The women and children rights activist was born Margaret Todd, the only child of a Malawian mother Allena Kadammanja and a Scottish father, James Todd. She is former Member of Parliament (MP) who went by the name Margaret Ali.
She is one of the women from Malawi who have sailed and broken a lot of bounds for women to enjoy the rights activists have fought for.
As a young girl, Ali went to Chichiri Primary School in Blantyre. Later on, she proceeded to Zimbabwe for secondary school and higher education where she majored in administration.
Upon return, she kicked off her career with Nyasaland Furnishing Company where she served as the personal secretary to the company’s director, the late Sattar Sacranie whose death led to the closure of the company.
Ali went on to join the country’s chain store People’s Trading Centre (PTC) as a manager for the butchery stores.
“According to them, I did a good job and was promoted to the position of human resources manager, minding the affairs of staff and their trainings,” she says.
Ali, who comes from Matalala Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Somba in Blantyre, was also the first female manager to administer a PTC shop. She was later given the responsibility of regional manager, supervising nine shops in the Southern Region.
“It was not easy. There were men who wanted my positions. So, I had to work extra hard. My shop was the cleanliest when I was shop manager and there were no shortages when stock-taking,” she explains.
As time went on, she decided to apply for unpaid leave to join politics, starting off as an ordinary MP for Blantyre City Centre. She was one of the few women under the regime of Malawi’s first president, the late Kamuzu Banda.
“There were four of us at the time- two men and two women. During my tenure, I was promoted to deputy minister in charge of women. The late Banda never wanted his Mbumba to be oppressed. So, we had to handle women with kid gloves and I believe I handled that well,” Ali explains.
She admits it was not easy climbing all those ladders, especially in politics. She was later on appointed as chairperson for welfare which among other things entailed ensuring that the food prepared for all politicians was good.
Again, she faced resistance from most of the men she worked with. Ali confesses they were not accommodative.
“They sometimes used harsh language when talking to or about me. But I never took it to heart because my mind was made up that I was not going to be a failure,” she says.
After eight years in politics, Ali went back to PTC, back to her previous position of regional manager. She would later on learn that this was not where her heart was.
“My experience as MP taught me to interact better with people and while at PTC, I still thought that was where I belonged. I missed the women. So, I started looking for other jobs. I applied for a job as fundraising and projects officer at Save the Children and luckily I got the job,” she explains.
For a long time, she minded the welfare of children in refugee camps, most of whom were malnourished. She encouraged their mothers to have kitchen gardens.
When the director of Save the Children left in 1989, the board asked her to act as executive director and since then, she has been the organisation’s director.
Over time, she has learnt a lot about women and children and has gone deeper into understanding their human rights.
Ali now belongs to a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dealing with women’s and children’s rights — chairing, deputising or as a member.
Through her expertise, some of the children she worked with have grown up to become responsible citizens and others have even founded their own NGOs.
She is the vice-president of St John Ambulance and vice-chairperson of Mwayi Trust, an organisation which has sent 26 girls to school.
Through the trust, they have also built a technical college in the area of T/A Kunthembwe, Blantyre rural, equipping the youth with various vocational skills.
Ali is also the chairperson for People saving Girls at Risk, which focuses on girls’ sex exploitation and trafficking.
She has four daughters, 10 grand children and nine great grandchildren.
She encourages young girls to work hard and have passion for what they do, arguing that without that, they will not forge ahead in life, but fall. Apart from that, she urges girls to compete.
“It is a competitive world and you just have to compete,” she says.