Daughter of the regiment, Chanju Mwale chose to serve her country in a dangerous way, opting to be a citizen in uniform over the lucrative legal industry. A single mother, who is the first female lawyer in the history of the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) and the only one holding the rank of major. CHIKONDI KASAMBARA spoke with her.
Who is Chanju Mwale?
I am 37 years old and the first born in a family of two; me and my younger brother. My father is a pharmacist who runs his own line of pharmacies while my mother is a retired secretary. They were both strict in emphasising the importance of education. Growing up, I wanted to become a structural engineer, but figures have always been my weakest academic subjects. Beautifully structured creations fascinate my mind to this day. On the other hand, I always immersed myself in books in my free time while spending the rest of the times climbing trees and making clay cars with the boys. I went to then Dharap Primary School, now Namiwawa Primary School and later, I went to Kamuzu Academy. I later went to Chancellor College to pursue a Bachelor of Laws Degree. After graduation, I joined the Judiciary as senior resident magistrate and stayed in the Judiciary for two years before joining the military. I am a single mother of two.
Any reason you left the Judiciary?
The Judiciary left me emotionally and intellectually challenged as I felt the system did not deliver what it should. Basic principles of criminal justice state that the purpose of legal penal measures it to facilitate reform and rehabilitation of the offenders who pass through the system. Part of my responsibilities as a senior resident magistrate was to make prison visits and the shock I got each time I visited prisons left me questioning whether indeed we are achieving what we are purporting. Overcrowded cells, long stays on remand because of delays in prosecution and sentences not tallying with offences committed. I saw children in the system born in prisons and convicted instead of being taken to appropriate correctional facilities. I could not stand seeing all this, hence, my early departure.
Why did you turn your back on these injustices instead of using your powers to fight for change?
Let us just say that the legal field was not my calling and the earlier one recognises that in life, the better choices one makes in moving to areas where they can perform. In April 2004, I joined the military as a legal officer, second in command in the legal services. I hold the most senior female position in MDF as major. I have undergone various courses and trainings, including being deployed to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a military observer from 2010 till 2011 and taking part in military exercises at SADC level. In 2014, I was awarded the United Nations (UN) Fellowship in International Law (of the sea). This is awarded to 10 people each year after floating the scholarship award the world over. It is extremely competitive and prestigious. They ask you to propose an area of research which is relevant to your home country and proceed to work on research paper under the supervision of allocated universities. This fellowship was sponsored by the Nippon Foundation of Japan.
Why did you choose guns and the battlefield?
I am a go getter and I knew I belonged to the military. I went for it even though my parents protested against the move. I wanted to take on the challenge of being the first female lawyer to serve in a military office which is still an unchartered territory.
How do you feel about being the only woman holding the highest rank?
It is no mean achievement and has not been as easy task. The military is a traditionally male dominated institution and proving oneself worthy is an uphill battle every single day. We still have a lot of ground to cover for women to be fully incorporated into the system. Mind sets need more adjustments and this applies to both males and females in the service. Changes can, however, be embraced if they stem from management and policy level to trickle down to ranks. All in all, I am proud of myself because I worked hard and sacrificed a lot to be where I am. It can be daunting because of the responsibilities I hold as a woman, lawyer and service member.
Take us through your duties in the military
Advising the command element on all legal matters including disciplinary issues. Drafting and training officers in military law and pre-deployment contingents in international Humanitarian Law. I also represent the force in various national and international tribunals such as Ombudsmen among others.
What areas of your job do you find fascinating?
I love my uniform firstly. The camaraderie is another aspect which one cannot find in most institutions. The exposure to many cultures when I travel spices up everything as well. I remember when I was deployed to DRC the diversity I experienced was unimaginable compared to staying in New York. My Job has moulded me into a very open minded individual.
What challenges do you face in line with your duty and how do keep afloat?
Every environment presents a multitude of challenges and the military by its very nature is a challenging institution physically, professionally, emotionally and socially. The society, especially ours, views us ladies in service negatively while internally, our male counterparts also have reservations towards us. This obviously affects us as human beings. When I went for a course at the African Centre for Security Studies in Washington, I met a lady colonel from the Zambian Air Force who shared with me her secret to survival in the system. She told me never to compromise the femininity and professionalism in the performance of your tasks. Do not let anyone intimidate you in any way and don’t use your femininity to gain favours either as it compromises your credibility. That is how I have overcome the majority of the challenges I have encountered over the years.
Is there any woman in the military you look up to?
Even though I hold a senior position, there are some dedicated young female soldiers who make me proud. I look up to my mentor during my initial training, Lieutenant Patricia Fungula and Staff Sergeant Alice Chakwana. These are, but some of the people who inspire me.
How to you balance time between work and family?
I am a proud mother to my daughter Taweneko who is 15 and Shaun who is eight. It is not easy to be a single mother and support the two, but I always prioritise them in my expenditures. My parents have been instrumental in the bringing up of my children, offering support whenever I travel on duty.
How far do you want to go with your career?
I want to serve my country to the best of my ability. Thereafter, with the blessings of my superiors, expound internationally.
How do you spend your free times?
I like working out, lifting weights in particular. I also like reading as well as collecting music. I also enjoy socialising with friends.
Words of encouragement to fellow women?
It is not an easy road, but with focus and determination, we shall reach the goals we aim for, as simple as that. n