Twenty-seven-year-old Zomba Nsondole MP Jenipher Chilunga speaks on being one of the youngest members in the House, fighting to bring development into her constituency, battling through a tough campaign before being voted into power and all the little things that make politics a very dirty game which is not for the faint-hearted.
Which constituency do you represent as Member of Parliament?
I represent Zomba Nsondole Constituency. I won on the [Democratic Progressive Party] DPPÃ‚Â ticket, the party I belong to.
How old are you? People have hinted that you are the youngest MP in the House?
I will be 28 in August this year, I am not sure if I am the youngest. I think I am the second youngest after Hon. Bernadette Mlaka Maliro; she might be younger than I am. Let me just say I most likely one of the two youngest MPs in the House.
Does being younger than most of the members make it any harder to you?
It has its challenges, such as being intimidated by older MPs with experience who feel you canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t contribute to debates and issues effectively. Sometime, as a young lady, some top government officials may want to make sexual advances in exchange for helping you, which is unpleasant.
Also, being a politician means I almost have no private life. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not all bad though; the whole thing is a learning process as I am establishing myself on the political front. I have learnt to deal with different characters as I meet a lot of different people at constituency level.
I also meet non-governmental organisation leaders and international officials, so I am exposed to people at different levels of society, from whom I learn so many things. In addition to that, an MP is required to read a lot to have a grasp of issues, so I have developed a wider perspective of life.
How do you meet the needs of people in your constituency?
Basically, the needs of the people are very diverse, so I find it imperative to start with an analysis/assessment of the whole constituency. I then prioritise on what is most important for the constituency and see to it that itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s delivered.
When going to the constituency, I have to psychologically prepare myself to deal with peopleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s needs, because sometimes they might make infuriating comments or requests.
It is a challenge to meet all the material needs of the people in my constituency because they have wide expectations. So, I first look to what is available and what benefits the majority. I think the most important thing is to go and see them.
What initiated the move into politics?
To be honest, I have never dreamt of becoming a politician. I was influenced by my constituents, especially the chiefs, who felt I was the right person to represent them after being disappointed by the previous Members of Parliament.
I had just graduated from the University of Malawi at the time, in 2006, where I had studied towards a bachelor of arts education degree. I was teaching at Chipasula Secondary School. I started preparing for the elections and come early 2008, I was in politics full throttle.Ã‚Â Come election time, I won with a majority of votes.
What was your campaign like?
It was tough. I addressed a lot of rallies and had my eyes open the whole time. I deployed my Ã¢â‚¬Ëœsecret boysÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ look at what people really needed within the constituency. They really helped me because they would report whether my campaign team was telling me the truth or not.
I am calling them Ã¢â‚¬Ëœsecret boysÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ because they are not known to anybody else apart from me and themselves. My relatives also gave me an insight on how effective my campaign directors were and what strategies my competitors were using.
I campaigned for one year. I competed against eight people, all of them men. I was the ninth candidate and the lone female.
What were the highs and lows?
I guess my high is when the chiefs approached me to represent them, young as I was. It was and remains a big honour.Ã‚Â Winning the general elections was just wow for me!
One thing that made the competition worth it is that one of the competitors was loaded; and I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t. It was by grace of God I won. I also had several lows. My most trusted campaign director suddenly died when the campaign was hot and this disturbed me. Actually, her demise made me lose some votes because there was nobody to replace her untiring spirit. Again, my father was seriously sick for three months at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital and I had to stop campaigning for two months. I nearly quit altogether, until people convinced me to soldier on.
YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve talked about some of the dirty games your competitors played against you…
Of course they were dirty, very dirty! I wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t go into details but they would block the road I was using and the like. The other challenges were spiritual; I mean witchcraft powers was used against me.
This is Africa, you know, but since I have complete faith in Jesus, it couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t prevail. I am thankful to my family, who tried as much as possible to ensure I was psychologically in shape. My parents and relatives attended my rallies and gave me moral support.
How much money did you spend?
I started the campaign with K10 000 [about $65] in my account. But later on, God sent his angels in the form of supportive individuals and the DPP party and it amounted to millions. But it was slightly above K2.5 million [about $16 447].
What personal qualities do you think gave you an added advantage?
I am able to speak to the public. The gender affirmative action also put me at an advantage. Also, I am compassionate, especially towards the aged and extremely poor.
What changes will you bring to your area?
I want to improve the education sector, bring solar electricity to primary schools. I want to improve transportation by constructing bridges and so many other things.
What initiatives have you already carried out?
I have finished constructing four bridges, I have rehabilitated piped water, I have completed four teachers houses and three school blocks. Makopola Health Centre has already been completed.
I have also constructed two houses for medical personnel in the area. Currently, we are constructing another bridge at Katambasula and Nanyenga.
I also promote recreation by distributing balls to boys and girls in my area. I also distribute tree seedlings through NGOs for environmental sustainability.
What will your next step after your term ends?
I guess it will unfold as time goes by. After my term ends, I will have to assess my constituency and think through my next step.Ã‚Â Otherwise, I am still young and I have my whole life ahead of me, even if it does not involve politics.
You recently got engaged; what was that like, planning an engagement and having to be in the house at the same time?
Combining the two and finding time for both ventures was a big challenge. The good thing is that Chiku [Ndaferankhande], my fiancÃƒÂ©e is my best friend and we always work well together, which more or less simplified things for me.
Chiku is a man of God who provides me a spiritual footing. A woman feels complete beside a good and handsome man and Chiku provides that security in abundance. I also love reading his works; he has lots of unpublished short stories I find amusing to read. I believe he will grow into a prominent writer in this country.
Who are the people that have influenced and moulded you into the person you are today?
I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t single them out but can just say men of God. I believe in God and many pastors have been praying for me and counselling me to get to this level.
What are your guiding principles?
I believe in prayer and tithing every earning I have. I also believe in learning new things every time.
Some of our readers might be considering getting actively involved in politics but are too intimidated to actualise those thoughts. What would you advise them?
They should read the situation before jumping ship because they may just spend a good fortune on a losing trail.