Malawi’s’ first female writer, Walije Gondwe!

When the odds were not on her side, Walije tried to prove that she could be the best in her line of work. Having contributed at least six novels to the Pacesetter series and to other publications in Europe, Walije has called it quits and is now running a charity organisation in Mzimba. She talks about the challenges the charity organisation is facing and her personal life.

Who is Walije Gondwe? Many people have read your books, but don’t really know the person behind the writing.

Just like that, I am Walije Gondwe. I was born in 1936 in Kayiwonanga Gondwe Village in T/A Mtwalo in Mzimba district. I am the fourth born in a family of seven children and my parents are Donald Gondwe and Damaris Kaunda.

Where did you grow up and go to school?

I grew up in Kayiwonanga. I went to Enukweni and Ekwendeni primary schools. I, however, did not pass my Standard Six examinations (which was the final class in our time). Instead, I went for nurse training in Zomba in 1953 but I did not complete my studies as I got married and had my first child with Mr Phiri. However, I was very good in class at the training centre. We then broke up and I went to work as an agriculture specialist in Mzimba for six years. By this time, I had started doing correspondence with Trans African College.  I had always wanted to have a feminine job so I went to do secretarial studies at College of Commerce in Blantyre in 1963. While there, I got a scholarship to complete my studies at Barnet College in United Kingdom. Two weeks after arriving at the college, my two colleagues and I were asked to come back to Malawi because our scholarships were invalidated due to political tension back home. I, however, did not return but my friends did. While in UK I did my law degree and that’s the highest qualification I have.

Can you describe family life back then?

My upbringing was good. I was raised in a Christian family. My parents were devoted Christians.

Tell me about your marital life and how many children you have?

I have two children; daughter and son. The daughter is the first born and her father is Mr Phiri and the son is the second born and his father is Onyango-Thengo a Kenyan. Both my marriages did not work.

You are one of the first female writers in the country, how did you begin the writing journey?

I began my writing in England when I wanted to enter writers’ competition in a newspaper. By then I was working for In Home office as a secretary. I also did journalism by correspondence. One time I asked my boss Derek Theobald what I should write about. He said I should write about what I know best and what I knew was African, within myself. I wondered if people in the UK could be interested in such kind of writing. He did not reply and the next day he brought me two Pacesetter novels and he said if I can read them and write books like those novels, Macmillan publishers would consider them. The two books were set in Nigeria, one with typical African life and the other one involved Africans behaving like Europeans. I liked the one with typical African life and it so happened that my boss and his wife loved the book as well. From there I wrote my manuscript and sent it to Macmillan, I was asked to revise it or write another one and I decided to revise it and that was my first book published in 1985 titled Love in Dilemma.

What do you think made your writing stand out?

I like reading and telling stories. In our times, when we were young, we used to do storytelling and I think that contributed to this. The other factor is that I like people.

What was your secret when writing the novels?

The secret is the passion I have when writing and the interest within me.

You wrote six books, including Double Dating which became one of Macmillan’s bestselling books, where did you draw your inspiration from?

I have always wanted to share my experience with people. However, all my work was fiction but dealing with real life situations.

When writing what was always at the back of your mind?

The need to inform people and educate them on things they were not aware of. I hoped people who had no picture of what I was writing the books made a difference.

Did you have fears of not coming up with the best book?

No, I did not have such fears. After the first book, many people loved my work and that motivated and encouraged me to work even harder.

What challenges did you encounter when writing the books and how did you overcome such fears?

Drying up was my biggest challenge. There were times when I used to run short of ideas when I was writing. And you know when this happens it’s almost like saying you can’t finish what you have started. You panic but of course, I would gain it all back after sleeping over it.

I hear you were highly recognised. Tell me about your awards?

Yes, I won an award in 1994 for the book Double Dating. My work has also been recognised in many countries. My response for the first book was also very good, which encouraged me to go on. In Britain, I belong to a society of authors and I have gotten royalties for my books, especially those which got photocopied in Germany, Canada and other countries to be used for education. If my work is used for education, it shows how much my efforts have been recognised and I am happy with that.

Are you still writing?

Not now as I am preoccupied with the charity work.

What have you been doing all these years?

After my work, I have been running a charity education based in Britain but with beneficiaries from Malawi. This charity, which is called Vinjeru Education, has been on since 1999. It benefits levels from nursery to tertiary education. It partially came to light because a lot of students were asking about my books. We have distributed computers and other materials to various education institutions and Mzuzu High Court.

When all is said and done, how would you want people to remember you?

It is up to people to remember me with whatever they like but I would love if they remembered me for my charity work.

What has always been your ambition?

My ambition is to see that poor people who did not have access to education have it. This is being done and people are benefiting.

What special memories do you have?

The time I was going to UK and the times I found myself in the UK. Not many people in those days had that chance. It was a big opportunity.

What did you like most about writing?

That my work was recognised and it is still recognised.

How do you spend your day?

I keep myself busy. I don’t like just staying idle. I make sure my free time is also used.

Any regrets in your life?

No not all. I have grown to love and cherish what God has given me.

Even after breaking up with your husbands?

No, I don’t regret. Once things happen, you go on with your life. Every dark cloud has got a silver lining.

Any other last comment?

The charity organisation is a success because people in UK are willing to part away with their belongings. However, we face challenges here in Malawi where we are charged huge sums to clear the goods.

These goods are meant to improve education in Malawi but we are forced to source huge sums to clear the goods and yet our organisations are only charity work. Where do I get that money from? I am not working, it’s tough!

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