Esmie Tembenu has served as a Child Justice for close to 15 years. She is the first woman to serve at the Child Justice Court and has through her tenure, demonstrated strong passion for children, especially now with so many defilement and rape cases. She has been forced to retire due to an illness. CHIKONDI KASAMBARA speaks to Tembenu on her life and career journey.
Take us through your life Journey.
My life is one great testimony and proof that God is able. I was born Esmie Kamphata in 1961, first born in a family of five. My family was extremely poor and my mother had to brew beer to support my education. I was under a lot of pressure from both my father and society to quit school because ‘there was no benefit in educating a girl’. It hurt me so much, especially at Lilongwe Girls Secondary School when I saw my friends from well- to- do families sailing through life easily while I depended on government food, coupled with a few clothes and sometimes lack of adequate financial help. I used to go on a hunger strike to force my mother to borrow money for my fees when she failed to raise enough through her business. My father only started supporting my education after I passed my Junior Certificate of Education (JCE). My role model was our headmistress Mrs Kawalewale. She inspired me to become a teacher later in life.
What became of your teaching dream?
Being the first born, I had the responsibility of educating and caring for my siblings. So, immediately after my Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE), I landed a job at Southern Bottlers as an accounts clerk. I bought my father a shirt with my first salary so he could appreciate educating a girl. I was selected to start a teaching course at the Lilongwe Teachers Training College which I did, but quit after two weeks because it meant more problems for my siblings. I returned to my job as an accounts clerk. I met and married the man of my dreams Elemsly Tembenu in 1982, but unfortunately he died in 1989. I was a widow at the age of 28 with five children because, I must admit, the child-spacing was poor and I was giving birth yearly. He died when my last born was two weeks old
How did you survive widowhood at such a young age?
I went through the toughest financial challenges one could dream of. It was not easy to single-handedly take care of five children and my four siblings. Worse still, I suffered stigma and discrimination by my very friends because rumours became rife that my husband died of Aids. It was only after my last born fell ill and I had to donate blood when I learnt I was HIV negative. I started planning for my future; suffice to say that I vowed never to re-marry because of my loss of trust in men.
How did you get into the judicial system?
After my husband’s death, I moved from Kasungu, then Ntcheu, working as clerical officer in traditional courts. I went for an administration course in Mpemba in 1991 and upon completion; I became the acting district courts administrator for Dedza. I went for magistrates training in Mpemba in 1998 and thereafter, started working in Mangochi in 2000. While there, I went to the West Indies for a gender -based violence (GBV) course. I was transferred to Blantyre Magistrate Court and after just a year and a half; I was transferred to the Malawi Judiciary Development Programme (MJDP) as legal adviser. I resigned barely after six months because being a trained marriage counsellor and family life educator, it broke my heart to witness marriages break over petty reasons when I could help, but was unable due to the nature of my job. Government then established the Child Justice Court in 2005 and I became the first woman to serve as the justice. It was such an honour for me because I have passion for children.
Why did you decide to retire before your retirement age?
It is such a painful retirement forced by health issues. In 2001, I handled a political case involving 32 accused and 60 witnesses. I read a lengthy judgement from 1 pm till 10 pm and then lost my voice. Since then, I have had a horse voice and been treated for coughs until 2012 when I lost my voice again while attending a trafficking in persons course in Botswana. I was advised to consult an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who diagnosed me with vocal cord lesions that had overstayed and needed an operation in India. The surgery was to cost over K2 million kwacha. My office had no money and so, I delayed and in the end, it became even more costly. I thank well wishers, some of whom I still don’t know. These people shouldered all medical and transportation bills for the entire two months I spent in hospital and even after surgery. After surgery, local doctors declared me free of the disease after tests, but advised me to go for early retirement. I have since submitted my retirement letter, but
advised to retire in October next year. I am currently enjoying my accumulated leave days because I worked with the Child Justice Court for seven years without holiday.
Do you feel to have done enough in helping children?
I have done my best and will continue to fight for children’s rights even after my retirement because I plan to go on with activism. I meet people who plead with me to continue, but I cannot. I have served as a judge yes, but I have also helped a lot of people outside the Judiciary because I was chairperson for the Network Against Gender-based Violence (GBV) for three years, deputy chairperson for A…….. (Apcan). I have been board chair for Youth Rehabilitation Centre, Eye of the Child and board member for Adventist Health International and Blantyre Hospital. I will continue assisting people through marriage counselling and other means of not restraining my voice.
Is there any particular case you will never forget?
I presided over a case similar to the one Solomon handled in the Bible where two women fought over a child named Eliza. There was overwhelming evidence from both women supporting their claims and so many witnesses from both sides. Physically, she had features resembling both women and that case made me sweat. It was resolved through DNA tests, but before that, both women and the child had to undergo hours of counselling because even the child was confused.
Any word of advice to Child Justice magistrates?
Apart from professional qualifications, those handling cases involving children must have the passion for them. They must be friendly to children and prepare to go an extra mile to even assist them financially to yield positive results. They may wish to borrow a leaf from me because my judgements were always fair aiming to shape children to become future responsible citizens.]
What do you tell widows and single mothers?
My motto in life was “never to be used by men as a sexual relief object” and I managed to achieve that. No single woman should ever be used. It is not easy to raise children alone, but it is manageable. I have lived 26 years as a widow and still I am without a man even though so many stories have been fabricated against me and I know most women are going through the same. Widows and single mothers must be role models for their children and never risk their lives in a bid to raise their children in a luxurious manner.
How do you spend your free time?
I am anti-social so, I love being in doors doing household chores. I love the company of my grandchildren who scare away the loneliness and the thoughts of male companionship. I am an Adventist who loves being in the house of the Lord. n