From Machinga to parliament at 24

Young people aged 15 to 30 constitute about a third of Malawi’s population of 17.6 million, but they are often excluded from politics. Sights of the elderly sleeping on the job in the country’s 193-seat National Assembly somewhat personify that the county’s political landscape remains a playground for the old.

As most young people are being reduced to spectators of the games old-timers play and passive recipients of decisions they make, Fyness Magonjwa has taken a route less travelled by her peers.

Magonjwa (R) with a fellow first-timer during orientation last week

 At 24, she is the youngest of the members of Parliament elected on May 21—a feat formerly held by Thyolo South West’s Roy Commsy and Blantyre North East’s Angela Zachepa.

Out of the 192 legislators sworn in on Monday and Tuesday this week, 45 are women—up from 32.

The Machinga South East Constituency legislator Magonjwa defeated seven other aspirants. According to Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), Magonjwa amassed 8 108 out of the 30 497 votes cast.

 Why politics?

A firstborn in a family of four children, Magonjwa turns 25 on June 26. She grew up in Machinga, experiencing first-hand the challenges faced by the rural Malawians she will represent for the next five years.

“Because I know the problems faced here, the changes I want to bring in my constituency include good medical care, potable and safe water for all households, a good road network to ease transport problems and issues of electricity,” she says.

Magonjwa is affiliated to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The self-styled admirer of First Lady Gertrude Mutharika says the parliamentary seat was not handed to her on a silver platter. Nevertheless, she is happy that her dreams have come true.

She narrates: “There is a lot of mudslinging, backbiting and castigation that I have had to go through to get elected.

“Some were using my age to de-campaign me, stating that I am too young and won’t ably present the people’s needs and speak on matters of national interest in Parliament, others went as far as alleging that I do not come from my constituency, so I can’t represent the people there.”

However, the majority of the voters in the constituency did not mind the castigation.

“My constituents believed my promises as well as my capabilities. They understood that representing them has got nothing to do with age or gender, but rather the issues that affect them which I want to address and the positive change that I want to bring in the constituency,” she explains.

Too young?

The victory of the youngest parliamentarian in the 2019-2024 cohort could be a testimony that where there is a will, there is a way.

“I believe that every person, irrespective of age and gender, is capable of actively participating in politics. However, because women and young people are usually looked down upon and castigated in various forms, there is just need for boldness, self-belief and determination,” she states.

Magonjwa attended both primary and secondary school in Mangochi. She is currently studying for an advanced diploma in public health. 

And apart from her inner drive to serve people and transform her rural constituency, she pays tribute to her parents and relatives for supporting her in the race to Parliament.

“When I told my parents about my plans to contest as a member of Parliament, they were so surprised. They did not expect it. However, they happily accepted and supported me,” adds Magonjwa.

Lessons

NGO-Gender Coordinating Network (GCN) coordinator Innocent Hauya celebrates the parliamentarian for defying the odds that keep young people down.

He states: “Although Machinga is a predominantly Yao and Muslim community where basically tradition and religion intertwin to limit women’s and girls’ opportunities for education and social advancement, Magonjwa has risen beyond the setbacks and has come out as a success. This is something young women should learn from.

“Being young and without any professional experience, I do not think she had a lot of resources to mount a successful campaign. However, she still contested and used other strategies to get her messages across to motivate people to vote for her. That is also something people, especially young women, should learn from. Yes, politics is expensive, but there are others unconvential ways to beat economic challenges.”

Hauya urges old and experienced legislators to support newly elected young legislators, including Magonjwa,  to develop public speaking skills, self-control, etiquette and other dos and don’ts.

Youth activist Charles Kajoloweka from Youth and Society urges political parties to remove “structural barriers that exclude young people from decision-making processes in mainstream politics”.

“Most of the young people who have made it in the 2019 elections have made it through political parties. This tells us that if there were supportive mechanisms within the political parties, we could see more young people making it into decision-making positions,” he says.

Kajoloweka states that the critical point to increase the numbers of the youth in politics is during primary elections where most of them lose.

“We need affirmative action within political parties to ensure that there is a fair participation of young people, particularly through the primary elections process. The National Youth Policy talks about a minimum of 30 percent youth representation at all levels. Perhaps this is something that even political parties can begin to consider by creating a 30 percent youth quota in decision-making processes starting from the area committees at the grass-root level to the national governing councils,” he explains.

Invest in them

Looking forward to 2024, Kajoloweka wants the focus now to shift towards retention of the elected youth.

“We appreciate that there are young people who have made it and we encourage political parties to do more by providing continuous support to the youth so that they can deliver to the expectations of their constituents. This will help them be retained so that they can become a reference point of successful youth leadership in politics,” he says.

Kajoloweka believes the losing youthful candidates in the May 21 elections remain “a powerful social capital for 2024”.

“In our view, that is already a mobilised group of young people that have demonstrated their strong political will to participate in a competitive democratic process. We need to give them a hand, encourage them and invest in their capacity development so that they prepare well for the next elections,” he says.

“We just hope that DPP or whichever party makes it at the end of the court case will invest in the elected ones by giving them positions. For instance, there are specific ministries that people would expect to see being headed by young people.”

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