Marie-Ange Akaga Assonouet
Gabon, a central African country, is rich in natural resources. Located on the Atlantic Ocean, it borders Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of Congo. It is sparsely populated, with a population of 2 million as of 2017 and forests covering 85% of its territory. It is in this small country where a smart and gifted young lady was born and named Marie-Ange, which is translated to Mary-Angel. Serene, diplomatic, astute and wise, are just a few words to describe our ‘Women in STEM’ September feature. We caught up with her and got to find out more about her education and career choices.
You have a very interesting job at a very prestigious financial institution. Can you tell us what your job entails?
I am currently working in a sub-regional banking institution as “chef de service” (Head of Service) of the Communication Unit in Yahoundé, Cameroon. I organise and execute the institution’s external and internal communication for our branches which are in a number of countries across Central Africa.
How did you manage to secure such a high profile job?
First of all, I am a Christian and I feel blessed to work where I work. I followed a multi-phase entrance process (application, written and oral tests, and then interview) and was successful. I then did a 10-month training programme in between headquarters based in Cameroon and Central African countries. I got the job at the end of the training phase. It was quite an adventure and I really enjoyed the experience!
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I must admit that I like working in the banking sector and particularly for an African institution, as it is a key sector for our countries’ development. I also like the fact that my work gives me the opportunity to represent the institution and inform the public about the work that we do. I appreciate the community aspect of the company. It implies taking into account the environment, habits and realities of each Member-State and it gives me a global perspective.
Finally, I’ve learned more about economics, monetary policies, finance and many more subjects related to the banking sector and I’ve found it really interesting.
Before you moved to Cameroon, you were working in Gabon. Can you tell us more about your job there and what it entailed?
I was working in the communication department of an agency in charge of coordinating the execution of Publics Work’s projects on behalf of the government. At that time, my country was engaged in many major infrastructure projects (roads, bridges, dams, stadiums and so much more). The agency was in charge of supervising those projects for the Ministry working with contractors, “bureaux d’études techniques” (Technical Design Office) and other stakeholders.
The Communication team was in charge of presenting our projects and their benefits to the public from beginning to end, as well as the benefits and perspectives for the country. I was working on external communication which included production of documentation (presentations, press releases and advertorials), liaising with the media and organising events.
What is life like in Gabon and what are the differences between living in Gabon and living in Cameroon? Which country do you prefer living and working in?
Well, I was born and raised in Gabon. I have my entire family and friends there. I can say that life there is what I have always known. I have my favourite landmarks there and therefore I like it a lot! Consequently, it was particularly nice to go back home and work in my country after my studies. I liked my job mainly because it allowed me to get involved in projects pertaining to the development of Gabon.
Working in Cameroon is undeniably very different. I had to discover and learn a lot of things about the country, as well as learn about Cameroonians’ ways of living. I have been living here for a couple of years now and I have found my marks. Working in a regional institution has also allowed me to see the bigger picture, to think from a community of many states’ perspectives and to adapt my work in accordance. I like it and I like my job.
Of course I will always prefer working close to my family and friends, but working in Cameroon has helped me grow as a person and as a professional.
You completed both your Undergraduate and Postgraduate education at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Can you tell us more about your tertiary academic journey?
I got my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, and then a Postgraduate Diploma in Management specialising in Marketing and Communication from UCT. Prior to joining UCT, I studied English. It was compulsory as French is my first language and I did my primary and secondary studies in that language. After my English studies, I passed the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, one of UCT’s requirements for French-speaking applicants.
You mentioned that your parents convinced you that if you wanted to have a good job and make it in life, you must study Computer Science because I.T was the next big thing. Were you personally keen on studying Computer Science or you had another programme that you were passionate about which you would have rather done?
I did not really want to major in Computer Science. I did not study that subject in high school, therefore I did not know what to expect. I have always liked science so I wanted to study something in line with Biology or Chemistry. However, when deciding on my major, my parents advised me to choose a promising field like computer science. I.T was the ‘it’ thing in my country at that time and I have always been adventurous and eager to discover new things; so I applied for a BSc in computer science like my parents wanted, rather than Biology or Chemistry.
What modules did you focus on for your undergrad degree in Computer Science?
