23 year-old Hellen Zalira has been selected to represent Africa at a student festival in Norway, beating 4871 other applicants. She will join the ranks of past participants that include accomplished world leaders like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Professor Wangari Maathai and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Currently studying towards a masterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s in political science at Chancellor College and submitting papers on-line with the University of Leicester towards credits for a masters in media and public relations, this powerhouse proves that age is nothing but a number!
What motivated you to apply for the festival?
This yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s theme of Global Health infused with global politics is of particular interest to me. I knew that if I got selected it would be one of those life defining moments which would open doors for me on the international arena. Additionally, it looks like a fun festival which is infused with a lot of visual and performance arts. Also, the opportunity to travel around Norway visiting historical sites and meeting highly influential world leaders appealed to me.
How did you hear of it?
I heard about the festival from the Norwegian Embassy when I visited their website looking for scholarship opportunities to finance my masterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s programme at Chancellor College. I was not successful in getting a scholarship; I am still on the lookout for that but I am consoled with being selected for this festival.
You were selected out of 4871 people…
Yes and the process involved written essays on questions that where pre-formulated by the committee, then there were short questions to answer. I also submitted my resume. To be honest with you, I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think I would be selected because I answered the questions in such haste. I kept telling myself that Africa has a [pool] of high quality students with an industrious work ethic who all deserve to go, still I submitted knowing that my chances were very slim. Look at me now, my hope and determination has paid off.
When were you notified of the final selection?
I was notified by Malene Huse Eikrem and the head of participants on 1st November 2010. When I read my letter and saw that they had created a profile for me on the website my heart skipped a beat. I run home and told my housemate Chikondi Chabvuta, we had a good laugh as she started dictating her shopping list to me.
What was your first reaction?
First I was excited as the prospect of travelling to Norway is a dream come true, then the realisation of the responsibility I was being entrusted in dawned on me. My nerves got the best of me and I started researching for my paper. As a daughter of Malawi, I felt very proud of myself and thus I know I will I have to be the best participant there. The world has decided to cast Africa as the stone in its shoe. We are portrayed as hungry, war ravaged, poor and utterly helpless, always in need of a helping hand. This is an image not worthy of Africa. True we do exist, survive and strive in impoverished conditions but what the rest of the world should be asking itself is what role have they played in perpetuating AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s problems. LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not forget that others would prefer Africa stagnates to ensure their position as our liberator, donor, employer and some would say saviour. Being selected was a sobering moment as I can table African solutions to African problems as we Africans are better placed to uplift our own continent.
Beating over 4500 academics to represent Africa at a festival that has been attended by, among others, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu is beyond inspirational. What does it signify to you?
It signifies that I have what it takes to build a legacy for Hellen Zalira similar to those amazing people you have mentioned. To me, it says that God has a purpose for me. Often I have been told by others that my destiny is to lead. I accept and embrace this destiny and as such, I am in a process of self improvement. I need to get my PhD and other academic papers, dialogue with world leaders to become an effective policy formulator not of tomorrow but of today. It also reaffirms my belief that, the era of when one was defined by age and gender is over. You have to seek and demand for life opportunities. The time for apathetic politics is buried, be pro-active, go and get what you rightfully deserve.
How has this changed your life?
It has enhanced a more optimistic perspective on life, the impossible is possible. I would like to open the doors for others to walk through. In two years time when the festival is held again, I know Malawi will be sending another delegate, I will make sure of that. Malawi is not merely one of the poorest countries in the world, we are so much more and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s high time that people see us as such.
You are expected to relay the African experience from a Malawian perspective. How have you prepared for this?
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m still preparing my piece but it will touch on issues of tied aid, why Africans are still dying from curable diseases, why certain life saving drugs come with policy restrictions that dictate where we should get them. This is often the donor country when if we were allowed to procure them elsewhere we could get larger quantities to cater for more people. I will hone in on questions of sovereignty in decision making for our people and possibly table issues for a true reflection of donor aid that enters Africa; the donors have to be honest when they want us to applaud their efforts once they have seemingly filled our begging bowl. Let them be clear on how much money is going back to their home countries through exorbitant expatriate wages when we have just as capable Malawians and Africans to do the jobs. Also, why not make procurement, especially of medicines, a competitive process? Do not say you have donated to Africa when most of what you have donated remains in your country.
You are studying towards an MA in political science; why politics?
I am drawn to issues of governance because of the love I have for my people. It breaks my heart that so many are still going hungry in a food secure country. So many have to scramble at 3am or even with no sleep to get services that should be made available to them. So many are going without an education because of simple socioeconomic factors. In this day and age I find that deplorable. Never has the world been so technologically advanced that every person should be able to be provided for with equal life chances. But not much is being done. The little that is done is magnified on a public pulpit to make it seem like its much. Nothing is born out of love any more and this is what fuels me to respond to the needs of those who cannot demand the services by themselves.
Are you planning on joining politics or becoming an analyst?
It is every citizenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s responsibility to exercise an active level of participation in a democratic country. If we leave our government in autopilot things go wrong. It takes a certain kind of character to be a politician and I believe I am better placed in an advisory role to that character, I am yet to acquire a wealth of knowledge to better equip me for this role. So I will most likely be an analyst.
You seem very focused; where does this come from? Is it your upbringing?
