When some village heads in Nsanje decided to swindle beneficiaries of a cash aid scheme in their area, they must have thought none of their subjects would question them.
The woman went to the offices of a non-government organisation that was distributing the cash on behalf of government and also to Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights (Carer) at the boma to complain about the chiefs’ conduct.
Authorities reprimanded the errant village heads but with little effect. It was not until the media visited the area to investigate the malpractice that the village heads realised the enormity of their wrongdoing.
The chiefs vented their anger on the woman and threatened to expel her from the area. But the threats failed to cow the woman who continued to pursue the matter, further annoying the village heads.
And when time came to register people to benefit from the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), her chief deliberately left out the single mother of two as punishment for exposing their corrupt practice.
“The chiefs threatened me with expulsion from the area. They said I was misleading people and that I was behaving as if I was a chief myself,” the woman told Malawi News Agency.
“They labeled me their enemy. I was denied things such as coupons for free farm inputs and excluded from work-for-cash programmes. But I was not shaken in my work championing people’s rights.”
Mary Bello may not be a familiar name to many, but to people of Chididi in the area of Senior Chief Malemia in Nsanje District, the diminutive woman is a force to reckon with.
And in her voluntary work of educating her fellow villagers about their rights and correcting wrongs done against them, the 42-year-old has also incurred the wrath of many a duty bearer in the district.
Bello is not a lawyer, but she knows enough about basic human rights, thanks to the training she received from Malawi Carer when she became their community-based facilitator (CBF).
Malawi Carer is operating in Nsanje with financial support from the Democracy Consolidation Programme (DCP).
The Malawi Government developed and implemented the DCP with funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) when the country embraced multiparty democracy.
DCP’s establishment followed the commendable progress the country has made since 1994 in institutionalising a democratic culture with the attendant respect for human rights.
DCP works through local NGOs including Malawi Carer to create an empowered citizenry that is ready and eager to participate in governance processes, demand good governance and realisation of the right to development and hold public bodies accountable.
It was not by chance that Bello, who does not possess a Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) because she failed English, found herself fighting for the rights of the disadvantaged.
It all started after she responded to a Malawi Carer advert around 2008 calling for CBFs which saw her being picked for interviews.
“When I saw that the job entailed helping people in the village to enjoy their right to development, I applied and was among those who were shortlisted for interviews,” recalls Bello.
She passed the interviews after which she and other successful candidates from other parts of the district were sent to Bangula in the district for a week-long training on human rights.
“After the training, we went back to our respective villages. We introduced ourselves to local leaders and told them about our work, that it would involve educating people about their rights,” says Bello.
“We set up community rights committees and sat down to identify problems which we prioritised. We later conducted meetings where we informed people about the problems and how we could solve them.”
When Bello hears of a wrong committed in a community that violates someone’s rights in any sphere of development, she will not rest until she pursues the matter to its conclusion.
And if it means having an audience with the highest authority in the district such as district commissioner or head of police, Bello will do so without fear in seeking the truth.
It is not surprising that more often than not, most cases she takes up conclude in favour of the victimized person or persons.
In the words of Malawi Carer Nsanje district paralegal officer Gabriel Tengani, Bello is courageous.
“She is fearless and can stand and speak courageously,” says Tengani. “Of Nsanje’s 41 CBFs, she is one of the most dedicated and fearless. She is very popular around Chididi because of her work.”
To illustrate the point, Tengani says there was once a rumour about some unexplained killings that were occurring around Chididi and that Bello decided to carry out an investigation.
“After doing her work, Bello went to Nsanje Police to report her findings. Police went to Chididi and after conducting their own investigation, they arrested the suspects,” saysTengani.
He adds: “She will confront anyone, be it a chief or duty bearer in search of justice. When she picks on a case, she will not abandon it until it reaches its proper conclusion.”
Another of Bello’s success story involved a village headman who made a primary school girl pregnant last year and warned her against revealing that he was responsible.
When the pregnancy became known at an advanced stage, the girl’s parents and head teacher quizzed the 13-year-old about who was responsible.
The girl, according to Bello, unconvincingly mentioned a primary school boy. The matter eventually reached a child protection worker in the area who took it to the district social welfare office.
Bello says: “The girl’s parents approached me to help them find the real person responsible for their daughter’s pregnancy. When I confronted the child, she revealed that it was the village headman.
“When the village head heard that the girl had mentioned him, he got murderous with rage and went to cause havoc at the girl’s home. He also came to threaten me.”
Seeing that her life was in danger, Bello says she had to call Malawi Carer to take her to the boma for her safety. There, she asked for police protection which was granted her.
“I called Malawi Carer to pick me because the chief threatened to deal with me severely and he meant it. The matter put my life at great risk as a CBF,” says Bello. “But I never wavered.”
The police warned the village headman, who Bello says must be in his early 40s, that he would be held responsible if anything harmed to her.
And then there was an issue where some primary schools around Chididi were asking pupils to pay money ostensibly for school reports, yet report cards were not being issued at the end of each term.
When Bello heard about the malpractice, she threatened to take action against the schools involved.
“When word went out that I was about to take action against them,” says Bello, “teachers were so scared they had had to go from house to house during holiday issuing school reports to pupils.”