Rising to the occasion

Tujilani’s credits:

Attended: Chileka Primary School and CI Primary School.

—Studied at University of Dar es Salaam from where she graduated with a Bachelor of Laws

—Worked under the Tanzania Legal Cooperation which was an organisation that handled legal issues for all the parastatals in the country.

—Has a post graduate Diploma in legislative drafting

—Obtained a master’s in international law in Germany

From the comforts of living as a diplomat’s daughter in New York to being a refugee in Tanzania, fulfilling her childhood dreams, building her inner drive and taking up a controversial office, newly-appointed ombudsman Tujilane Chizumila tells PAIDA MPASO she’s taking it all in stride.

Congratulations are in order. How do you feel about the appointment?

I feel very happy, humbled and honoured at the same time. You know as well as I do that African women are overlooked. People look at them as being unintelligent and think they cannot deliver as well as men but this proves that we can do it. I was humbled because I know there were a lot of people better than me who could have got the job but I was selected. I applied for the job and was interviewed for it just like everyone else. Others are wondering whether it should be ombudswoman or ombudsperson because of gender issues but I am saying that does not matter. It’s the post and whether or not I deliver that matters.

What are your strengths in as far as this position is concerned?

The most important is knowledge of the law in Malawi, which my vast legal experience accords me. I have good material skills because of my experience in different organisations, both local and international that I have worked with. I am also a good team player and would like to implement this in my new office. I also have general public relations skills.

The office has been vacant for a long time; are you daunted by the backlog of work you’ll find?

Daunted, no, but definitely excited. As you are well aware, the office has been vacant for a year and there are a lot of vacancies. Some employees are handling work which is not commensurate with their job descriptions, but I will sort through this one step at a time. Right now, I am working with members of staff through a participatory approach, while working with the department of human resources as well. The other challenge is that members of staff have sued the ombudsman’s office for their arrears. Since this is already in court, I cannot say much about it. I am happy to say that with the approach I have taken the mood within the office is already improving. The backlog of work is my biggest challenge but we will work through it as a team.

What do you think made you stand out among all the other interviewees?

The upbringing from my parents came into play and being a female lawyer working on my firm gave me an advantage as well. As a female lawyer, we have to work even harder than our male counterparts because we have to prove ourselves. I know male lawyers may say am being anti- gender but it is a fact, you need to prove to yourself, surviving out there as a female lawyer is like surviving in a jungle but I did it. Working as a diplomat also moulded me. Being a judge also did help to get the position.

What drives you?

The fact that people expect women not to deliver is what drives me. I look at that and say look here; we are all equal, we go to the same school and we are imparted with the same knowledge and I don’t see why I should not deliver. I look at myself as a human being and not a woman. The support from my colleagues, my family and God also keeps me going.

Where did the journey of your life begin?

I am from Zomba, my father, professor Michongwe, is from Domasi and my late mother, Tsalawo Matinga, was from Chileka, Kuntaja Village T/A Kuntaja. I was born on 14th May 1953 at Zomba General Hospital and was the first born in a family of three. I had two brothers and a sister that looked up to me. We moved around a lot because my father worked within government. The places I remember the most, however, are Zomba and Chileka. Shortly after Malawi gained independence in 1964, my father was appointed consul general to the United Nations (UN), so we left for New York. After only staying there for two years, we left for Tanzania where we became refugees. According to my father, some of his friends who had been involved in the Cabinet crisis were sent to Tanzania as refugees, so, he decided to join them, thus making all of us refugees. I was in Tanzania for almost 23 years.

How did the family react to this? What was life as a refugee like?

