She belongs to one of the controversial churches in Malawi which prohibits its faithful from seeking medical attention. But through hard work, perseverance and what would be regarded as rebellion, 25-year-old Shupe Promise Sibande is bringing the needed change in Mzimba through her promotion of accepting life-prolonging medication for HIV and Aids as well as going for voluntary counseling and testing (VCT). In this interview with Paida Mpaso, she talks about her rough upbringing, failure to continue with tertiary education due to lack of funds, her passion and recent election to the position of vice board chair for the Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living or Personally Affected HIV and Aids (Manerela+).
Tell me about yourself.
My name is Shupe Promise Sibande, I am 25 years old and I come from Lobema Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kampingo Sibande, Eswazini, Mzimba. We were born four children in my family, three boys and I am the only girl. My three siblings are into small businesses.
Where did you do your education?
I started at Ewuthini Primary School and did my secondary school at Mlunguzi in Zomba. I finished my Form Four in 2009. After my secondary education I stayed at home for some time because I had no one to support my tertiary education. In 2011, I started school at Mzuzu Technical College where I studied for a certificate and an advanced certificate in procurement and supply. I have spent the whole of 2013 idling at home because I had nothing to do.
Give me your brief background.
My upbringing was very rough. My parents divorced and living with my mother alone was another challenge. We struggled to find food and pay for my education. In 2000, I lost my father and six years later my mother followed.
What are some of the challenges you faced when your mother died?
The good thing was the house we were living in belonged to the Apostolic Faith Church to which we worshipped so we never relocated. But we continued the struggle to find basic resources and my brothers did some piece work. The little they made went a long way to keep me through school. But it meant them sacrificing their own needs so they would at times go without food. Life was tough but we had to move on as there was nothing we could do to change our situation. In my venture to find assistance with school fees, men would demand that I sleep with them in exchange. I cried a lot but later decided to find work as a house girl. That was how we survived. I have worked as a house girl within Mzimba to pay for my fees and support my brothers.
How did you join Manerela+?
I joined Manerela+ in 2010 as a volunteer. Basically, Manerela is a faith-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), which works with communities and churches on issues of HIV and Aids. It uses the model approach, which stresses on safe practices of accepting medication, going for VCT and empowering communities to make informed choices about their lives.
You belong to the Apostolic Faith, a religion which prohibits its members from taking medication. Are you not in conflict with your members, including yourself?
Well, yes and no. By the way, there are some members of our church who actually allow medication and there are those who do not.
So how do you work with those who oppose medication and convince them otherwise?
Well, as you know, culture is dynamic and usually change does not come easy. The phenomenon has to be introduced slowly and that is what we are doing. We tell the people of how real HIV and Aids is and how it is killing people. People also see for themselves; hence, the need for empowerment, which we advocate for. With empowerment, they will be able to make their own decisions on how best to protect themselves from HIV and Aids. In the event that they contract the virus, we advise them on how they can live longer.
Why did you join Manerela+?
I wanted to help and bring change. I saw how far our community was in terms of knowledge on issues of HIV and Aids and how people were dying without even knowing why they were dying. In addition, I saw how other churches were chased away for trying to help us. So, when Manerela+ came, I made it a point to join so that I could be used as an instrument in for change. So far, I must say we are doing a good job.
Don’t people you worship with object to what you do?
Yes, there are people who object in our church. They believe that a woman is not supposed to stand in front of men to speak and so when I do that, those people think I am a prostitute for speaking boldly about Aids. They say all kinds of things and it is depressing.
Don’t you feel like quitting?
I do and it is also get frustrating. But then again, I cannot. I know the impact my message is bringing and, therefore, must continue at whatever cost.
You were elected the vice board chairperson of Manerela+. What is your reaction?
I have been working with Manerela+ since 2010 and having them entrust me with such a huge position is an honour for me. I did not expect them to choose someone like me because I know there were better and deserving people.
What do you do apart from working with Manerela+?
I am working with district commissioners nationwide and various churches who embrace the save model. I also interact with members of the youth to promote abstinence messages.
What is your message to the youth?
I urge young girls to be serious with education despite their challenges and that includes abstaining from early sex and marriage despite peer pressure.
What are some of the challenges you encounter when working with the youths?
Most of them look down on me. They think a woman cannot talk about condoms and sexual matters.
What impact have you brought to your area?
There have always been issues when it comes to people accommodating different religions. There are these perceptions, which in a way belittle other faith groupings. I find these to be bad and wrong. Through different interactions in the committee, the district is able accommodate all religions, which is good. Like in the Apostolic Faith, some members are embracing this save mode and some are even talking about condoms, not only in my church but also in other churches. Some faith groups have realised the need to use condoms and know when to use them. Now there are programmes for the youths which have been introduced; hence, minimising malpractices. Some members of my church are also being incorporated into such programmes. The stigma is now phasing away.
In my area, we are now able to see some girls going to school, something which was not happening at all.
What are some of your highest moments?
One of my highest moments was when I was selected to Mzuzu Technical College and finding a sponsor to pay my fees for two years.
What have been your challenges?
I have had many but the most recent one is my failure to continue my degree programme due to lack of tuition fees.
What are your plans?
I would like to open a door for the youth and mostly girls from all denominations, empower district committees and support groups to keep our programmes.
How will you work with members of the youth in your community?
I’m happy to work as vice chairperson because I will speak for the youth by giving them a chance to learn from the wisdom of religious leaders within the Manerela+ committee as a team.
How do you see yourself in 10 years?
I see myself as an educated person, probably with a Master’s degree in procurement and supply, I see myself as a wife, a mother and, of course, as someone who served the people of Malawi to fight gender-based violence which undermines and risks the future of girls.
What food do you like?
I love rice with roasted chicken.
Would you say you have inspired the youths?
Yes, I have at many times inspired my friends to be fighters for their rights. In all the meetings that I attend I encourage the youth to look at themselves as leaders of today, not tomorrow.