Ngeyi Kanyongolo: Unima’s first female Associate Professor of Law

The efforts we take in life are never lost, as lived by the first female Associate Professor of Law at Chancellor College Ngeyi Kanyongolo.

Ngeyi joined the college under the Bachelor of Education programme in 1987. Before then, she had never seen any lawyer or aspired to be one.

During her first year of college, she played hockey and interacted with law students such as Maureen Kachingwe and Justice Lovemore Chikopa, who also played the game.

“I would see them every Friday dressed up in black and white suits going to Blantyre for classes and I just got inspired,” she says.

Ngeyi was also in the Travelling Theater and enjoyed drama.

“I once watched lawyers, Edge and Viphya in a play. I learnt they were lawyers and thought they were very smart,” she says.

After her first year, she decided to apply for law. She got the credit grade, passed the interviews and joined the Faculty of Law.

It was only during her internship, after her second year that she went to court and saw a lawyer, all dressed up in legal regalia and addressing the court,

That picture affirmed her decision to become a lawyer.

Ngeyi graduated in 1991 and worked in a number of places, including a law firm and an NGO before joining the University of Malawi (Unima)as a law lecturer in 2000.

Ngeyi with parents and parent’s in-laws

Her contributions to Malawi did not start and stop with teaching.

She is a name many look to when it comes to women empowerment in politics, labour, social security, land and customary laws.

She has published in various international spheres on issues that matter to women and is an avid gender activist, fighting change for women.

“I envision a world where knowledge transforms individuals so that people live as equals; where theory and logic informs practice; and lessons from practice are built back into theory. I see a world and, specifically a Malawi of less poverty and reduced inequalities.

“I am inspired by those that have sacrificed for the country, people such as Professor Jack Mapanje. They showed us the power of the pen, knowledge and ideas. People such as Vera and Orton Chirwa showed us what a law degree is capable of doing,” she observes.

Ngeyi was commissioner on the Special Law Commission on Gender and Law, part of a team that reviewed various laws on gender.

Fifteen years later, most of the legislation is in place, with few gaps to which she says the biggest challenge is low levels of implementation and enforcement.

She once served as president of Women Lawyers Society (WLS).

“We were less than 10 female lawyers when we began. Members were very dedicated to the cause of women and their passion to use the law to transform women’s lives was amazing. That made me realise that it is not always about numbers,” says Ngeyi.

She did not stop there, but also worked as vice president of Malawi Law Society (MLS).

At MLS, she learnt more about professional discipline, growth and the potential lawyers have to influence the running of government in a way that respects rule of law and human rights.

As dean of law, she enjoyed working with students—the energy and enthusiasm for knowledge among students and their passion to serve gave her hope for Malawi.

“The young generation has set its standards high and expects greater things from themselves and others. They live a life of hope, which is positively infectious,” she notes.

However, she recalls working with Dr. Vera Chirwa at Malawi CARER in the early years of her career, 1990s, where they would visit different villages and talk about human rights, especially to women as her greatest career moments.

Running her own law firm in the late 1990s and offering free legal services to women in prison, including getting women out on bail was another high.

She says some of the women had stayed in prison for over 10 years without trial and reuniting them with their families was fulfilling.

Generating new knowledge through research and review of various laws, especially laws on labour, gender and marriage, inheritance and violence against women in the 2000s also form the epitome of her achievements and her proudest moments.

Ngeyi was born and grew up in a family of nine. She was the first child— her mother worked as a teacher and father an administrative manager who later became a businessman.

She says growing up in Chitawira Township in Blantyre, they were relatively comfortable in a Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC) rented house with tap water, electricity, one kilometre away from school and a health centre.

Her father mostly worked away from home and she says her mother had the greatest influence in her life.

But a short stay in the village in Standard Five where she enrolled at Kwanjana Primary School opened her eyes to a different reality.

“The disparity between life in town and in the village was just so huge, I can never forget it,” she adds.

Kwanjana school was four kilometres away from her home. She woke up at 4 am, leave for school by 6 am walk the long distance, cross a river without a bridge, sit on mud floor, with very few learning materials, get back home, to fetch water from the well, fetch fire wood and no electricity!

All this was traumatising, but also a life changing experience, she says.

At the age of 12, Ngeyi was selected to Our Lady of Wisdom Secondary School and later to St Michael’s Girls Secondary School.

Growing up as an adolescent at an all-girls secondary school shielded her from the male-female differences that she later in life studied about.

Not worrying about being male or female, she believes this prepared her for Chancellor College where she went at the age of 18.

Mature and confident, she easily handled the common negative prejudices that most girls suffer from, especially at such an age.

In her late 20s, she studied for her Master’s degree in Law with the University of London’s External programme while she lived in England after joining her husband Edge Kanyongolo who was studying for his PhD in Law.

“Combining my studies at Masters’ level with being a full time stay home mother without any house help was a challenge. We somehow both survived and came back to Malawi with our degrees,” she says.

For her PhD, life was very comfortable with a Commonwealth scholarship and a husband who stayed home to support her and the family full time.

Her path to associate professor she says has been a slow, fulfilling and exciting journey.

She joined the academia by chance, living in Zomba after her marriage to a fellow academic, Edge— it became inevitable to be attracted to a part of his world.

Ngeyi worked with lecturers in research and was invited to various conferences and activities in college.

Coming back home after three years of PhD study and academia, it was almost natural for her to join the Faculty of Law as a lecturer in 2000.

“It has taken about 18 years to get to this level. I did not have a roadmap to professorship,” she says.

“I planned to focus and remain engaged in my area of interest, to conduct research and share the knowledge, to build ideas and see the ideas translated into practice and have a positive impact on people’s lives. The promotion and title is icing on the cake,” says Ngeyi.

She expresses gratitude for what she deems a worthwhile recognition of her humble contribution to womankind.

To fellow women, she says: “Let us stay the course, the glass ceiling has been shattered by women such as mother and grandmother; by Her Excellency Joyce Banda; Prof Address Malata, Hon Mcheka Chilenje, Edith Jiya, Mbumba Banda, Dorothy Chapeyama, Emma Kaliya, Emmie Chanika, Senior Chief Kachindamoto and many women who have dared patriarchy and made a difference in Malawi. We owe it to the next generation, to our Country Malawi.”

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