In December 2007, Mary Tuscherer stepped onto the Chileka International Airport runway and walked smack into a country with very few published female authors. Startled at the numbers or rather; lack of them, the Voice Flame Writers International founder and executive director vowed to help women from Nsanje to Chitipa tell their stories. Since then, with the help of her American colleagues, Mary has conducted several workshops with women in Malawi and awarded scholarships to six secondary school students. In this interview with AKOSSA MPHEPO, she weaves the fabric that makes up her own story.
What brought you to Malawi?
In 2007 my friend Masankho Banda, a native of Malawi, invited me to visit for the Christmas holidays. The invitation arrived in October. My initial reaction was, “Too expensive.” “I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t afford it.” When I emailed back, I followed the voice of my heart (thankfully!) And said, “Yes! IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d love to go.” I felt particularly called to this journey. I sensed huge changes being set in motion. I knew it was time to allow my heart to be split open. It was time for me to be less afraid. I got my passport. I got my shots. I made my plane reservations. I read and researched. I waited impatiently for takeoff.
What made you want to come back to our quiet little country?
On my second day in Malawi, I learnt that it was almost impossible to find a book written by a local woman. I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t believe what I heard! I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t imagine my world without the written words of feminine voices to inspire me. As I travelled throughout Malawi I listened to women tell their stories. The accounts I heard were unfamiliar to me – tales of walking barefoot for three miles to obtain water from a hand pumped well. I felt a deep connection with these women. Their stories revealed a fear of speaking up, a lack of support for female education or independent thinking and a general lack of equality in their homes, economics and government. They reflected back to me my own struggle to speak up. I too am a woman finding my voice. I have grown to love the women of Malawi. This is why I keep coming back.
What exactly is VWFI?
Shortly after graduate school, I took my first writing class using the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) method. At that time, I was grieving the loss of my mother. I promptly signed up to be trained as an AWA facilitator and within a few months VoiceFlame Writers was birthed. VFWI supports womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s empowerment through creative writing, cross-cultural travel experiences, education and other forms of creative expression. While I am the Founder and Executive Director of VFWI it is composed of every individual who has ever shared a story, contributed financially or given of their time and talents. It was founded in 2004 as a San Francisco Bay Area organisation and expanded to international status in 2007 when I first travelled to Malawi. Sue McCollum, a participant of the 2009 trip to Malawi, joined VFWI as Director in August of that same year.
Why did you bring VFWI to Malawi?
When I witnessed the inequities and heard the desires of girls and women to find their voices and improve their lives, I felt an immediate call to action. The needs of the Malawian women intersected with my yearning to use my voice, my desire to serve, and my dream to expand my initiative to a global level. I met Pilirani Semu Banda via the internet through a friend and shared my vision of leading writing workshops in Malawi. Together, we created the first VFWI writing workshops in Malawi using the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) method. The first workshop, which run for three days, took place at Mua Mission in August 2009. Sue McCollum and I also led three additional one-day writing workshops Ã¢â‚¬â€œ one in Lilongwe and two in Blantyre. In all we wrote with over 70 women in 2009.
Your first trip was so successful, you came back this yearÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Yes. In May, we travelled to the Warm Heart of African with seven women from North America. We wrote with nearly 40 women in Livingstonia, 400 girls at Tukombo GirlÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s School and trained 11 women to become facilitators of the AWA writing method. With the help of an interpreter, we led oral storytelling experiences with over 40 female elders in Tukombo Village. Our goal is to support a writing/storytelling practice that is sustained by the women of Malawi. In addition to our writing endeavours, we awarded six secondary school scholarships to girls in several regions of Malawi. We are happy to be working with Girl Guides to accomplish this goal of educating young girls.
What do you hope to achieve by working with Malawian women?
Our vision is to support a salaried position for a woman in Malawi who will provide support for newly trained facilitators and writers. Future programs include additional facilitator trainings, a post-certificate training and publishing pieces written by Malawian women. VFWI hopes that girls and women in Malawi will be inspired to speak the truth. We would love to see writing programs in schools and read more from women in the media. We feel confident that a new generation of writers will be born!
What have you learned from working with Malawian women?
I learned that the emotions of love, compassion, grief, understanding and curiosity know no country or cultural boundaries. As women, we all have the desire to be seen, heard and to make a difference in our families, communities and beyond. We all want the best for our children. We all want to dream and have the opportunity to make our dreams come true. VFWIÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s intention is to model to the females of Malawi that it is a human right to share oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s story, that everyone has creative genius, that to be a woman is a gift and that to belong to the sisterhood of women carries a responsibility to support and love each other.
YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve encouraged women to speak out and tell their stories; where does yours begin?
I was born and raised in Rugby, North Dakota, USA, just 30 miles from the Canadian border. It was a small, rural community of about 3500 people. My father was a grain farmer and my mother; a stay-at-home mum. My simple rural upbringing instilled in me the values of hard work, generosity and hospitality. Living on the isolated North Dakota prairies, I often felt trapped in a homogenous, conservative culture that didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t support difference. The only way to belong was through strict compliance. As a young child, I began reaching out for a more global community. On the rare occasion that a foreigner came to town, I was one of the first to befriend him or her.
Through VFWI, you provide support to women in the US and Malawi. Who forms your support system?
I am fortunate to have a life partner, Jim Galinsky, who is a major supporter of my work. I hope that by following the voice of my heart and by living my passion I will leave a legacy that my daughter Amanda can embrace. In addition to Sue McCollum, my friend and business partner in VFWI, I also have a strong network of friends and many mentors who help guide my way in the world.
What role has your family played in making you who you are?
My mother played a large role in shaping my life. I witnessed her struggle to express herself and follow her dreams in a world that didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t support her. Fulfilling dreams was for boys and men. As a result, I made a decision to expand my options and take more risks.
Who or what inspires you?
Any person who has the courage to share him or herself in service to the world. I have a deep desire to live my life to the fullest, a joyful personality and the capacity to laugh at myself, all of which assist me through my dark times.
What are your guiding philosophies?
I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t remember when I first lost my voice. It doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really matter. What I know is that instead of singing louder or crying more, I buried my voice and consequently hid from life. Experience taught me that if I was going to survive I needed to excavate my own voice. So I began to dig. I started to speak up and ask for what I want. I learned to say “No!” I told my truth. I made mistakes. I sang in the shower. I wrote. I recovered my zest for life and said, “Yes!” As a result I am guided by a passion to live an embodied life, stepping boldly into whatever I believe in. My desire to leave a legacy of love, connection and adventure drives my motivation. I follow my dreams. I am visible. I speak. The poem Living Wide Open: Landscapes of the Mind by Dawna Markova (featured on our Soul Section, P.5 ) is one of my favourites.
What are your greatest fears?
That my health will be compromised and I wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be able to fulfil my dreams or live as fully as I want.
I am quite sure you have a few weaknesses under that strong, joyful exteriorÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
It is a constant struggle for me to quiet the critical voices that attempt to undermine me and stop me from moving forward with my dreams. To strengthen the voice of confidence, I teach what I continuously need to learn. This is much of what makes VFWI work. We write to reach our deeper inquiries and share to overcome that which holds us back.
What plans do you have for the future?
To expand VFWI into additional countries and to continue to develop programs that will support the voices, dreams and creative expression of girls and women around the world.
Ã¢â‚¬â€A BS in Speech Pathology and Audiology from North Dakota State University
Ã¢â‚¬â€A BA in Social Work from Concordia College
Ã¢â‚¬â€An MA in Spirituality and Culture from Holy Names University