She is a political leadership mentor and trainer; a gender advocate who has dedicated her life to youth development. She is one of the 26 young women in Africa to undergo the 2015 Moremi Initiative for Leadership, Empowerment and Development (Milead) Fellowship. She is also one of the pioneers and president of Rotaract Club of Lilongwe, a youth arm of Rotary Club International. Rachel Kachali spoke with her.
Who is Chifundo Chilera?
I can describe myself in many things. I am passionate about young people taking up political leadership. I am a daughter, friend and a Christian. I am aged 25, born in Lilongwe and the only child of a single mother Lunia Chilera. I grew up in Lumbadzi. My father is the late J.B. Chimbeleko.
What sort of upbringing did you have?
I grew up among so many contradictions. My childhood years were more privileged. Life took a different turn when my mother lost her job and her businesses were not doing well in the late 90’s. We were kicked out of the house we rented, lost our property and moved to the village in Lumbadzi where I spent most of my teen years. Life was tough. But I thank God for a mother who I consider the epitome of an invincible superwoman. She managed to provide and support me. I began to see poverty as a state of mind.
I attended Lilongwe Nazarene Private Secondary School from where I sat for my Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE). I also went to Dedza Girls Islamic Secondary School, Bambino Primary School and Lilongwe Private Schools. After I graduated from the University of Malawi, Chancellor College with a Bachelor of Arts, Political Science Degree in 2010, I worked briefly for two years before proceeding to obtain my Master of Arts Development Management from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany partly and completed in Cape Town, South Africa. My Master Thesis was researched at the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) secretariat in Botswana.
Because I have been exposed to both poverty and wealth, I was determined to make something out of myself and to help others do the same. I believe that each of us holds an innate power to change our circumstances and each of us has been tasked with a responsibility to create opportunities for other people to change their own status or background regardless of our vocations.
What has been your career progression?
I have had an exciting career so far. I have been privileged to take up roles that have allowed me to pursue my political leadership, gender equality and community service. So, from second year of college up until my Master’s degree, I have taken side jobs such as assistant researcher to professors, doctorate students and consultants. These piece jobs were not only an opportunity to sharpen my skills and intellect; they allowed me to network with accomplished professionals.
I got my first occupation almost the same day I finished my final year examinations of my first degree. I worked with Konrad Adenauer Foundation on a voluntary basis managing economic forum seminars and the young politicians’ union programme for two years. I volunteered on this job driven by my passion to influence political leadership and political spaces. The foundation, although unable to offer me a job, recognised my excellent performance and awarded me a scholarship to study and this is how I went on to obtain my Masters degree.
I returned to Malawi during the 2014 elections time and worked for the European Union (EU) Election Observation Mission as a local political analyst. Then, I worked for a year as advocacy coordinator for Plan International Inc. on a project aimed at promoting girl’s education. I recently worked briefly as a consultant for UN Women. I am excited to share that I have been selected into the very competitive young professionals’ programme of the Commonwealth Secretariat where I will take up an international programmes position in their youth division. I will soon be moving to London.
How do you train/ mentor young politicians?
I started training them while still a student pursuing my Political Science Degree in 2009. The trainings were a part of the training of young politicians programme by KondradAdeanuer Foundation for young people with political ambitions. I facilitated sections on gender relations and political participation; rights and responsibilities; civil society in a democracy; political party systems among others.
Aside from training these young politicians, I had the privilege of mentoring some of them overtime whenever I was free. What I take pride in the most is that some of them contested in the Parliamentary and council elections of 2014. Some have proceeded to take up leadership positions at district, area and a couple of them in the national level structures of their respective political parties. I strongly believe that every nation’s hope lies in its young people because with the youth, comes progress, innovation and change.
You are interested in politics and gender, how do you marry the two?
First, gender equality issues are cross cutting. I find advocacy to be more than a job. It is my responsibility to ensure that no one is discriminated against on the basis of their gender. For example, in my role as political analyst during the elections, I made gender analysis on the candidate representation, electoral campaign dynamics and the election results. In working with young politicians, I had to be an advocate for gender equality in the political participation of women.
I have worked to promote gender equality through my advocacy roles at Plan International Inc. and UN Women. I have worked with traditional leaders, district councils and communities to promote by-laws which they have put in place to eliminate gender-based violence (GBV) and keep girls in school. I have been part of information dissemination and awareness raising campaigns to promote gender equality. For instance, I was responsible for the HeforShe campaign at UN Women Malawi championed by President Peter Mutharika.
What are some of the challenges young women meet when working in an environment dominated by men?
The challenges are many. A personal example is that in my third year, I contested for the position of president of Students Union at Chanco. Female students had contested only as far as the vice presidency. Once I declared my candidacy, before the official opening of the campaign period where I could share my manifesto and vision, I had already been discredited by many quarters on the basis of being female. Some argued that the nature of student politics at Chanco only befits a male leader and that females cannot handle the pressures and demands. Although I remained a main contender of the election against five male students, I did not win the election. However, this experience coupled with my other experiences has taught me a few things about challenging patriarchal strongholds. The first step is courage. This is something nobody, but women can do for themselves. There is also a lot of strategic preparation. We need to be the sort of women who are competent, qualified and skilled befitting the roles we seek to take up.
Tell me more about Milead.
The programme is committed to long-term leadership development and promotion of Africa’s most promising young women leaders. I have been selected from 3 020 applications from 44 African countries. Malawi is privileged to have two fellows this year, the other being Marriam Lally; a distinguished leader in her own right. I hope to utilise the leverage of this platform, recognition and network to promote the causes I am passionate about. This fellowship has come at the perfect time as I am one of the pioneers and outgoing president of Rotaract which focuses on community service and professional development. We are now working with peri-urban community in Lilongwe such as Senti Area to establish a multi-purpose community learning centre which will offer vocational skills development, a library, a resource center and some recreational facilities.
What is your vision?
My vision is to be a person of influence. I would like to influence the achievement of gender equality, programmes and policies to promote youth development. I would like to influence people and decision of strategic importance to Malawi to ensure they bring out meaningful change to the people and communities.
What are your other qualifications or recognitions?
In 2012, I received an award of excellence for outstanding leadership- symbol of true commitment to the growth African youth from African Women Millennium Initiative in Senegal. I am a 2012 graduate of the Young Women’s Leadership Institute, 2010 graduate of the Southern Africa Summer Academy on Elections and Electoral Campaigning; 2015 associate fellow of the Commonwealth Society.
What have been your memorable moments?
I have quite a litter of memorable moments of the influential people I have had the opportunity to meet. One of such moments is when I spent some time with the Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala at a girls’ summit hosted by the British Government in London, last year. Meeting Malala and having her share her experiences reaffirmed my dedication and determination to the cause.
What do you when you are not working?
I enjoy watching sunrises and sunsets. The graceful beauty of the dawn and the glorious splendour of the skies at dusk revitalise me. I am fascinated by nature and wildlife and enjoy travelling and the new experiences that come with it. I also like to read literature on strategy, power and influence; I am currently reading a collection of books by Robert Greene.