You’re taking me way back (laughs). I studied programming in Java, C++, MySQL, and I also did the following modules; Database Management, Operating Systems, Networking, Problem Solving, Algorithms (Brute force, Divide & Conquer, etc.). I also did Programming in different environments (Microsoft and Linux). Those are the ones that I remember (laughs).
Computer science can be a very difficult and stressful programme. What challenges did you face during your studies? What encouraged you to keep on pushing till the end?
My biggest challenge was the fact that I had not studied computer science in high school but it was my major. Therefore I had a heavy programme meant for students who already had good knowledge of the subject. This meant that I had to spend twice as much time learning the basics and trying to understand the concepts, but mainly to practice, practice, practice! To improve in coding, you have to program day and night. That’s the only way to learn and to master the technique. I remember now how I felt at that time; it was like I was forever studying and practicing and doing nothing else.
I told myself that I would not quit so I worked hard and battled until I graduated. Actually, once I got my degree I was so glad and so chuffed that I made it (laughs).
Being a Francophone national, did you face any language barriers during your studies at UCT and if yes, how did you overcome them?
I definitely faced language barriers while at UCT. My biggest challenge was the fact that I had to learn the language in about 6 months and be fluent enough to comprehend tertiary level English. At the beginning I was struggling to understand entire lectures. I couldn’t understand everything so I had to read notes and books to fill in the blanks. Of course at that time my dictionary was my best friend. Fortunately, with time, my English improved. Like with many things, practice makes perfect!
Why did you choose to shift your focus from technology to communications for your postgrad qualification?
I graduated but I didn’t wish to work in this field my entire life. I found that programming was “machine orientated” so I didn’t see myself being a programmer. I felt like I wanted to interact with people more than with my computer. I needed a job where I could meet more people, talk more, travel more and organise events or activities. Working in my current field allows me to do all of that.
You then chose a career in communications; what is it that you enjoy the most in your field?
I am a very talkative person so I find myself doing the right job which I absolutely enjoy. As I said previously I enjoy interacting with people, discussing and learning from that process. I like the aspect of informing audiences what comes with institutional communication. I enjoy learning about each sector of the company as communication requires transversal knowledge and acts as a relay of information. I also appreciate my current position which affords me the opportunities to get involved in institutional processes on a national or even regional level.
How has the knowledge and skills gained from your first degree been useful in your chosen career path?
During my programming years, I learnt the following; first of all, you must persevere – as a programmer you have to continuously work on coding, testing and problem solving. You have to keep trying and keep debugging until your program works. Secondly, you must think out of the box – you have to think out of the box to find solutions. Often, new ways of doing things come up with new concepts and that will help you to improve your solution. Finally, it is important to have a method of operation – you have to be organised and disciplined when programming.
You are as passionate about Career Guidance as we are. What advice would you give to parents who do not want their children to follow their dreams and do courses that they are passionate about, but would rather have their children doing courses of their choosing?
Firstly, I believe that parents want what’s best for their children. However, things have changed a lot. There are no longer certain study fields that guarantee a job at the end. Children can have a good job and a beautiful career in the field they embrace and they will be happier doing what they like. Therefore I think that it’s important for parents to discuss with their kids, to advise them based on their own experience and guide them as much as they can. But when children have decided what they want to do, it is important for parents to respect theirs choices.
You are a successful black woman at a prestigious institution in Africa. What advice would you give to young Africans who would like to get to where you are one day?
Well, that’s a tough one!
First of all, I still consider that I have so much to do and so many challenges to tackle so that advice will also be relevant to me. First of all, work hard because opportunity or luck cannot compensate hard work. Your hard work will definitely pay off. Secondly, be convinced but even better, be passionate about what you do. It will help you to stay focused during hard times. Thirdly, it is okay to fall – just don’t stay on the ground forever. Stand up and carry on. Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself! Acknowledge your very little accomplishments; you deserve it.
I would also like to emphasise the potential of Africa. The current economic situation is not so good but we can change things. Let us not lose hope. I am a real Afro-optimistic. There are so many areas to explore here and the future belongs to our continent. We need to become leaders and also raise new generations of leaders who will want to work and unleash Africa’s potential.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
The DRC’s Youngest Commercial Pilot
Meet Mudahama Mwema Yves-Yvan, who just qualified as the DRC’s youngest commercial pilot at just 19 years old.