It was extremely difficult. I remember the exact day that our father broke the news to us in New York. He came home and called for my mother. A few minutes into the conversation, she started crying. Being the first born, I asked my mother what was wrong but she just continued crying. My father called for a meeting which was attended by my late aunt, my mother, my two brothers and me. He explained to us that he had stopped working with government, that we were running away and that we are now refugees, I kept asking what all this meant but he told us to start packing. We left for London the next day and we stayed there for a month. We then flew to Zambia and spent a week there. Then my father hired a taxi which drove all the way to Tanzania. We travelled three long days on rough forest roads. We saw a lot of lions and wild life; it was exciting and frightening at the same time. We stayed at the hotel for three days then my father came back and told us that we have been registered as refugees and that we had to start moving. We went to leave in Kekou in Tanzania but we had no property. My father was given a camp bed and the rest of us slept on the floor. We had to queue up for food and my mother was always crying. My father, who used to be very big, lost all his weight in a very short time. I remember my brother constantly telling my father that he wanted to go back home. We were young and fresh from the comfortable diplomatic life, so we could not understand what was going on.

How did you cope?

I think the fact that we went straight to school helped us deal, in a way, much as the long distances were another shock. Then came the language barrier! The Tanzanians never understood that we were not natives. They insisted that we were pretending not to understand the language. In the long run, I think this helped us to learn the language faster though I never got a pass in Swahili until I was in my form four. After a while, the Tanzanian government screened refugees, especially those who possessed some kind of skills. My father was fortunate enough to get a job as a teacher. We then moved to another city in Kilimanjaro. Though I don’t remember the exact dates, I think my father was given the post within a year of our arrival and frankly speaking our lives were much better. He eventually became a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam and we did not feel that we were refugees at all. I stayed in Tanzania until 1988, when I divorced my first husband, a Tanzanian man, and came back to Malawi.

What dreams did you have as a child?

To be quite honest with you, I had no dreams until I went to New York, aged 11. Growing up in the village in Chileka I never got to see white people except, of course, priests in the church, so, when I went to New York and saw that my father’s chauffer was a white man, my interest was piqued. I asked my father all kinds of questions until he asked me to see his office. He told me that I had to work hard in school if I wanted to be like him. This is when I decided that I wanted to be a diplomat. I therefore studied International law at my first degree and majored at master’s level for this reason. While in Tanzania, I was about to be appointed a diplomat and that’s the time I came back home. When I came to Malawi, I started working as the administrator responsible for women, children refugees and the needy people in Malawi with Save the Children US. Government had said that they would appoint me as State Advocate but the process was too long and I had a family to take care of. After working for a year, I got a call from the government telling me that I had been cleared, being a child of a rebel, they said they were tracing to see if I too had been a rebel and that’s when I joined the Ministry of Justice.

How did your parents and the people around you mould you into what you are today?

My parents, especially my mother, were very strict. However, as I got older, I began to realise that my mother was a hard worker; when she married my father she was only a teacher but she managed to pull through to the point that while I was studying my books in school she would help me out. My family instilled a strong sense of culture within us. My brothers would cook and I would change the car tyres. Right now, I am comfortable being around both men and women.

Are you planning on doing something after this?

No, I feel I have done everything I wanted to do. I would like to study what other fellow ombudsmen are doing; I just want to understand their working relations. I also love child rights and will continue on that path. I am also senior lecturer in human rights rural and governance. My father had wanted me to study for a PhD but I didn’t because he was kind of forcing me! Maybe I’ll take this up at my own time now.

How do you unwind?

I love African music, I grew up liking Mirriam Makeba. I also love wearing my African attire, cooking and gardening.

Tell me about your marital status?

I divorced my first husband due to infidelity issues. After a while, I met Mr Collins Chizumira who was a lawyer. Unfortunately, four years down the line, in 1996, he passed on and I have remained a widow up to now. I miss the days I spent with my late husband, he taught me a lot about life. My first husband lives in Tanzania. He moved on but my children are very much in contact.

How did you deal with the divorce?

I will always tell people that divorce is very painful, but I managed to get over it and move on.

How many children do you have?

I have three children, two sons and one girl who is in college in Tanzania.

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