Retired Chancellor College lecturer, Professor Moira Chimombo, now the executive director of Subsaharan Africa Family Enrichment (Safe) speaks on her passion for education, working to give hope to people in communities, enjoying a love that transcends cultures, raising bi-racial children without compromising on both cultures and leaving all her worries in GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hands.
When and where were you born?
I was born as Moira Primula Foort. Moira is the Irish for Maria and Primula is an Irish name meaning first born. I was born in Watford, England, before the middle of the 20th century. In the Malawian sense, since my parents were IrishÃ¢â‚¬â€my father from Donegal and my mother from ArmaghÃ¢â‚¬â€I am Irish, but I was born and grew up in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire in England. I have two younger sisters.
What dreams did you have as a child?
I was always good at languages and at first I wanted to be an interpreter but the nuns at the convent where I did my secondary school education discouraged me. They said it was not an appropriate profession for a woman who would like to get married. From age 13 upwards, I knew I wanted to be a teacher.Ã‚Â And honestly, now, I really feel teaching is the talent God gave me.
What lessons from your parents have you carried forward?
As a child, I was teased quite mercilessly because I was extremely short-sighted. I used to wear big round glasses and was nicknamed Mrs Penguin because of a famous cartoon character (in the early days of television) that wore round owl glasses. I hated these glasses but my motherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s response was, Ã¢â‚¬Å“We need to pray for the people who tease you.Ã¢â‚¬Â Not that I particularly liked it at the time, but prayer was something that really stayed with me. My father was an Anglican minister before shifting to the Catholic church and he taught me to be kind to people.
When did you come to Malawi?
I came to Malawi in 1973 to marry my husband Steve. Thirty eight years later, I am happily Malawian. I met Steve on the first day of the first term of class at Leeds University in October 1971. We were both starting out in the English department. He was starting his MasterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s degree in Literature and I was doing my post graduate diploma in English as a second language.
We both loved poetry and our relationship quickly developed. By April 1972, we were engaged and in August of the same year, Steve had to come back to Malawi as he was through with his studies. I stayed in England and worked for a year as an assistant lecturer at Bradford Technical College (now Bradford University) and he came backÃ‚Â to work with Chancellor College.
When did you get married?
I arrived in Malawi on the 3rd August 1973 and we were getting married on the 11th at Limbe Cathedral. That week was one of the busiest weeks of my life. When I arrived in Malawi, Steve had his own story to tell; he had been struggling with his family to get them to believe that I was coming. They thought I was some kind of fictitious girl that he was using to get out of marrying a Malawian woman. He couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t convince anyone to help him with the wedding preparations.
Tell us about the wedding…
I made our wedding cake and dresses for our two bridesmaids. We decided to get married in Malawi because it would have been too expensive for Steve to come back to the UK and then fly back as a couple. So, my parents gave us their blessing and said they would come for our first wedding anniversary.
My husbandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s head of department at the time, Jim Stewart, agreed to stand in as my father. We had a simple wedding with two bridesmaids; no flower girl. As I walked up the aisle at Limbe Cathedral, the tape recorder failed, and everybody was singing! We had the reception at Jim and Joan StewartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s house in Mpingwe, with New Scene Band playing.Ã‚Â The wine was forgotten so we toasted with coke. We had a wonderful time!
Did your union face any resistance?
None from immediate family or in-laws (once theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d met me). Once I was here, SteveÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s family accepted me. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s something that I have noticed around the world, black people will accept me easily, yet it doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t necessarily work out like that the other way around.
My family personally accepted my husband, but some of my parentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s friends did not. My father only told me this in 1990. They lost friends because they had allowed their daughter to marry a black man. To me, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s totally incomprehensible, we are not living in the 19th century but I guess racism still exists.Ã‚Â Some other Malawians also resisted my presence.
What have you learnt from lifeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s journey?