Mudahama Mwema Yves-Yvan
Meet Mudahama Mwema Yves-Yvan, who just qualified as the DRC’s youngest commercial pilot at just 19 years old. Passionate about aviation from the age of 4, it is no surprise that this ambitious young man is reaching such milestones at such a tender age.
Yves comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, precisely Kinshasa. His family is very close and he is the oldest followed by his little sister. He attended Coreen Primary School in Kinshasa at the age of 5. He says a big part of his family works in the aviation industry and his uncle is an airline pilot. When he was younger, his uncle used to show him videos of himself flying and he would take him to the airports where he worked and made him sit there for hours in the lobby and watch planes take off and land and interact with crews. Says Yves, “All of this just confirmed my feeling of wanting to become a pilot.” Yves went on to graduate from high school at the age of 17 with a Math and Physics Diploma.
“As mentioned previously, I’ve always been around aviation enthusiasts and most of the time we would hold aviation related conversations. At the age of 6, my dad bought me a flight simulator and a joystick, and I have it till today. If I was to count how many hours I have on the simulator, it would be around 10 to 11 thousand hours.”
Although Yves had already had his first flight at the age of 14, his flight school journey started in March 2019 with a local flight school in Daytona Beach, Florida, called TFA (Training Flight Academy), where he obtained his private pilot license just after 2 months of training. “It was fantastic learning how to fly, and knowing you are achieving your goal is just mesmerizing.” After obtaining his private pilot license he went to another flight school near the old one, called Aviators Academy, where he got his IR (Instrument Rating). He then went on to get his Commercial Multi-Engine and did a Commercial Single-Engine add-on. All of that was done in 6 months with more than 250 hours, and now he is working towards getting his Flight Instructor License, which would make him the youngest flight instructor in the country and that would be another milestone.
Says Yves, “My total flight training took me around 1 year and 6 months. It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice. When you hear that some people did not make it, yet they were so close to their goal, you start to question yourself if you’re going to be in the same position; but only passion, dedication, and focus can get you through the storm and help you cross the finish line. The biggest challenge I faced was thinking that I was not good enough to one day become the pilot that I wanted to be. Challenges are everywhere in this world and you can’t avoid them.”
Yves’ flight school journey was a memorable one and he says it is an amazing place when you bond with others. “True, everything is about aviation there but when you get to know some people beyond the aviation industry, you find out how incredible they are. For example, going out with your instructor to have lunch gives you time to learn about how they think and in turn, they also get to learn how you think. This makes everything easier in your training because now know each other more and he or she gets to know your preferences, weak points and strengths.”
Flight school cannot be easy and academic pressure can lead to fatigue, depression and the like. To combat these negative feeling, Yves says that passion is key. “When you think about depression, failure and all those things, you will not succeed. But when you keep your eyes on the goal of becoming the pilot you’ve always dreamed of becoming, you will be ready to face anything and you will notice that you can overcome these negative feelings; you are bigger than failure, you are bigger than your fears.”
For one to excel in their studies and to qualify as the youngest pilot in the DRC, Yves says it makes him really happy to know that he can considered as the youngest commercial pilot in his country. He says that it is an honour to prove that Africans can do it too, and that out there, there are young, ambitious hard workers. Being part of those hard workers and being an inspiration for other young Africans only brings him joy.
Yves is grateful to his parents who always supported him and always wanted him to become a pilot. At some point however, they decided otherwise, and started pressuring him to go towards another field. Yves refused and decided to stick to his aviation goal, and today that he has completed it, you cannot imagine how proud they are to know that he is achieving all of these things at a very young age, while also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautics.
To the young African out there, Yves says, “Don’t be afraid to take risks, don’t be scared to fail, don’t be scared of challenges. You know what you are capable of; you know what you can achieve; you have thoughts that they can’t understand nor see; you know yourself; believe in yourself!”
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Women in Law
I believe that my biggest achievement in life has been to adapt. No matter what obstacle was thrown my way, in terms of my career or even my education, I have always adapted and kept moving.
