‘Made stronger by what didn’t kill me’

Mary’s credentials

—Holds a master’s in public health from Glasgow University

—Holds a university certificate in health economics from Aberdeen University, Scotland.

—Has a diploma in teaching.

—Moved from a refugee camp in Tanzania to further her studies in the UK.

—Climbed the professional ladder and retired as a senior lecturer in Glasgow.

—She worked for 10 years before returning to Malawi.

At 68, newly inducted Rotary Club of Mzuzu President Mary Mwale has had more than her fair share of trauma. In this interview with FREDERICK NDALA JNR, she tells all about being sent into exile after only one year of marriage, losing a husband to the fight against dictatorship in Malawi, living in a refugee camp, being a single mother and garnering enough strength to pick up the pieces of her life.

How did being inducted as President of Rotary Club of Mzuzu feel?

I felt privileged! It is the chance of a lifetime, which is invaluable and irreplaceable. I also became emotional because right at that moment, all the personal stress and trauma I went through during the 35 years that I have spent in exile flashed before me.

What initiated it the exile?

Let me start from the beginning; I grew up in Swaziland and trained as a nurse in Zimbabwe. Towards the end of May in 1964, when I was 22, I came back home to secure a job as a nurse. This was when I met Lutenganio Mwahimba who would later become my husband. He worked with the Finance Ministry at the time. We got close within a short period of time and he proposed to me. We officiated our wedding on September 26th that same year, right after the cabinet crisis. During our wedding reception, we received the alarming news that Orton Chirwa had been beaten up and left for dead. They burnt down his Mercedes Benz. Our guests disbanded and went home. We later heard that the Malawi Young Pioneers intercepted and beat up some of them at Thondwe roadblock. Our wedding day was only the beginning of hard times ahead.

What happened next?

Three months into the marriage, I learnt that my husband held Henry Masauko Chipembere in high esteem. People held meetings on the way forward at our house. Later, I was told my husband volunteered to be an emissary for the dissidents.

Being a young bride, this must have been daunting…

It was but he told me to be strong, vigilant and prepared for the worst. The thought of being expectant and widowed at 22 after only three months of marriage mortified me. I was despondent and felt betrayed; I had married a man who loved his country more than me. Then on March 10, 1965, my husband was suspended by Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. He was given four hours to leave the country. We quickly bade each other farewell and he left carrying only a briefcase. On July 9, that same year, I gave birth to a girl. Four months later, security officials came to search our house looking for my husband because they heard rumours that he had been to see the baby. I was summoned and interrogated about the whereabouts of my husband. It was not safe staying in Malawi so I left my child and boarded Ilala to Deep Bay from where I walked into Tanzania up to Songea where we travelled by boat.

What was your experience in Tanzania like?

Some Malawian refugees resettled at Pangale Refugee Resettlement Camp in Tabora. When the lorry that took us arrived there, I was shocked that we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by maize fields. I was introduced to the Msiska, Kanyama, Kayuni, Nkhata, Gondwe, Mwakasungura families. Some had been there for two years. We had to do chores such as fetching water with a bucket on the head. I was the object of ridicule because I could not fetch water, collect firewood and was not able even to cook over an open fire. The camp was split into two: Saigon where I belonged and Washington.

Then your husband left to go back to Malawi. Did this make you bitter?

No, but I was stunned. I had barely arrived and I was two months pregnant. I had a premonition one night where my husband was shot in the forehead. He was bleeding profusely and I was holding his head, sobbing. When I woke up, it felt so real that I told him what I had dreamt. I asked him if there was something that he was not telling me. He confessed that there were plans to go and mobilise people in Malawi to revolt against Kamuzu. He left the camp in June 1967. There was no news of him until the end of September. Radio RSA reported sightings of a group of men dressed in FRELIMO uniforms in Zambia and then later in Mwanza. On October 9 1967, there were reports of heavy fighting and that two dissidents were killed at Mwanza border. On October 10 1967, Radio RSA reported that Yatuta Chisiza had been killed alongside another man. I stayed at the camp until I delivered. I later learnt that the other man had been my husband. I am told that their bodies were paraded in the streets of Blantyre before being put at the mortuary where anybody could view the corpses. People confirmed to me in 1995 that a single bullet in the forehead had killed my husband. He died without having set eyes on his daughters.

What effect did this whole experience have on you?

I was schooled on the realities of the world and it’s challenges. I learnt that sometimes you only lived for the day because tomorrow might not exist. I now have empathy for those struggling with hunger, disease, poverty, illiteracy, and displacement. I know that being in a state of helplessness and hopelessness is an extremely painful existence. I don’t think marrying my husband was a mistake those experiences have made me who I am.

What do you do right now?

I am a senior lecturer at Mzuzu University. I have worked as a nurse and tutor at hospitals and institutions in Glasgow, (UK), Tanzania, and Malawi. I am a state registered nurse, a registered sick children’s nurse and a certified midwife.

How did you get to the UK?

I got permission to leave the refugee camp from the Vice President of Tanzania. I got a job in Dar es Salaam. I also started rearing chickens, sewing clothes and baking doughnuts, with which I raised money for my air ticket to the UK.

You have achieved a lot…

But I can’t help thinking I could have done more. I was married to a man who gave his life to a country which is ashamed to even mention his name. What shall I tell my grandchildren who have never even seen their grandfather? Where do I start? My children have memories of being tormented as children of a rebel. We tried to reclaim my husband’s body but there was nothing in his unmarked grave. We organised a memorial without a body. My parents brought my children up for me. I was not there for them. How then, can I say that I have accomplished something worth mentioning as a woman?

Did you personal experiences influence your decision to give your life to service?

Yes. I was widowed at a tender age. I remained single for a long time. In 1978 when I had completely given up hope of ever going back to Malawi, I married again. I had two daughters in my second marriage but one died in infancy. I decided to file for divorce after the death of my daughter right now. I had two children with Mwahimba but one of them, Sutene, died in 2004, Bina and Janice are the survivors. I was a single mother to my three children. It was not easy to balance family and work. I was very lucky to have a wonderful child minder who offered me service above self. Why should I not be able to give now when others were there for me?

What motivated you to join the Rotary club?

My parents brought me up with a strong sense of the importance of supporting the less privileged. Added to that, my strong medical background and chosen career attracted me to Rotary’s work on alleviating human suffering. My experience at a refugee camp that was supported by UN’s human rights charter that recognises the dignity of all human beings plus the fact that Rotary has supported the UN made me want to be part of the club.

What does you present role as president of the Rotary club entail?

I facilitate proceedings. The members are there to encourage and give me support. Rotary is about teamwork and fellowship.

It is amazing that you are still on your feet. What keeps you going?

I enjoy what I do and whatever I do, I like to do well. Age is just a figure. If you enjoy what you are doing, it gives you energy. When I look at my products, my students, I feel good. That gives me satisfaction and the drive. The support I get from my family and the Lord is crucial for me. He guides me always.

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