Malawi youth champion plays starring role in Queens Baton Relay ceremony
London – 9 October 2013. Visitors and students of the Bangwe Youth Centre in Blantyre can’t wish for a warmer welcome than the one the coordinator of the centre gives them. Monica Makeya Dzonzi beams with motivation and passion when you enter the centre’s front gate after having climbed up the hill from the lower outskirts of Blantyre. The reason for her motivation is simple: the Youth Centre offered her a way out when the education she longed for seemed impossible to reach.
Today, reality even exceeds her dreams, as she is representing Malawi at the Queen’s Baton Relay for the Commonwealth Games 2014. In London, she will accept the baton from Queen Elizabeth II before it travels through all 70 Commonwealth nations and territories and will arrive in Glasgow for the opening ceremony of the Games at 23 July 2014. In a week when the world is celebrating girls all around the globe, with International Day of the Girl on 11 October, Malawi has found a perfect representative in Monica.
Saying that life hasn’t been easy for this 24-year old, would be an understatement. After losing her father at the age of 9, she was sent to live with her aunt in Zimbabwe, only to find that, after a few years, she couldn’t manage to pay for Monica’s education anymore. Living expenses were high, and next to her nieces and nephews, Monica’s education wasn’t a priority. For Monica however, it was.
The only option for her was her grandmother, but she would soon find that this choice wouldn’t make her life easier. Education still being a number one priority, it never seemed further out of her reach. Lacking funds, her grandmother couldn’t afford to send Monica to school, so she saw no other option than to start working to collect the money herself. Her will to get a degree was so strong that she walked 10 km every morning to gather firewood to sell at the market, and she also dug for gold and sold vegetables. At age 15, Monica was a child labourer.
It wasn’t the long hours of work or the difficult conditions that made her life a challenge, but the on-going pressure from her family to get married. Her grandmother was worried that people would get suspicious when they would see Monica, who had now reached a marriageable age, not going to school and not married. Monica explains: “I realised that an early marriage would cage me forever and would destroy my wish to graduate, so I stayed firm and refused all marriage offers. As expected, people started talking behind my back and ignoring the derogatory comments was easier said than done”.
By the time she turned 15, Monica had saved up enough money to return to Malawi and go to school. Her mother had remarried by that time to her late sister’s husband and Monica returned to a complete family, composed of her own siblings and her cousins, now having to refer to her uncle as ‘father’. Fortunately, Monica’s stepfather was a kind man who understood the importance of education and saw her capabilities. The family however didn’t share his opinion. Paying for school fees when everyday necessities such as food and soap weren’t always available, seemed like a ridiculous idea.
The matter was a heavy burden on the family and when suddenly a solution came out of the blue, everyone was relieved. Through a friend, Monica had met someone who was willing to pay for the school fees of a quality secondary school. Uniforms were ordered and everything was set when the news arrived that this person wouldn’t be paying after all. The family agreed to pay the school fees, but funds were so insecure that Monica sometimes wasn’t sure she could take part in her exams. “During my Malawi School Certificate Exams (MSCE), my father hurried to school to pay the exam-fee while I was waiting to join my fellow students who were already writing their exams. I passed them successfully though, and reached my first big goal: graduating secondary school”, Monica says.
Her biggest dream was also her biggest fear: going to college to become an accountant. Monica knew that this would require money that neither she, nor her family had, and realised that she would have to lock up her dreams for the future.
At this insecure point in her life, she heard about the Bangwe Youth Centre, which offered free courses in livelihood skills, ICT-training and vocational skills through a UNICEF programme. Monica got selected, completed the ICT-course and felt like she finally had found a place where she could make full use of her talents. The centre needed coaches to visit schools to teach courses on girls’ empowerment and livelihood skills and because of her strong engagement, Monica received the offer to travel through Malawi. Never happier, she received a sum of money on top that would allow her to enrol in college and finally pursue her dream. Tragedy struck however, as Monica’s stepfather simultaneously lost his job. The money Monica received was used to support the family instead of enrolling in a college, so Monica stayed active in the centre. The position of assistant-coordinator became available and after she applied and was successful, she knew this wasn’t her last stop. Now she’s coordinating the centre, and she’s passionate as ever about it. Whether she is talking to a student, an older person or a foreigner, she is extremely grateful for the chances the centre has given her and never stops believing in its future possibilities. Apart from giving her the current job, it gave her the chance to visit the world, on foreign exchange programmes to Ireland and Germany.
But no matter how many countries she visits or how many people she meets, that one dream, going to college, will always be her main goal.