To keep communication channels open. My husband has always helped me communicate. My father didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t find it easy to talk about his feelings and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s something that I had to learn to do. Another thing is, you canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t appreciate the high points in life unless youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve had some low points.
Life was never meant to be easy. A very important lesson I learned from my parents is that marriage is hard work. You will have ups and downs but you have to stick it out. Also, you never stop being parents, no matter how old your children are.
How do you relax?
I enjoy knitting and I love swimming to Ã¢â‚¬Å“switch off,Ã¢â‚¬Â preferably on a daily basis. I love having time to read a good novel over the weekend. I also enjoy other types of reading.
What worries you?
One thing that I have constantly prayed over is that I do not die in a car accident. Otherwise, I keep reminding myself we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need to worry because we have a loving God who cares for us. He will not let us take on what is too much to bear. When I was younger, I worried constantly. However, as my faith deepened, I managed to overcome this.
Even though you retired from lecturing, you are still involved in education…
Yes, I am executive director of Subsaharan Africa Family Enrichment (Safe). We are an organisation that works in communities to provide early childhood education, training of care givers who operate in community-based child care centres and monthly support in the form of a feeding programme for the children.
We also run Why Wait programmes, Safe Life Youth clubs and are planning to start Safe motherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s groups which will deal with parenting issues. We have a Ã¢â‚¬ËœgogoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ group that supports the elderly in various ways. Safe was established by professor Dick Day, his wife and a few other people. I have been a member for a very long time.
What motivates you to keep working on Safe?
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m passionate about education and I am touched when I see changed lives.Ã‚Â When I see someoneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s life changed for the better and the impact of what we can do, I realise that this is a long term thing. We will not help people overcome the impact of Aids if we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t help them help themselves. I would love to give hope to people and I am doing this through Safe.
Do you think it will be possible to attain universal education for all by 2015 as per the MDGs?
Maybe not by 2015. I think there is a problem in assuming that by universal education we mean one western model. I think we could attain some other kind of universal education if we gave more recognition to non-formal education.
What are your discoveries in education?
Governments all over the world do not want to recognise that education should not be for the status quo. It shouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be about learning content only. It should be learning content so that you get what you need to know for the future not for the past, for goodness sake we are in the 21st century now we canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t keep popping back on what was.
If I was stuck in the 20th century, I wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be on internet now. Malawi is fast losing its reading culture.Ã‚Â Children are getting used to sound bites and instant gratification. The real joy of learning is not fast information, it is learning how to grapple with a problem and finding solutions to that problem. Reading is essential. The root of learning is an old English word that means to read.
Reading on a computer is not the same as reading a book. You can easily go back and refer to the book. You canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t do most things on a computer. It is only when you can read and write that you can benefit from the computer.
You have three children who speak fluent Chichewa and English…
ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s true. Our daughter Tina is married and working in London. Our first son Zangaphee is married and working in Blantyre. Our second son Napolo, the last born, is in his 3rd year at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Malawi in Lilongwe.
I find it absolutely horrendous that some Malawian parents would want their children to speak one language; usually English because the truth is that children have no difficulty learning two or more languages provided they learn at an opportune time. I come from a multi-lingual family; I speak French, English and Chichewa. When I first came to Malawi, I was determined to learn the language, so I could truly live in the society.Ã‚Â Steve and I were determined to teach our children both languages so we both spoke to them in Chichewa and English.
What is your take on key challenges facing Malawian women?
I think the biggest challenge facing all Malawians is their own attitudes.Ã‚Â Poor self-esteem is a big problem. There is the problem of material poverty, but a far more serious problem is the Ã¢â‚¬Å“mentalÃ¢â‚¬Â poverty that often comes with it that makes all, but particularly women, believe that the only way out is a handout. My favourite verse is Psalm 139:14, which says we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
How do you think these can be overcome?
Helping women, especially, understand how special they are to God and how wonderfully He has created them, will help develop their self-esteem. Armed with a healthy self-esteem, one can always find a way to tackle lifeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s challenges.