Tanveer Rashid Jeewa
At only 24 years of age, Mauritian citizen Tanveer has broken barriers and worked extremely hard to make a name for herself in the South African legal space. From assisting refugees with translation services, to assisting fellow UCT students with academic legal problems, as well as working as a Judge’s clerk at the Constitutional Court, among many other things, Tanveer is a force to reckon with. Don’t be fooled though by the focused career lady who sounds like all she does is work 24/7. Tanveer has a heart of gold and she has the bubbliest personality, and the most contagious laugh. Volunteerism is a way of life for her and her kindness is unmatched.
She took time off her extremely busy schedule to tell us more about herself and her career choices.
Can you tell us about your current occupation and what it entails?
I am a lawyer who is currently doing a few different things. I am a Managing Editor and Researcher at the African Legal Information Institute where I am currently working on a project to facilitate access to the Constitution and constitutional law in general. This means I am in charge of making constitutional rights available in a more accessible language, especially for people who do not have a legal background. I also do research for the African Court of Human Rights on upcoming cases and legal issues which have not been dealt with by the Court yet.
I am also a reporter for the International Law in Domestic Courts at Oxford University Press, where I identify cases in South African law where international law has been applied. I then critique the court’s approach to the law on the identified issues.
In addition to this work, I am an LLM candidate in Public Law at the University of Cape Town and a Graduate Diploma in Law student at the University of Law in the United Kingdom.
Where were you born and what kind of a family were you born into?
I was born in Mauritius, in a close-knit family of six, including my sister, parents and paternal grandparents.
Is Mauritius a conservative or liberal country? How would you rate gender equality / inequality when it comes to employment and empowerment of women and girls in your country?
While this might seem controversial, I find Mauritius to be a conservative country. We have strong ties to India, the country where most indentured labourers come from, and I have observed that these ties also come with the conservative values associated to the culture. Unfortunately, gender equality is not as far as I would hope for it to have been at this stage. Although activists work hard for issues around gender to be more mainstreamed, it often remains a taboo – especially discussions around sexuality.
On the bright side, girls have been known to perform extremely well and sometimes even better than boys in exams. Yet, there are still courses taught only to girls (for example: cooking and sewing) and some for boys only (for example: technical design).
Can you describe the environment you grew up in? What activities did you enjoy engaging in during your early years?
I was lucky to grow up in a supportive environment, my parents were very invested in my sister and I’s education. They would go to great lengths to make sure we had access to numerous tutors for us to have the best chance of obtaining good grades and studying further.
As a child, I really enjoyed reading. This might actually be an understatement since I was obsessed with our public library. I was in such a hurry for them to move me from the children’s section to the adult section because I would finally have access to lengthier non-fiction books. I still remember that the first non-fiction book I read was a book about comodo dragons. I do not remember why I picked it, but what I do remember is how proud I was when I finished the whole book – which had no images in it!
Where did you attend primary school and how was your primary school experience?
I went to Emilienne Rochecouste Government School and had a lovely experience there. My primary teacher built the foundation for my love for studying at the time. She believed in me, and always had high expectations for me. In addition to that, school was also fun because my sister attended the same institution!
Where did you attend high school and what did you enjoy most about high school? Which subjects did you enjoy and/or excel in most?
I attended Queen Elizabeth College and I met a lot of good friends there. I met my best friend, who I still talk to every day, and some other friends who, although I do not talk to as often, still have a special place in my heart. I know that they will all change the world for the better, one way or another.
My favourite subject was sociology. It opened my eyes to a different way of thinking as it was the first time that I learnt about feminism, Marxism and other notions which would end up affecting my daily adult life in a concrete way. It was different from other subjects and required another level of intellectual engagement which I had craved in high school. I was never one to enjoy rote learning and sociology was the opposite.
Did you face any challenges while growing up (personal / family / communal) and if yes, how did you strive to overcome those challenges?
