Martha Kwataine is executive director of Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen) and a vibrant force to be reckoned with in MalawiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s advocacy circles. In MarthaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own words, “My work revolves around fighting for justice in the health sector, especially around access for the poorest and most marginalised, which is still a huge issue. My role is to empower the rural poor, because even though they are poor, they have the right to life and that can only be achieved if their right to health is achieved.” Interview by PAIDA MPASO.
Who are you?
My name is Martha Kwataine (nee Nkhoma). I come from Kapesi Village, T/A Kachere in Dedza district. I have a bachelors degree and a masters in economics both obtained from the University of Malawi. I am married to Thomson Kwataine and have three children. I have a son and two daughters aged 17, ten and five respectively.
How was growing up like?
There were two of us in the family. My mum and dad divorced when I was three years old. It was not easy for a single mother surviving on subsistence farming to raise us. But the grace of God saw her through. She used to make doughnuts, fritters, corn bread (zigumuyoyo) and banana fritters (zitumbuwa) to raise income to support her two daughters. In order to support my late mum generate the income she needed for our basic amenities, I became involved in the business at age six. We would wake up 4am to go to Dedza Mountain to fetch firewood for baking corn bread. Upon our arrival from the mountain, I would quickly eat my breakfast. This was usually porridge, tea with Irish potatoes or tea with corn bread. Once back from school, I would quickly have my lunch before taking the basket of goodies to the market for sale. By 6pm, I would be back from the market, helping my mum prepare supper. I remember there were times when people accused my mother of overworking me but I never saw it that way. My mum was very daring and remained focused. She had a purpose and we supported her because we understood that she could not do it alone. Due to this upbringing, I am an early riser.
What led you into this career?
I always dreamt of being an influential person in society who would uplift the lives of the poor and vulnerable. Having experienced biting poverty myself, I was compelled to work hard in school to defeat it. I felt sorry for my mum. She sacrificed so much, to the extent that she had one dress which she washed every night. Although she went to be with the Lord in June 2009, I am gladdened that at the time, I had managed to raise her living standards. She at least had a house with corrugated iron sheets, pipe water and could hire casual workers to till her fields. I wished she lived longer to enjoy the fruit of her labour but God had other plans for her. I am comforted knowing that heaven is better than this world so she is in safe hands. My grandmother, who is still alive and in her late 70s, is equally supportive. I support her just as I did my late mum.
How did you get where you are?
I have come very far. My first job was teaching at Umbwi Secondary School. At the time, I had a diploma. In 1997, I went back to college for my bachelorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s degree. I left my three-year-old son in the care of my husband. After finishing my studies, I went back to the teaching career where I taught for one year before joining Scripture Union of Malawi in 2000 as the regional coordinator, Southern Region. In the same year; 2000, I successfully secured a scholarship under the African Economic Consortium to study for an MA in Economics at Chancellor College. During this time, I was seven months pregnant with our second child. It was not easy, but I believed that the Lord who had opened the door would also give me the grace to accomplish everything. I graduated in December 2002 with an MA in Economics. Currently, I am applying for a PhD programme in my field. My husband was very supportive and I am very grateful for that.
Being the executive director of Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen) comes with challenges, how do you deal with them?
My approach has been maintaining a positive attitude to life. I also have a listening ear, which helps me understand the other person. I deal with people from all walks of life since ours is an organisation that deals with development issues. I study the people so I can strategise on how best to handle each one of them without compromising my values and the mission for which Malawi Health Equity Network exists. Above all, I present my issues to the Lord in prayer. I believe that prayer is central for any leader who wants to excel. Of course, people have their own expectations that are sometimes unrealistic but that should not be cause for alarm. I also believe in seeking advice from people that have portrayed good leadership and management skills. No man is an island and life is not about re-inventing the wheels. Whatever challenges one goes through, somebody somewhere has already experienced them, hence it does no harm to humble yourself to seek advice from others. You can get sound advice even from junior staff. I believe that every human being regardless of their level of seniority has wisdom.
Does being a woman make your job harder?
Culturally, the beliefs that a womanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s place is in the kitchen brain washes the girl child to the effect that they do not aim high. Because of the traditional set up and the nature of my job as an advocate, the questions I get are very frustrating. For instance, I have been asked on several occasions: Koma amuna anu amagona? (Does your husband sleep at night?) This shows that we are still centuries behind in as far as appreciating the role of women is concerned. My job as an advocate is often mistaken for being a difficult woman. This is compounded by the culture of silence in Malawi. The unfortunate part is that even some women who believe that women are not supposed to be vocal misinterpret me and ask lots of demotivating questions. As I said earlier on, the key is believing in your dream.
Has this career always been dream?
I have always wanted to uplift the lives of the underprivileged. I am aware that I am on my way to the great destiny that the Lord has designed for me. I am very grateful to my family, especially my husband and children. They understand and take my work/career as a calling therefore; give all the moral and spiritual support. Often times, women are accused of being emotional and as a result, many give up. We all have emotions; what matters is how they are handled. Men and women are different. It is not about who is better than the other but complementing each other. The challenge therefore is for all to appreciate each other and work together.
What are your highest moments?
Seeing the fruits of what Mhen has lobbied for gives me innermost satisfaction. For instance, we lobbied and advocated for an upward adjustment of locum for healthcare workers, and government responded positively. We lobbied for reintroduction of tuition scholarships for Cham and MCHS students; there was a positive response and money was allocated for 1200 medical students. As a Christian, my highest moment is when I see people giving their lives to Jesus Christ and having their lives totally transformed. I have learnt that education contributes very little or nothing to character transformation.
What motivates you?
The fact that nobody on this earth is born by chance or by accident. There is always a purpose for every human being. That motivates me to ensure that I live a life that fulfils my purpose for existence.
What qualities do you think have made you succeed in life?
I am principled and pay attention to details. This has helped me to remain focused. You cannot survive in this world if you do not have principles to guide your life or else you risk being digressed.
What would you want people to know about you?
I am a genuine advocate with peopleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s interests at heart. I look at the issues not personalities and I am there to fight for the plight of the poor and the underprivileged. People should remember me for my fearless approach to ensuring that the truth and justice is upheld and that the poor should not be exploited for the benefit of the few elite. When I speak for the poor, I am talking from experience not theory. I know that there are people who can help others to come out of poverty through development and implementation of good policies. My role is to complement that by providing checks and balances and reminding those in authority that poverty reduction should not just be by word of mouth but actions.
What do like doing when you are not busy?
I like reading books that add value to my professional, moral and spiritual life. I also use that time to visit the sick and those in difficult situations to provide moral and spiritual hope. I am involved in activities at my local church, KaningÃ¢â‚¬â„¢a CCAP. I also enjoy watching gospel channels, listening to and singing gospel music.
Ã¢â‚¬ËœI am determined and I put a 100 percent into each one of my projects.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢
I will not settle for anything less than quality workÃ¢â‚¬â„¢
Ã¢â‚¬ËœI am consistent in my decisions.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢
Ã¢â‚¬ËœI listen to people and take criticisim positively.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢
Ã¢â‚¬ËœMy life is guided by the Word of God and prayer. I am fulfilling GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s purpose through through advocacy therefore I am passionate about work.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