Bitter childhood upbringing motivated Old Mutual #Sisonke documentary

Voices Awake Girls Organisation caught the eye of judges of the Old Mutual Malawi #Sisonke best short video documentary competition to be declared one of the winners because it empowers the girl-child through mentorship to grow the potential they see in themselves.

Voices Awake encourage girls to make good use of the talents and skills they have in order for them not to be dependent but independent and the skills they are imparted include tailoring and designing and many more.

A proud diploma in clinical medicine graduate

The organisation is also a rescue centre for abused vulnerable girls, who are assisted to pick themselves up and continue pursuing their academic dreams.

Old Mutual launched the #Sisonke best short video documentary competition to create awareness and to inspire collective action to mitigate, minimise and manage CoVID-19 and its effects.

Founder of Voices Awake Girls Organisation Vanessa Mwangala Zainga decided to enter the competition, of course with the mind that she might be considered for her organisation’s efforts, but at the same time to market themselves for potential sponsors.

The feeding programme

Vanessa reveals that for a long time, her passion was simply about seeing girls being empowered because she went through a bitter upbringing — carrying a load no child should ever do.

“I have lived every type of life — in low density areas; the village and the ghetto,” she said in an exclusive interview. “I was born when my mother was still in secondary school, so she had to go back to school and I was being raised by my maternal grandparents, who died when I was 5.

“Then I went to live in the village with my paternal grandmother which was a different life but still comfortable. Later my parents started living together and I went to live with them — not poor as they gave me all I needed that included my school fees till I was done with college.

“I remember times when my father had to take loans to pay my school fees while my mother would sell popcorn, freezes to provide my other needs too.

Some of the girls at Voices Awake

“My biggest struggle was some domestic abuse and dysfunction families that was a part of my life as I grew up. I witnessed physical abuse, experienced verbal abuse and the community sexual abuse.

“It’s very hard to talk about these things because they involve people I love and respect, and I know they did their very best to love me the best way they knew how.

“Gender-based violence affects children but, unfortunately, we don’t talk about it as culturally we deem it shameful.”

She added that as time got by, she got confused with all these and the effort it took to cover up most event led her to falling behind in her academic pursuits.

When she was in Form 3, her father harshly scolded her for not doing well in an exam and decided to show him that she was worth everything and more by working hard.

“I decided that I wanted to live for bigger things than just proving people wrong. Around the same time, I had given my life to Christ and started believing that I do not go through things for no reason.

“I thought my experiences were to know what other young ladies are going through in the world and to do something about it. That’s when my desire started to be that girl who supports other girls facing similar situations or even worse.”

Originally from Zomba, Vanessa went to Likuni Girls Secondary School from where she went on to attain a Bachelor’s in Education at African Bible College (ABC) and a Master’s Degree in organizational leadership from Eastern University, Pennsylvania.

It was after graduating from ABC in 2012 that she founded Voices Awake — a program that started in Madisi under RiseMalawi Ministries but briefly postponed her activities after she went for her Masters in 2016.

“When I graduated in 2018, I resurrected Voices Awake in Salima’s Traditional Authority Kalonga. We run the organization in partnership with a secondary school called Cornerstone which gives us access to over 250 students (both boys and girls) and around 130 girls.

“We also work with girls from the surrounding secondary schools. We are still a small organization as such we try to provide quality support to the few people we can manage to reach out to than to reach out to a large number of people with low quality support.

“In very special occasions, we get girls from other areas outside Salima such girls from Lilongwe, Madisi as well Blantyre. Our program is not to take girls out of the situations they are living in but to teach them to thrive amidst the challenges they face everyday.”

She says she also does motivational talks when given the platform in churches, schools, youth groups and other empowerment settings.

“When I get to an area, I start as a volunteer teacher at the secondary school I partner with and then get to know my students who are struggling.

“I also start with a mentorship program in which I get to know the girls involved deeply and this leads my team and I to knowing how best to help — from there the girls and their families spread the news to other girls and that’s how we get approached.”

She added that they treat every girl child differently since they experience different traumatic situations.

Since August 2018, Voices Awake have reached out to over 250 girls in the mentorship program and in 2019 they introduced a feeding program which provide lunch to 75 girls during week days.

“We built a home that is also a rescue center for girls experiencing abuse and needing a safe space to pursue their education, we have provided a home to around 15 girls.

“We have supported two girls who have gone on to graduate in colleges — one with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration, who is currently working and another with a diploma in clinical medicine and practicing as well.

She sponsors most of her projects herself as she is a budding entrepreneur managing grocery stores and as a small-scale farmer in poultry farming.

She is also supported by her husband, with whom she manages car hiring business called Zaya Car Rental. She also raises funds through individual relationships from a network of supporters in the United States — “who share our stories in their workplaces, their families, friends and churches”.

“I also have a few Malawians who take part in supporting specific parts of the program for instance the feeding program, or paying school fees.

“Where we can offer financial aid we do, if we can’t we are still there to assist in some other way. We also provide health support and clothes on top of the skills training; counseling and life coaching.

“We expose them to the world outside and the many options they have out there. We have sent the girls back for their academic pursuit when they dropped from school.

“There were some girls who were shy of speaking because of the trauma they went through but today they are the first to raise up their hands to answer or ask a question.

“The parents who didn’t think education is important are now allowing their child to go to school. These and many others are our biggest achievements that include building a magnificent home, that has hosted over 150 people since it was opened in June 2019.

“It is everybody’s home and we love it that people can come and find solace there. What we need more of right now, is the right kind of exposure that will help us get more funds so that we grow our reach.”

She said she got to know of the Old Mutual #Sisonke competition from a couple of friends who sent her the social media application link encouraging her to apply.

“I was not really enthusiastic about applying because I have received a fair share of rejections, but I ended up forwarding the stuff to Mercietania Royo, who is my administrative assistant and I asked her to do it.

“With the help of a friend, Sam Sozela, she made me record the short documentary. The recognition was an endorsement for us that the work we are doing is not in vain indeed.

“It is also an assurance even to the girls that hard work, faithfulness, transparency will still pay off because we believe that to get the recognition in Malawi, one needs to have connections or wealth to buy your way to the top.

“We are grateful to Old Mutual for this recognition and we are hoping to use this money to grow our skills training part of the program since it is also the money-making initiative which we think could help in sustaining some of our programs.”

She has a team of five under her payroll and has interns and volunteers who help manage the organization.

“I also have a very supportive husband who is like the father of the organization — he is everything we need him to be to make this work.

“We are so much better than when we started, we are getting more support now than we did then because most people love associating themselves with success than things they think will fail.

“When I started, I would babysit and get paid K500 per hour and use it to pay for a child’s education fund, or notebooks and then wonder how I was able to help someone with money I didn’t even have.

“It’s not about having a lot, it’s about using what you have wisely. God grows things and I am so excited about our future.”

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