Growing up, I faced different challenges than most of my friends. My grandfather was old, blind and his lower body was paralysed. So often, I would take care of him. I never regretted doing that and would not change it for the world. But this often meant that I did not have as much time as my friends to study or get some rest. It was hard for me to overcome these challenges, and I also started having some health issues myself. Due to this, I would struggle to fall asleep and would be quite fatigued. In all honesty, I never overcame these challenges but instead, I just tried to do my best with the hand of cards I was dealt.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a lawyer from an early age? If not, what did you aspire to become when you grew up?
As a child, I kept on changing my mind about what my occupation would be as an adult. From a lawyer to a veterinarian or neurosurgeon, I had not made my mind up. However, my mother is an attorney, so I had been surrounded by lawyers as I was growing up. I would often hear my mother’s friends say that I would be a good lawyer because I never kept quiet. (Little did I know that is not what makes a good lawyer!) The idea of finding loopholes in arguments and being in a courtroom to present said arguments really enticed me. When I went to court with my mother and watched cross-examinations (or sometimes watching Law and Order on television), I started subconsciously picturing myself as an advocate. What convinced me that law was the way for me, was when I realized that there were going to be a lot of times in life where I will have to face authorities, or be in a position where someone else has the upper hand, and I could not stand the thought of not knowing what my legal resources would be. In my mind, I was left with no choice, I needed to become an advocate.
Tell us about your tertiary education journey; where it started, up to where you are now.
I started studying law at the age of 18 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. At first, I personally found the journey to be tough, probably because I was not so familiar with using only English as a medium of language and instruction. Especially in law, this proved to be harder as the language used was often more complicated than your daily-spoken English. Once I became more familiar with the language, the work started getting easier.
Yet, there were still areas where I struggled and honestly, at some stages I did not even understand assignment questions. It is only when a tutor sat me down, and broke down how questions surrounding the law usually work that I understood what I had been doing wrong. This really changed how I approached law school and it made the experience much better.
After graduating with my LLB, I enrolled for an LLM in Public Law, still at the University of Cape Town. I found the engagement at post-graduate level to be even better and really enjoyed my time doing coursework and debating current issues.
Can you tell us about the challenges you have faced (if any) of being a Muslim woman of colour in the legal fraternity?
I unfortunately found that the challenges one faces as a woman of colour are more or less similar regardless of the country you are in. In many contexts, I have had men undermine me and talk over me during conversations. Even in conversations where I would present my own work, men would stop me and doubt me, despite having produced sound and thorough research. I can name many different instances in which this happened. My ability is often doubted, despite my qualifications and experience. I have found that this happens less often to men and even less often to white male colleagues.
How did you or how do you continue to deal with those challenges?
This has been a hard challenge to overcome because if, as a brown woman, you bring this up, you are told that you are reading too much into things or that you are being aggressive. I have learnt to be firmer and to point out when I have not finished explaining something, or when someone just repeated an idea that I have brought up. I have also learnt that women must not try and be extremely humble in spaces where they are doubted. This kind of behaviour must be nipped in the bud.
What are your biggest achievements in life so far?
I do not like pointing out to tangible things that I have done and identify them as the biggest achievement. I believe that my biggest achievement in life has been to adapt. No matter what obstacle was thrown my way, in terms of my career or even my education, I have always adapted and kept moving. Sometimes I am surprised that I have come this far because I do remember some sad moments when I genuinely thought that I would not achieve anything, not even my LLB. But regardless of how I felt, I kept moving forward and I think that in itself is my biggest achievement.
Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 years?
In the next five years, I want to call to the bar and finally be an advocate. This has always been my goal but it has taken long to realise. I also see myself being a PhD candidate by then, InshAllah.
Academic journeys can be very lonely and stressful and in some cases they may even lead to depression and other mental disorders. How do you deal with that kind of pressure?
I was actually diagnosed with depression in 2017 and even before that I strongly suspect that I had some mental health issues. The journey has been very hard but I believe that it was easier to deal with some of the pressure with a strong supportive system. The people that I keep close in my life are people who want the best for me, and I want the best for them too.
I was also privileged enough to secure an income so that I can now afford to see a therapist and that has been helping me tremendously to deal with the pressures that come with studying and working.
Connect with Tanveer on Twitter @TanveerJeewa and on LinkedIn – Tanveer Jeewa.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Heroes of Our Time
As a young boy growing up with albinism, I did face challenges such as severe sunburn. Sunscreen was not readily available, unless there were donations at the hospital where my mother worked.
