Raised in Lumbadzi in the outskirts of Lilongwe City, Chifundo Chilera could never have dreamt of life as an expatriate, let alone at a youthful age.
She says: “I was the first person in my family to graduate with a college degree and still the only one who has a master’s degree.
“It can be hard to dream big dreams when you have limited exposure on what opportunities are available and how much one can achieve, given a chance.”
As a University of Malawi (Unima) student, one of the common questions Chifundo got from people was related to what kind of jobs prospects she would attract. She says many thought political science did not have an obvious career path.
She observes: “Yet, now, I realise that one of my key professional advantages is the multi-disciplinary nature of my academic background.
“Having studied a fair amount of economics, public administration, constitutional law, psychology, sociology and politics, I am able to apply myself to very complex development challenges and contribute to solutions with a broader lens.”
Chifundo believes that the course is also the reason she has navigated with ease across various profession—working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at community level, inter-governmental organisations and now, with one of the world’s largest sources of funding and knowledge for developing countries, the World Bank.
Based in Washington DC, her work at World Bank focuses on the social aspects of sustainability, inclusion, risk management for multi-million dollar projects and analytical services.
“I support a portfolio in a diverse range of sectors, including health, education, infrastructure, transport, climate resilience and financial intermediaries,” she adds.
The expatriate was only 25 when she got her first international job with the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, two years after obtaining her Master of Arts degree in development management from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany.
She attributes her experience at the Commonwealth to enabling her participate in high-level diplomatic engagements.
These include her service as special aide to the Commonwealth deputy secretary general in meetings with High Commissioners in London and missions to Botswana and South Africa; as well as special aide to the Conference Secretary for the 9th Commonwealth Youth Ministers Meeting hosted in Uganda.
Chifundo’s biggest influences has been exposure, both through travel and networking.
The political scientist admits that transitioning from working in her home country to working as an expatriate was both exciting and intimidating.
She applied for both jobs through Internet links and was recruited from Malawi.
“It was validating to know that my qualifications, experiences and talents were competitive at the global level,” she adds.
Chifundo graduated with a Bachelors degree in political science from Unima in 2010.
After completing her undergraduate studies, she was determined never to miss an opportunity to see new places, and meet as many different people to expound on aspirations and inspiration.
She boasts of having travelled to to 24 of the 28 districts in Malawi for work, studies and occasionally for leisure.
And at 30, Chifundo has travelled to 30 countries around the world and lived in seven of these.
She adds that participating in clubs, communities and conferences has also played an important role in helping expand her network and, therefore, creating more opportunities to learn from others beyond regular professional circles.
In 2015, she was named one of 26 Most Outstanding Emerging Young Women Leaders in Africa by the Moremi Initiative in Ghana where she also participated in a three-week LONG leadership fellowship.
Through this fellowship, she became part of an active community of very inspiring African young women who continue to achieve great things in government, business and the academia all over the world.
“I have also been part of the Rotary Club in Malawi, an experience I cherish for fueling my passion for community service while at the same time introducing me to people from various vocations. Most importantly, my church community helps to keep me grounded in my faith,” says Chifundo.
She observes that travelling and participating in wider social and professional gatherings is an excellent way to build interpersonal competencies.
The young professional believes in taking risks, practicing leadership, improving public speaking skills, demonstrating commitment to personal interests and building social capital as markers of distinction to one’s profile.
She adds: “Having come this far, I understand that in one’s career, there will be many junctures requiring insight, guidance and sometimes just to see someone relatable who has already gone through the path you are on.
“Through my blog, www.chifundochilera.com, I reflect on my personal growth and share about my experiences, even as I continue to pursue excellence and grace in my own career.”
Chifundo studied at Chancellor College in Zomba, Lilongwe Nazarene Private Secondary School where she sat the Malawi School Certificate of Education examination.
She also went to Dedza Islamic Secondary School for her Junior Certificate of Education and briefly at Mzuzu University.
“I learned very early on to appreciate how truly rich Malawi is in terms of landscape, the lake, languages, religion, cultures and a truly warm hospitality no matter which part of the country you visit,” she says.
Chifundo says she is Chewa from Ntchisi and Ngoni from Dowa with close relationships with both her maternal grandmother whose name was Onamagetsi and paternal grandmother whose name was Onamiti.
She claims another close relationship with her great grandmother fondly called Oyiya where she learnt a lot about her culture, including how to prepare traditional meals, folklore and songs as well as acquiring a native Chichewa accent.
Despite her busy schedule at the World Bank, she still finds time to nurture her love for travel. She observes that there is a general misconception to link travel with luxury.
However, Chifundo says when one has the heart for it, there are several budget options for travel and one can start locally.
“My very first self-sponsored holiday was in 2010. With a friend, we saved a few thousand kwachas and travelled to Nkhata Bay to explore the district and the lake. We stayed in a budget lodge and enjoyed eating batala at local restaurants, hiked some mountains and appreciated the Tonga way of doing things.
“This is the spirit that pushed me to save my stipend as a master’s degree student and use it to travel around Europe. I have taken several trips alone, visiting new countries where English is not the official language and where I knew no one. In the process, I have learned a lot about building trust and rapport with people, asking for help, being tolerant of other cultures and most importantly, I learned to be confident in myself,” she adds.
When not travelling, Chifundo enjoy hosting friends at home and spending time with her husband Elvis Eze and son Sungitsa.