For most of us, the use of indigenous plants to heal body ailments may sound backwards, but there are other women who have gone through formal education to the point of getting a PhD in ethno botany (relationship between humankind and plants) to make a difference in the lives of pregnant women and children. One of them is Cecilia Maliwichi-Nyirenda. She talks to Paida Mpaso.
Who is Cecilia?
I was born in Thyolo to a family of three boys and three girls. I am married to Dean Nyirenda who works for NBS Bank. Together, we have two sons.
Tell us about your education.
I went to Malamulo Primary School, then Malamulo Secondary School from Form One to part of Form Three. I did my Forms Three and Four at Thyolo Secondary School from where I was selected to Chancellor College to do Bachelor of Science Degree majoring in biology and demography. I later did my Master of Science at Chancellor College where I specialised in ethno botany with a bias towards maternal and child health. Finally, I did PhD in Biology at University of Plymouth in England.
You are the first woman to ever study, ethno botany, what inspired you?
I was raised in a village by my grandparents. Being in a village set-up, our livelihood revolved around wildlife (plants and animals). My grandfather used to hunt animals e.g. rabbits and duikers which were a delicacy. In addition, we used to eat various fruits and vegetables from the wild. My grandparents also knew various medicinal plants which we used for primary health treatment. These, plus the rich indigenous knowledge (IK) that my grandparents and the elderly in the village had, fascinated me. I, therefore, decided that when I grow up I should do more research to safeguard IK. So, I studied about plants and their relationship with people (ethno botany), a field which no one had ever specialised at tertiary level in Malawi, at that time.
What remarkable discoveries have you made while in this field?
I have documented numerous plant species that are used to treat different diseases. I have also documented uses of medicinal plants that have never been researched on in Malawi despite being of international importance.
What about your work in child and maternal health?
I have spent more than 10 years doing research particularly in maternal health. I have worked with traditional birth attendants (TBAs) before. As you may recall, before 2007, government used to train active TBAs and provide them with delivery kits useful during child delivery. During training, the TBAs were banned from using traditional medicine. When I was doing research during that time, I discovered that even trained TBAs were using medicinal plants and some of the reasons were; use of medicinal plants is a tradition which has been there since time immemorial; hence, it cannot be stopped and medicinal plants are cheap and readily accessible.
What else did you find?
During the time that TBAs were banned from practising, I discovered that despite the ban, some women still delivered in the village. This suggested to me that instead of the policy improving the situation, it worsened things because it was untrained elderly women that handled the deliveries. I also came across women who boldly stated that they will never deliver in hospitals because of the ill-treatment they or their relatives once experienced from the hospital. Some women living near hospitals shunned the facilities and sought assistance from TBAs who were living very far.
I also found some cases where women smuggled medicinal plant concoctions into hospitals. This, plus interactions that I made with different stakeholders proved that use of traditional medicine is a reality and it can neither be ignored nor stopped. In order for us to win the battle, these medicines need to be properly researched on and establish whether they are really helpful or toxic.
What makes you happy about plants and the relationship it has with people?
The immense value of plants through their ability to provide numerous benefits (e.g. for food, medicine, firewood, shelter) to people makes me happy.
Have you ever worked with asing’anga on this?
By virtue of doing research in medicinal plants, inevitably I had to work with traditional medical practitioners or healers.
Have you published your work before?
I have been publishing some of the findings in different journals such as the Journal of Medicinal Plants Research, Scientific Research and Essays, and Indilinga – African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems. I also published an article in a book by Nova Science Publishers and Trade Record Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC) International. I have also presented research findings at both local and international conferences.
You also won an Award fellowship, what was it about?
I am a Fellow for African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (Award), a prestigious and highly competitive fellowship awarded to outstanding African women who are delivering pro-poor research and development. Award is a professional development programme that strengthens the research and leadership skills of African women in agricultural science, empowering them to contribute more effectively to poverty alleviation and food security in sub-Saharan Africa.
The award is established on the premises of mentorship where one is mentored by a renowned researcher for one year and in the second years the beneficiary mentors another researcher. Apart from mentorship, I went through rigorous training in several aspects such as leadership and management, interpersonal relationships, fundraising, networking and proposal writing.
Tell us about your professional journey.
Soon after attaining my first degree in 1994, I joined Ministry of Education as a biology and physical science teacher at Blantyre Secondary School. In 1995, I joined National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens of Malawi. From February 2010 to November 2011, I worked as a training coordinator at Leadership for Environment and Development – Southern and Eastern Africa (Lead-sea) based at Chancellor College. I am also behind the establishment of the Indigenous Knowledge (IK) organisation. Currently, I am working as a scientific operations manager for College of Medicine’s Research Support Centre
What legacy do you want to leave to your children and the people you work with?
To be proud of indigenous knowledge which is central to our culture and heritage; and the fact that, if investment is made in IK, Malawi can make socio-economic strides as other countries have achieved, e.g. India and China. Parents and guardians must give equal educational opportunities to both the male and female child.
Award fellowship has a role- modelling component. I used this opportunity to inspire girls of Blantyre Secondary School. The event revealed that most students do not get career guidance at a young age. They lack skills in how best to cope with challenges in life. I have therefore decided to embark on role modelling events in rural and urban schools of Malawi.
What kind of relationship did you have with your parents?
I was privileged to have around me family members who valued education and they inspired me greatly. My late grandparents played a vital role in my life because, despite being in village, my grandfather, who was a retired teacher at that time, always gave me extra lessons after school.
I am greatly indebted to my mother, Justice Dr. Anastazia Msosa who has been my role model throughout my life. Seeing her taking challenging jobs made me confident that as a woman I could also achieve great things if I were to follow her footsteps.
What kind of food do you like?
I like Chambo and nkhwani wotendera.