SAVING LIVES AND DEFENDING THE RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH ALBINISM
“Am I afraid of being killed? I live with that fear every day.”
In 2015 he was selected as the inaugural award winner of the Bari-Bari Prize for Outstanding Albinism Advocacy. In 2018 he was selected together with 9 others from around the world, including Zimbabwean musician, Prudence Mabhena, as a recipient of the American Henry Viscardi Achievement Award for persons with disabilities who are exemplary leaders in their communities. A 2018 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative fellow, Bonface Massah is a true modern hero. He took time off his hectic schedule to narrate his story to us.
I was born in Northern Malawi in Rumphi District, a semi-rural area. At that time my dad was working for an agricultural company so we used to travel a lot across the country. In our family, the first born has albinism, followed by twin-sisters, of which one has albinism. My sister who came after the twins does not have albinism, followed by myself and the last born does not have albinism. So my parents had 3 children with albinism and 3 without. When I was born, my mother was so stressed out when she saw me that she fainted and I had to be separated from her for a while until she recovered from the shock and received counselling. She simply couldn’t believe that she had given birth to a third child with albinism, but through counselling and support from the hospital staff she was able to accept me. Fortunately one of the nurses at the hospital also had a child with albinism so she gave my mum strength and encouragement.
While growing up, my parents already had experience of raising two children with albinism, so when I came along, a system was already in place of how to look after us. My parents were also already used to the rejection and discrimination from the community and from close relatives, especially on my dad’s side. My parents and older siblings were loving and very supportive of me while growing up. Our parents wanted the absolute best for us and they made sure that we got the best care and education. Growing up in a typical African setup whereby you have to provide for your family and for extended family as well, our relatives did not understand why my parents were only focusing on us and not sending their children to school as well.
My mother is a nurse by profession so she understood the dynamics of having children who needed to be cared for differently. She and my dad would go around to the schools which my brothers and I attended and raise awareness about our condition. I experienced bullying and name-calling at primary school and sometimes I would cry, but for the most part, I did not care much for it and I did not let it get to me because I did not know what albinism was. As far as I was concerned, I was just like any other child. It was only when I started secondary school and we started doing Biology that I started learning about this condition called albinism and how it came about. That is when it finally dawned on me that my condition is actually albinism.
As a young boy growing up with albinism, I did face challenges such as severe sunburn. Sunscreen was not readily available, unless there were donations at the hospital where my mother worked. My parents always have sunhats available for me, but wearing sunglasses all the time was a big inconvenience, I think mainly because my parents just made me wear them without explaining what they were for.
|Due to the lack of pigment in the eyes, individuals with albinism will have a number of vision difficulties such as reduced visual acuity, light sensitivity (Photophobia), rapid eye movements (Nystagmus) and misaligned eyes (strabismus).|
The high school I attended was very protective and they did not tolerate any bullying or name-calling. My brother was also there when I started form one so the whole school was already used to having someone with albinism. I then attended university at the Bunda College of Agriculture in Lilongwe where I did my first degree in Agronomy. My first year there was quite an interesting experience because you would hear second and third year students saying, “Aah, the university is now admitting white people!”
Whilst in high school I was able to take part in a lot of sports, but when I got to university, the academic pressure was too much and because of my vision, it meant that I had to spend most of my spare time studying in the library and catching up on notes in my room. I was not socially awkward at university as I did have girls that would talk to me here and there, but my fellow male students would see me and be in shock that even I had girls that talk to me. For some reason, those types of comments would make the girls withdraw from close relationships with me, though they remained acquaintances. That didn’t affect me much though because by then I had so many friends at the university and everyone was now used to me.
At the University of Stellenbosch where I went to do my Master’s Degree in Development Studies, focusing on Rehabilitation, Disability, Gender and Development, my peers there all assumed I was a white person. They refused to believe that I was a person with albinism from Malawi, so I also just rode on that wave and left them thinking that I was a white South African, which is what they strongly believed.
