At knock-off time from Chichiri Secondary School in Blantyre, she thought the rain had receded and crawled with difficulty towards Naperi River to the rickety bridge she crossed on her way home.
Rain fell profusely and the river was swollen and upon reaching Naperi River, she found that the bridge was gone except for a pole. She hesitated for a moment and thought of returning to school, but it was late and her parents and relatives waited in fear with bated breaths.
She thought of the worst, but considered the best was to cross. And with her muddy hands and soaked uniform, she clung to the pole and crawled a few steps, but slipped into the river.
Riding the muddy waves in trash, she gave up everything until someone grabbed her hand to safety. That was the worst day for Rachel Kachaje, co-founder of African Women with Disabilities organisation.
She lived in times when being physically challenged was brutally swoon upon and despite having the same or better qualifications than other people, chances of getting employed were low.
At the age of three, in 1961, she lost one of her legs when she was attacked by polio that struck Malawi. Unlike other children who started their education earlier, she started at eight and was being carried by her mother and sometimes sister to Kanjedza Primary School.
Her parents could not afford a wheelchair and it was some more gruesome years of mobility challenges through primary and secondary schools.
“In 1974, I was selected to HHI Secondary School which I attended only the first term due to mobility challenges and was transferred to Chichiri Secondary School where I finished my secondary education.
“I finished my secondary school in 1979, but failed to go to the university. I stayed at home for another year,” said Kachaje.
Her father worked for Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) and her mother distilled Kachasu to make ends meet. They had difficulty supporting eight children. She says her hard-working spirit and completion of secondary education was a gift to her family and they were anxious for a brighter future until more mountains arose.
“After I failed to go to the university, I started looking for a job and it was not easy to find employment, companies refused to employ people who were physically challenged.
“I stayed at home for a year. Malawi Council for the Handicapped [Macoha] announced on radio that they were looking for girls who had secondary school qualifications and I applied. But I was not successful. After some days, I was called by Macoha, they said that National Bank wanted to employ us,” said Kachaje.
Luckily, this time National Bank employed two women and three men and she was employed as a telephone operator. In 1981, she decided to further her studies at The Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, with the hope of getting a promotion.
Between 1981 and 1984, she attended evening secretarial studies classes, but upon completion, the bank did not immediately recognise her papers. She worked for another seven years at the switchboard. In 1986, she got married to Gibson Kachaje and the same year she got promoted to a typist. She transferred to Lilongwe following her husband where she worked until she was retrenched in 2001.
Since then, she has been involved in activism for people with disability.
Born on May 5 1958 in Linga Village, T/A Mwase in Kasungu, Kachaje has received several awards and recognitions for her work in disability in Malawi and Africa in general.
In 2001, Southern African Federation of the Disabled recognised her to be part of them. She was elected chair between 2002 and 2007 and first female to be chair of the federation. In 2002, she together with friends, established the Disability Women in Africa, an organisation that champions the rights of disabled women in Africa.
Some of the members are Rwanda’s Matilda Umurza and Hatouma Gakou from Mali who have all inspired a lot of women in Africa. In 2007, she was deputy chairperson for Disabled People International responsible for development and was in 2011 re-elected on the same position. In October 2013, though not being a politician, she was appointed minister of Disability and Elderly Affairs. She is currently an activist and bemoaned the delays in the enactment of the Disability Act in Malawi as a major obstacle to the rights of the disabled.