacrificed so much time, resources. He would go out of his way just to get what I want. With politics, you need resources.”
Many women have approached her and expressed interest to be in politics. They want to participate but their families won’t let them, husbands won’t let them, she says.
As a politician, hurdles will be there, because women are few and pushing the related agenda is not easy.
“Sometimes we miss it because we think we can change and move things just as women. If we concentrate on doing that we are not going to get the vote.”
“It is the men who have supported me through and through.” The women’s agenda is not just women. It’s more than women. She says,
“If we want to break the ceiling we need the men, my father is that example.”
Her advice to women; “There is nothing impossible. Whatever hurdles you meet on the way use them as stepping stones. When you look at a hurdle as a stumbling block, it will remain that, but as a standing piece, you will jump over.”
Had she sat down to look at the problem, she says she wouldn’t be where she is.
Her mother’s death pushed her to work harder. She wanted to please her father who took so long to remarry. “He said I don’t want anyone to come in and mistreat my children. All that made us feel sorry for him.” The only thing I could do was do well, and push my sisters. My younger sister is a doctor working for Oxford University. Something that could not have happened, she explains.
On whether it was due to availability of resources that she excelled, Gotani Hara says, it is the spirit. “You can have that privilege and abuse it.” There are people with a lot of money that have done nothing with their lives and those without and very poor but have achieved so much. It is all about determination, what you want in life and where you want to go. She advises