Tumeliwa Mphepo: Founder of Front Seat

People describe her as somebody who has tapped into a reservoir of emotional capacity.

She found strength to rebuild herself as a woman with albinism and  now fights for the rights of others living with albinism.

Tumeliwa Mphepo, 22, with her soft spoken demeanour can mislead some who listen to  her for the first time.

“I have fought my own battles and now fight for Persons with Albinism (PWA). I could be perceived as a minority, but with power to be heard,” she says.

Born in a family of seven where she is one of three girls, Tumeliwa has three other siblings with albinism.

Taking into account that not everyone in society embraces diversity, she says she still experiences some form of discrimination in some circles.

“People call me names because of the way I look, some of which I fail to understand where they originate from,” she regrets.

In addition, with the sensitivity of her skin to the sun, she constantly needs to use sunscreen and even has to re-apply when over-exposed.

“I wear long sleeved clothes and use umbrellas or wide brimmed hats although sometimes it is tiresome to always move with umbrellas.

“Another challenge is that sunscreen stains clothes and also, having to reapply gets tedious. Our lotion most of the times is greasy, making the skin oily and attracting dust,” says Mphepo.

Apart from that, due to her short sight, she has to get close to things to see clearly which proves problematic when moving around as she can read sign posts only when she gets too close. But then, some still look blurred even when she gets close to them.

“It is also occasionally hard to differentiate colours very well. For instance, in situations where transparent glasses are used as walls and the doors of such buildings is not properly demarcated, I can easily bump into glass,” says the young woman, urging the public to construct buildings in a way that accommodates people like her.

Growing up, her parents always encouraged her to work hard, long for excellence and be the best in everything.

“They advised that challenges are always there, but that my success will depend on how I embraced them and if I am smart enough, I wouldn’t let such [challenges] block my way. In addition, they also love God and value human life; and probably it was for the same reason they accepted us with albinism in the family.

“Such faith, advice, encouragement as well as the self-awareness of what I wanted to become made me strong and focused. Looking back to what I have been through, I don’t want to see any PWA going through the same. At the same time, I want society to embrace diversity, value every human life and let PWAs live in their own country freely and peacefully,” she says.

Tumeliwa was born in Mangochi, but comes from Chiradzulu. She went to primary school in Mangochi and was selected to St. Mary’s Secondary School in Zomba from where she was selected to pursue a degree in social sciences at Chancellor College. She graduated with credit.

With short sightedness, she had huge challenges in school. She believed that could only be overcome if she used large prints where small prints were used and getting close to the printed/written items in cases where she was too far from it.

Tumeliwa always took front row seats in class. She would also approach teachers and lecturers for proper assistance, asking for large prints during examinations and already prepared notes before starting a class.

However, she was not always assisted accordingly and would miss some lessons as they were being taught.

“I relied a lot on books and also had to borrow notes from my classmates to copy and study, but the borrowed notes at times could be misleading [mistakes]. It was really a challenge. But I am someone who understands things faster when they are being taught and I knew what I wanted to achieve. It is only when you set a goal that you focus on accomplishing it even when you encounter challenges,” she says.

As one way of responding to the challenges that PWA face, she and her friend Bosco Chinkonda initiated Front Seat, a community service project under Students with Dreams program (SWD) run by the Art and Global Health Center Africa (AGHCA).

SWD is a creative leadership programme for college students in Malawi which empowers young dreamers to implement innovative projects in response to the challenges they see in society.

“Front Seat was born in response to challenges that persons with albinism face, using my own lived examples as well as the atrocities against them that came into being at the time. All these challenges emanate from society not understanding albinism.

“The aim of the project was to educate teachers, parents/guardians as well as communities on albinism, and was implemented in Zomba, Namiwawa School Zone and a new light was shown to three PWAs who became accepted in their school and community. From then, I was selected into the national executive council of the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (Apam),” she explains.

As an Apam member, she volunteers in the activities of the association in their efforts to ensure their rights are respected.

“I also use every opportunity to make people aware of albinism and when I see that in a given group certain rights of PWAs have been infringed upon, I lobby for the respect of rights. In cases where I feel like PWAs have not been accommodated, I also advise accordingly. When given an opportunity to talk as a role model, I also speak about albinism,” says the young advocate.

Tumeliwa believes that it does not take a person to have it all to bring change or make a difference in someone’s life.

“Whatever little one has, if there is an opportunity, use it to help others,” she advises.

She concludes by saying that people should learn to embrace diversity, value human life and respect each other’s human rights.

“They should never think that reasonably accommodating a section of people is charity, they should see it as respect for human rights,” she says.

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