Since 2004, Dr Mary Shawa was Principal Secretary for Nutrition, HIV and Aids until April when she was moved to the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare where she feels she is rightly placed to help fellow women in Malawi. Albert Sharra sat down with her and she opened up on the challenges she met in realising her dreams and how she surpassed those hurdles and aspirations to become a professor one day.
You hold a PhD in nutrition and a masterâ€™s in clinical nutrition and dietetics. What does this mean to you?
It is a great achievement to my life since it has exposed me to many opportunities that have also groomed me into a new character that I am able to serve the public with dignity and under any circumstances. The PhD opened my understanding of the complex human life. Since life is a continuous journey of opportunities, however, I am still dreaming more and I believe I will not be the same in the next years to come.
Do you mean education wise?
Yes, of course, my parents taught me to dream big. I still have one step ahead of me to achieve and that is if God keeps me alive. For the next few years, I want to become a professor.
Still dreaming big at this age, is this the bone marrow from your childhood?
Sure! I have grown up wanting to become successful. Each and every stage I have passed I had dreams to become someone else. I owe my life success to these colourful dreams. When I was in primary school, I wanted to become an announcer but when I reached secondary school, I changed and wanted to be an air hostess. When I was in Form Four, I wanted to become a lawyer. Unfortunately, none of these materialised because after my Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations at Likuni Girls Secondary School, I was selected to do agriculture at Bunda College. But this did not stop me from dreaming more. At Bunda, I wanted to do engineering since it was challenging but because of beliefs of the time, I was denied the chance. The world then believed in that women are weak and were not supposed to take tough jobs. Because of this, I was forced to do a diploma in agriculture majoring in home economics. Fortunately, I met Ms Beatrice Chimwaza, now associate professor Mtimuni at the college. She was doing her PhD in nutrition and she inspired me. I wanted to be like her one day.
But who do you owe all this achievement to?
None other than God the creator, my parents and my husband. Sincerely, I am here because of my parents. They really wanted their children to succeed in life. My father wanted one of his nine children to be in medicine and one of them to be a secretary at a government office, my sisters finally realised these. On the other hand, my mum wanted us to be courageous and fight the challenges that come because you are a girl, for example, rape. She told us to hit where it matters most when someone wants to rape us and this courage helped me a lot. She also hated males demeaning females. In addition to these, my parents taught us to be punctual in everything, put God in front of everything, cleanliness, golden rules of obedience, respect every human being regardless of status, fearing God, mixing with others and share the little you have with everyone.
You were the PS for HIV and Aids for a long time. Are you satisfied with what you have contributed to the fight against HIV and Aids in Malawi?
I cannot say anything about satisfaction on the efforts made in the fight against HIV and Aids because the journey is still ongoing. I will only be happy if we manage to reduce HIV prevalence to a single digit and that the 3 zeroes of new infections, deaths and discrimination are achieved.
Now PS at the Ministry of Gender. Are you comfortable there?
Very comfortable and I am grateful to my bosses for offering me the job at Gender. Mind you, I have done a number of courses in gender and I am not feeling misplaced. What I have been doing at my previous office is also here and so it is like a continuation from where I left. I am aware that the main focus in gender is on scaling up nutrition, monitoring comprehensive nutrition programmes at community level, monitoring of the growth of children and HIV and Aids.
There are many challenges surrounding gender issues in Malawi. What is your take on this?
There are issues of gender stereotyping, up to now men are taken as decision-makers and are favoured. According to the Bible, no one is above the other because Godâ€™s plan is not ours and our plans are not Godâ€™s. What we do is not what God wants and we can learn from how Her Excellency Madam Joyce Banda has become the President of the country where no one expected a woman to lead the country. As government, we also need to ensure that people are given civic education and equal access to loans, land, farm inputs in a favourable platform.
Has being successful and holding your current position changed you in any way?
The secret rests in time management. You just need to balance family life, public life and government duties. With Godâ€™s grace you deliver.
What is your life philosophy?
I live a simple life with a simple strategy. Respect everyone, donâ€™t pretend to be intelligent but listen and make sense from no sense and always ask Godâ€™s guidance because nothing is impossible with God. This is the secret that is keeping me going and the satisfaction I get from the services I offer to people give me courage.
You should have role models?
Yes, of course, my childhood role model is associate professor Mtimuni but my whole life aspires to be Jesusâ€™ mother Mary. She inspires me by how she reacted after being told by God that she would be pregnant and give birth to a son. We all remember that though it was a surprise she said to God â€˜Let it be done as you have saidâ€™.
What have you learnt from lifeâ€™s journey?
I have learnt a lot and passed through difficulties but God has always been with me. Life has taught me to accept situations, listen to others and try to do my best in everything that I do. I have learned that problems are not the end of everything and that God does not make mistakes, you just need to accept whatever comes towards you because it is Godâ€™s plan.
Do you dream to leave a legacy in your society? What would it be?
I want to leave a legacy but the legacy should be a service to human nature.
Every person has weaknesses and strengths. What are yours?
Â My weakness is perfection but on the opposite side, it is a strength. I strive to be perfect in my duties but if I donâ€™t succeed, it becomes a weakness to me because I feel like I am a failure. Under such times, however, I open up my mind and ears to get help from others so that next time I do it perfectly.
Success is a better term to describe you. Any awards on your desk?
Yes! I have won a number of awards but the most significant ones are the Nation Achiever which I received two years ago and the America Woman of the Year. This is an annual award given to successful women whose work is impacting on many people. It is awarded by an American group based in USA. I have received it three times consecutively (2010, 2011 and 2012). I owe these awards to all Malawians because they always support me.
What are some of the things that you absolutely love and cannot do without?
I cannot do without a prayer. I live to praise God and I want protection, guidance, wisdom and much more from Him. I have grown up in a Christian family and our parents taught us to put God first in everything and when I pray to Him, I succeed.
Could you please tell us of your immediate family?
I am married to politician and Member of Parliament Honourable Abbie Shawa of Mzimba East Constituency and together we have four children: Khanyiwe, Dziwana, Wanangwa and Austin.
What role has your family played in your success?
I obtained my higher education while already in marriage and itâ€™s all because my husband wants me to succeed in life. He has been a strong pillar in my life. His family, especially his mother, has been so supportive and I owe my success to their kindness and support.
How do you manage to balance family and work?
My secret is in good planning. I plan in advance and I give each family member a role to play. When I fail, I apologise and not pretend as if things are okay. Never mix gender and family life, the two are not the same.