Absolutely. Growing up in a single male headed household has made me who I am today , I sacrificed my childhood to raise my younger sibling due to the untimely death of my mother. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t question GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s plan as itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s made me who I am today. For me, growing up meant that I became the best of friends with my brothers Elvis and John, sisters Shupi and Terezina. We became each otherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s support system and I love them entirely. My father afforded me a life of privilege but all the while ensuring that I never forget that he rose from being a goat herder and into a self made successful entrepreneur. Whatever he didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have growing up he provided for us a hundred fold. He is my rock. I cannot afford not to be focused. I have set milestones for myself and I need to ensure that all the opportunities God has provided me with do not go to waste. After all, I will be called to answer to Him one day. My biggest fear is being a failure and this fuels me to strive for nothing but success.
What else do you remember about your childhood?
I was born (on August 12 1987) and raised in Lilongwe. My biggest childhood memory is when, a few months after my mother died in area 43, my father moved us to the house where we live now in area 47. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t remember seeing him cry at the funeral but I saw him hold back tears on the day of the move. I guess it dawned on us as a family then that she was gone for good. I had a great childhood though, filled with birthday parties, Christmas with presents under the tree, vacations abroad and my life was filled with so many people like Mr. and Mrs. Kondwani Gondwe, Mr. and Mrs. Louis Chimango and Mr and Mrs. Kamala who became my surrogate parents. Of course, there have been struggles but I believe that how we cope with life challenges is what determines character.
Your father must have been proud of you when he heard the news…
Everyone was very happy for me; my boyfriend McEwen Champiti was the first to call me when he saw me in the Nation Newspaper but like the rest of my family and friends he already knew. The Catholic University was quick to extend words of encouragement and support. My friends; Dr. Menno Welling, Lillian Steffens, Issac Ziba and Mr. Nyirenda who are a constant source of support were truly happy for my achievement. Not only my father but also his friends, my brothersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ friends, sisterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s friends, my boyfriendÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s friends and family all showered me with words of encouragement.
What would you advise women on following their dreams?
Being women, we are disadvantaged by culture and tradition but this in my opinion just gives our gender the opportunity to stand even taller when we have achieved. In my previous paper published by the Nation on Sunday, titled Jesus an Exemplary Feminist, I discuss how Jesus is in support of female empowerment. I am a strong believer in equality and working together with our male counterparts. After all, we coexist. Men should not fear women in powerful positions and likewise women should not pull down fellow women, otherwise everyone loses. Women overcome stereotyping, male chauvinism and sexual harassment. Women perform wifely duties as they perform the important role of a mother, all the while looking stunningly gorgeous in heels. I would say woman can have it all and do it all no excuses! Strong black women are made to survive and succeed. It is what we should do to ensure our daughtersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ crystal futures.
YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve had an explosive start, where to from here? How are you planning on living up to the standards of the FestivalsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ ex-attendees?
I am currently working as a development and communication specialist with the Local Development Fund under the Ministry of Finance. I am in full time employment and in full time study for my masters in political science at Chancellor College. I am submitting papers on-line with the University of Leicester towards credits for a masters in media and public relations, after which I intend to do a research based PhD with the University of Boston in the UK. I believe if I keep at this pace the sky is the limit, if I put my mind to it I can supersede the legacy of the festivalsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ ex-attendees.
Who is Hellen?
Hellen is Nalichowa from Ntcheu. Hellen is lioness, a lyricist, songstress, poet, author and spoken word artist. Hellen is spiritual and recognises the importance of God. Hellen is a daughter of Malawi with an innate passion for Africa. My dream is to have a loving family of my own. One day, I would like to be a great wife and mother to my unborn children. I would like to be able to provide more for my children than my father provided for me. I would like to spread GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Word and wisdom and to ultimately inspire people to achieve their dreams. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m guided by one simple principle; everything one endeavours to do should be born out of love. My support system consists of my boyfriend and his family, my girl friends and all my guy friends. At the central pivot of my support system is my family.
Which schools did you attend?
I started out at Peter Pan Nursary School, then joined Bishop Mackenzie International Schools. I then left for Lilongwe Private School where I completed my GCSE s. I went back to Bishop Mackenzie International School for 6th form IB Diploma. I went on to Portsmouth College in the UK where I did Media Arts then an HND in Economics and Business Policy. Before I could do the extra year for my degree, my dad fell sick so I had to come back home. I went to Natural Resources College and completed my diploma in Agriculture and Natural Resources Management with a first class distinction pass. I then joined Catholic University, skipping first year to do my Bachelor in Social Work and minor Political Leadership which I graduated with magna cum laude honours last year. Two months later I enrolled on a masters in political science with the University of Malawi, Chancellor College.
What drives you?
My great fear of failure. I know that one thing is promised in life and thats death. I believe God has mapped out certain milestones in every personsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ life and when these are missed due to disregard, laziness or a general lack of commitment to the greater good, then on judgement day the Almighty will ask you: You spent most of your life asking for me to bless you, yet when i left a door open for you to walk through, you chose to ignore it! Why? I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to disappoint God for giving me the blessing of life which so many others would appreciate and do much more with. To me suffocating oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own potential is a grave sin to both God and mankind.
Surely, you must have weaknesses beneath that superwoman exterior…
I tend to take a big bite out of life and end up with too much on my plate but I manage my time so that can fit everything in. Right now, sometimes I only sleep 4 hours a night and only take Sunday morning off. The rest of my time is spent at work, doing my studies and at the sports club. I allow myself at most one full weekend off a month in which I see my friends.