I am currently back in Malawi where I live with my wife and two kids, who all do not have albinism. However, when our kids were born, especially our youngest who is very light-skinned just like my mother, my wife’s friends and our parents’ friends would call but only to find out if the children had albinism like me. To me, this only shows me how they perceived us as people with albinism and it shows that the stigma is still there. My wife has been with me through thick and thin and she was able to handle the comments very well. She even took those times as opportunities to educate some people about the condition.
I have worked for many organisations which fight for the rights of persons with disabilities, such as the Association of Persons with Albinism in Lilongwe. Currently, I am working as the Country Director for Standing Voice, an international NGO based in Tanzania, Malawi and the UK, which also defends the rights of persons with albinism. We also promote access to healthcare and education, advocacy with the UN and governments, and comprehensive treatment of skin cancer and eye-care. As the Country Director, my job is to develop partnerships, strengthen collaborations with government, co-ordinate all the activities, active delivery of our skin cancer and vision programmes across Malawi and managing the referrals and coordination for the team of doctors which come from the UK, among other things. I was also recently appointed as one of the Commissioners of the Malawi Human Rights Commission where I’m working on the protection of rights of people with disabilities.
There are so many challenges which come with being a man with albinism in a country like Malawi. For example, relatives see you as less of a man who is not able to look after his family, more so looking after extended family. I have so many friends with albinism who have ended up going through divorce because of family which sees them as less manly.
Malawi has become known as a very dangerous country for people with albinism. This is another challenge which affects all people with albinism. I work with organisations which investigate the abductions and killings of people with albinism and provide care and protection for survivors. In most cases where the perpetrators were arrested, they would state that they wanted body parts of persons with albinism so that they could use them to make charms to get rich. Some fishermen actually use body parts of persons with albinism as bait to catch more fish. Initially when these abductions started in Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, they would just chop off your hand or your leg using a machete and run away. Over the years however, the patterns have changed and the abductions have become even more gruesome and brutal as they now kill the victims and mutilate the bodies. Anybody part of a person with albinism is now considered useful in making these get-rich-quick charms. We also have cases of politicians who say they use the body parts to attract large crowds to their political rallies or gatherings. They also believe that the charms will make them win elections. The perpetrators of these atrocities are both in rural and urban places and it is hard to find out who the buyers of the body parts are.
My family and I have been fortunate enough to not experience these kind of attacks thus far, but there have been times where I see strange cars parked outside my house or people knocking at my door with threats and warnings. As a human rights defender I always expected these kinds of experiences. To stay safe I would have to often change cars and not stay in one location for too long. There was even a point where my wife said to me, “Bon, this is enough!” Eventually though, she said to me, “I realise that this is your calling and you must go on with your work.” She understood that this was something that I needed to do, even it meant using my own resources. Having grown up in a loving and caring environment, I felt the need to show the same love to victims of these attacks. Till today I always ask myself, “If I don’t do it, then who will?”
Doing this kind of work is not easy. In Malawi we have over 164 reported cases of these attacks and over 25 people were killed from 2013 till now. We also have ten persons with albinism who are still missing for 5 years or more, so we count them as having been killed. I think one of the most agonizing experiences which is the latest one was the disappearance of a twelve year old boy in one of the villages. He was taken in May this year from his village by his uncle after he convinced the parents that it was better for the boy to live with him at his home. Around August when the parents tried to get in touch with the child, the uncle suddenly had excuses all the time saying the boy was not around. The parents became suspicious and reported the matter to the police. On conducting investigations, it was found that the boy had been sold by the uncle and killed in Mozambique in May. The uncle was arrested together with other family members and other suspects, but the uncle was found to have been the mastermind of the whole plan.
In Malawi, we reviewed our penal code just for albinism in 2016. For murdering a person with albinism, one now gets life imprisonment. For trafficking a person with albinism, one gets life imprisonment as well. So in this particular case it was both trafficking and murder.
I would not say that our governments in Sub-Saharan Africa have done enough to curb the spread of these attacks. A lot more still needs to be done in terms of raising awareness and changing mindsets. Issues of witchcraft, myths and superstitions are deep-rooted in African individuals, including those who are in power. It is so complicated to get leaders to demystify their beliefs and possibly that is why they do not do much to address these issues. Some of them are religious but they still believe in these superstitious charms. It is even more complicated to demystify the beliefs that people with albinism do not have gold in their bones or magnets inside their bodies.
