Rachel Kachaje is one of the strong and successful women who have lived with a disability for 51 years. But this has not discouraged her from living life to the fullest. She has helped a lot of people in similar situations. She has headed big international and local organisations, and facilitated the formation of FEDOMA. She talks to ALBERT SHARRA.
Share with us how you found yourself unable to walk?
I was born health just like any other baby, without any physical challenge. But I lost my mobility at the age of three after I was attacked by polio. If you remember, Malawi was hit hard by Polio in the 1950s and I was one of the victims. It severely attacked me that all my body parts could not function except for my heart. I survived death because my mother was so courageous.
She took me to the hospital in time. She used to take me to the hospitals for physiotherapy.Â Slowly, I started to sit, nod my head, stretch my hands, and fold my legs. But I could not walk. This was an achievement considering the situation I was in and I am proud that I am alive today. This is a testimony that God had big plans for me.
How do you describe your school life?
Life with disabilities in Malawi is a challenge. However, I can say that I struggled a lot during my school time. I could not start primary school at the age of six as is supposed to be the case. I had to wait till I was eight years old. I was born in the village in Kasungu and life was unbearable. Schools were very far and the roads were not good for me. I was just fortunate that when I was 8, my late father Boston Kamchacha got a job at MBC. Therefore, we moved to Blantyre. That was an opportunity for me because the school was close. My younger sister, Tamayani, has done great things to my life. She used to carry me on her back from our Kanjedza home in Blantyre to Kanjedza Primary School every day. Again at the school, the structure was not designed to support people with disability and moving from one place to another was a problem. I managed to finish my primary school.
How were you treated in school but peers and teachers?
I am glad that during that time most people were and sympathetic towards people with disabilities. I had not suffered any harassment in school because of my status. Pupils and teachers loved me. My note books were carried by my friends. Even in our location, people loved me. They seemed to understand issues of disabilities. We had a play ground at our home. This was a motivation to me. I worked very hard in class and was doing well through my primary school at Kanjedza. In 1974, I was among the students selected from the school. I was selected to HHI secondary school.
Was secondary school life the same?
No. It was a big challenge. HHI had stairs and some classes took place in the upper floor. It was a challenge for me to climb the stairs.Â Most of the times I was arriving late, tired and could not concentrate. Again Kanjedza township and HHI secondary school are far apart. I was using walking sticks and I was arriving at the school late almost every day. At that time, mobility appliances were not readily available. Only rich people accessed them.Â So, my father asked for a cross transfer for me to go to Chichiri Secondary School. I did, though the school had too many steps. This was really a problem because I dreaded to walk around during break time or to the toilets. It is just by the grace of God that I finished my school.
What has your disability taught you?
On the other hand, 51 years of my life with physical disabilities has brought out the capabilities in me. It has also helped me to make lives of many people with disabilities in the country better. I believe that disability is not inability. The five decades have brought challenges in my life because of my disability, and again it has brought smiles on my face because of my contribution on the fight for the rights of the disabled people in the country.
Tell us about your current family.
I am married to Gibson Kachaje and we have not received any gift from God, but we have lived with a number of children through adoption. Gibson is an evangelist. We met in 1986 while I was working with National Bank. He was a widower. It was something challenging to him to take me as his girlfriend considering that I was disabled but because God had confirmed this to him, he did. I could not believe that a handsome man like him could fall in love with me. Apart from the physical forces that were in our minds, there were also external forces that were affecting our relationship, especially from Gibsonâ€™s relatives. They did not want their relative to marry a disabled woman. Even when visiting me at the office, I could hear my fellow workmates mocking him for falling in love with me. But Godâ€™s plans are no ours. After a two-month break, we got married.
Have you received any awards?
Yes, in 2004 I received an award in human rights for the disabled from Malawi Human Rights Commission for championing the rights of the disabled. In 2008, I received the Diversity Leader Award because I have managed to be what I am because of my courage and passion for change, despite the challenges I went through.
What about your advocacy job?
After being retrenched at National Bank, I decided to concentrate on disability issues. I joined Disability Movement called Disabled Peopleâ€™s Association in Malawi (DIPAM) now FEDOMA in 1991. I was advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. I was secretary at the DPO. I also joined the Southern African Federation of the Disabled (SAFOD). DIPAMA was an affiliate member of SAFOD. My active participation in the activities of DPO earned me various positions in both DIPAM and SAFOD.
I have served as chairperson for womenâ€™s structure, deputy chair person of the main SAFOD committee. In 2002, I was the first woman to be elected chairperson of SAFOD.
In 1998, I also facilitated the formation of FEDOMA. It was necessary to have an umbrella body to have a unified voice. Currently, I am serving as chairperson of Disabled Women in Africa (DIWA). We established this organisation with the objective of bringing the visibility of women with disabilities in Africa.
We have been carrying out many activities like needs assessment for women with disabilities in Southern Africa and Eastern Africa. We have done capacity building, monitoring, and now we will do mainstreaming of disability and gender. These activities have been funded by EED from Germany, ABILIS from Finland, Irish AID from Ireland and GIZ. Internationally, I am deputy chairperson of Disabled Peoplesâ€™ International (DPI) responsible for development and under-represented groups. I am also the interim chairperson for the Commonwealth Disabled Peopleâ€™s Forum (CDPF).
What were challenges of setting up the organisations?
Specifically, when setting up DIWA, we struggled to get funding to achieve our objectives. It took time for us to be recognised. It was SAFOD who assisted us to get the funding from EED. They even gave us a volunteer from Germany who really worked hard to get DIWA to where it is now. Now that we are established, we have moved from Bulawayo to Lilongwe Malawi.
Has the organisation made any difference to the lives of Malawians in general?
Yes. At least now people are aware of our needs not as charity cases, but that disability issues are human rights and developmental issues.