The only thing we can do to raise awareness is to continue with civic education. The main thing however which we must continue to strive for is the empowerment of persons with albinism because that makes us more visible. For example, people cannot just attack me right now because I am very well-known as an Activist and a Commissioner. They would have to be very strategic and plan the attack meticulously, because attacking a high-profile person would raise a lot of attention around the country and the world. You find that even in the rural areas, if a person with albinism owns a business, people will support and respect him or her. I am proud of how we as people with albinism in Malawi have invested ourselves to champion our own rights. That initiative of self-advocacy has raised the profile and awareness across the board. I also take it upon myself to visit families who have children with albinism and encourage them to accept their children and treat them the same way they do their children who do not have albinism. When they see me and hear of what I have achieved, they are encouraged that their children who have albinism can also grow up to become successful and productive people in life. My whole family including my mum and my siblings also help me in this advocacy of helping families who have rejected their children who have albinism.
Being an African with albinism, one always faces the dilemma of trying to figure out, “Am I black or am I white?” Another question that you may find yourself battling with is, “Am I African enough?” The only thing we ask from fellow Africans is for everyone to accept us as ‘Africans with albinism’. What we have is just a condition. Our parents are black so why is it hard to accept these products of black people? The pattern has shifted from strangers killing us to our own family members killing us. Africa really needs to accept and love us despite our condition which makes us look different but we are no less African.
“Am I afraid of being killed?” I live with that fear every day. I know that I can also be killed. Through my work I have seen bodies of murdered victims. I have been present during post-mortems and seen doctors examining body parts of persons with albinism. I have been at scenes where I am comforting the victims of attacks and the relatives of murder victims. I am at a point where I no longer cry when an attack has happened. The fear of being in these situations is gone now. I would not mind if I die doing this work, because I know that I have contributed well towards it. As I said before, “If we don’t do it, who will do it for us?” My motivation for continuing in this line of work is knowing that I can change things. I believe that I am a light for other people around me. Through love and support of people with albinism we can effect that mindset shift.
Working with survivors of albinism attacks, we provide psychosocial counselling, we send them back to school and pay their fees. In Malawi we rejected the safe-home approach because that is exclusionary. Our approach is to deal with the stigma in that same village and remove barriers for persons with albinism. I have seen tangible results of victims coming to realise that after the rejection and the attacks, there is life, there is peace and there is success.
In my work with people with various disabilities besides albinism, one thing that I work hard to eliminate is the spirit of dependence. A lot of disabled people are now used to receiving charity from people and they do not see the need to work. Even if they do work, they still expect donations and feel entitled to them. we need to work harder to empower people with disabilities to eliminate these behaviours and people with disabilities also need to accept themselves as they are and find their strengths and gifts which they can use to generate income.
My postgraduate studies at the University of Stellenbosch impacted directly on my work with persons with disabilities because I focused on public health, development and rehabilitation of people with disabilities into mainstream society. I do a lot of work developing policies and coming up with strategic programmes for people with disabilities so the studies wedged directly on the work that I had already been doing. I am still a farmer though, this year I am doing 25 hectares of maize and I have a piggery farm.
Going to Stellenbosch, receiving various awards and receiving international recognition has given me international exposure in my field of work. I thank God in everything I achieve and I actually share this recognition with the people that I have worked with, especially my parents whom I still work with in so many things. I have faced many challenges in my work and many times I have just felt like giving up. I keep on pushing because these awards have helped me to increase the visibility of people with albinism and awareness of the condition.
My advice to a young disadvantaged African child living with a disability who aspires to make it out of their situation and live a better life, is to have self-awareness of what God’s purpose in your life is. That is very critical. For example, I may have albinism, I may be blind, I may be deaf, but God put me here for a purpose. That helps you to accept yourself, your inner you. That also helps you to deal with the negative messages and attitudes from society. Self-acceptance and self-awareness has helped me to deal with everything that I have faced. I also give the same message to parents – they should accept their children with disabilities as they are. That will help them and their child to realise his or her full potential.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
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