She comes from a mountainous area and, therefore, climbing to the peak hasn’t been an impediment for her.
In her life journey, too, she has climbed tough terrains from being a mere receptionist of an average local company to reach the peak of her career as a distinguished Executive Director for a reputable international organisation.
In the eons past, summer in the massif terrain of Dedza district, located about 85 km south of the capital, Lilongwe, off the M1 Road to Blantyre – at a point where a trans-African highway from Johannesburg enters the country – and with an altitude of 1590m, Dedza is the highest town in the south-eastern nation, brought calm clear skies at the foothills of the Mphunzi highland, a hill with an estimate elevation above sea level of 1652 metres.
Generally, Dedza is unforgiving and chilly and damp with a weather so unfavourable and it was bad in her time as a toddler before climate change happened.
In that moment, in that era, rain was forecast for the next day, though no forecast for the future of the girls from the area could be guaranteed.
However, one young girl had hope for a better tomorrow, a bright future. She believed in herself and her destiny against all odds of impossibility.
Here is a story of one woman whose story defies logic, a tale of resilience, hard work and a determined journey to conquer an impossible dream—a story of a CEO who started at the very bottom as a receptionist and walked her way up just like she used to climb Mphunzi Hills of Dedza on routine errands to fetch firewood.
Hers is a tell-tale of a fierce defender of women and children rights and a village champion who transformed herself to a world-class intellectual and noble global citizen.
You may never have heard her name before her larger-than-life life-story will melt your heart of hearts.
As tough as a teak, she is a goal-getter and a great leader and her ‘government name’ is Gertrude Kabwazi, the CEO of Yamba Malawi. She has a huge responsibility of overseeing the day-to-day operations of offices in Malawi and New York in the United States.
She is not religious, like many a woman, but she is spiritual because she subscribes to the progressive aspects of many religions—but she regularly congregates with the Church of Central African Presbyterian whenever, wherever.
William Shakespeare once quipped that some people are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. However, some people were born great, achieved greatness in their lifetime and have greatness thrust upon them—all at once.
Born Gertrude Zoe Mathandalizwe on August 19th 1970 at Bottom Hospital in Lilongwe, she has known low life and abject poverty but she has also tasted opulence and high life, brushing shoulders with the ‘nobodys’ of this world, but she has also dined with the ‘somebodys’ and the Very Very Important Persons (VVIPs) in the high corridors of power.
She grew up under a disciplinarian mother, now late, Betty Mathandalizwe, and a girls’ education advocate, late father, Henry Mathandalizwe.
Gertrude comes from a big family; they were 10 children in her family, seven girls and three boys and two of her siblings sadly passed away.
As it is always the case – a big family meant that food had to be rationed and this taught Gertrude two things – how to accommodate different people’s interests and manage different characters and as a result, this is equipped her with management transferable skills, which she uses in her everyday life, more especially in her work and professional endeavours.
Gertrude Kabwazi looks every inch a proverbial Shakespearian great persona. She was born great, has had greatness thrust upon her, and has thus far, she’s achieved greatness.
Lucky? Not at all. Blessed? May be? Perhaps, it could be a bit of both, but largely, she is a result of hard work and sharp focus teemed with a desire to achieve greatness.
This is a vivid account of a woman who fights child poverty and heavily propagates for gender equality between men and women.
From growing gender-based violence to restrictions on reproductive health and lack of access to childcare, she believes that women are on the frontlines of the crisis, but are also among those leading resistance.
Born and bred between Lilongwe and Dedza, her home district of origin, little Gertrude grew up in a down-to-earth hardworking family under a difficult political and cultural system that impliedly cast women as second class citizens in the play of life—where it was believed that a place for women was in the kitchen.
She has fought her way up and she believes that a woman’s place is no longer in the kitchen but in the front seat with the men fork.
Married with two children, a daughter, Mphanda and a son, Tsinde and married to a Wiseman, yes her husband’s name is Wiseman Kabwazi, Gertrude speaks candidly about her own life and career and about the role of a woman in the modern society.
Gertrude, who has had to walk the path of social injustice and personally experienced most of the challenges girls face today, feels it is her obligation and responsibility to help build bridges for more young women to cross over, hence her relentless passion for ‘girls’ education and empowerment.
For her, to be at the pinnacle of authority, it feels normal on average, but sometimes it feels surreal that a girl from the village at the foot of Mphunzi made it to the farthest of the far—she, however, do not regard her Executive Director job as a position of authority, but rather influence.
She didn’t just fall onto her top job as Executive Director or miraculously end up in her position through a prophecy all by just saying ‘Amen’, for her, it has been a tough journey, a progressive transition into leadership having started off as a receptionist.
She is now the Executive Director of an international humanitarian organisation because of hard work and believing in herself that she can make it.
Gertrude, like many of her peers of her generation, is a product of a caring community, but still more, her most notable influence in her life comes from her sister Grace and her mother, aNamasina who has since gone back to her maker.
When her father lost his job after he became blind, life practically changed and as a family, they had to relocate to the village in Dedza and there was no preparation for such a life changing transition and it was a survival of the fittest kind of life.
It was a rough landing and for the next few years, her mother had to cross to the bordering Mozambique to do menial ‘food for work’ ganyu.
Like everyone else, too many sad moments have melted away with time but losing her mother, aNamasina, recently was extremely hard and a bitter pill to swallow.
On the brighter side, she has also experienced happy times, which she continues to treasure regardless of time.
Notable of them was when she stepped out of the borders of her village in Dedza to go and live with her brother in Zambia who was then pilot for the resurrected Zambia Airways.
It was at this time that a window of opportunities opened-up for her to see the world of possibilities.
She is one of a kind, cool and collective, funny and beautiful and brainy.
She believes that everyone deserves a quality of life and that there is need for human beings regardless of race, beliefs, creed, nationality, sex, gender and political affiliation to treat each other as equals and with dignity, as before God no person is a lesser mortal.
Gertrude is very observant and has an analytical mind. She analyses anyone and everything and she is so empathetic but at times, she is hilarious and fun-loving.
On the flipside, because she is observant and analytical, she has a good sense of judgement of ‘people’s character and the problem with these traits, and her downside is that most of the times, she overthinks. And at times, she over process issues.
So, how does Gertrude define success?
She believes that success is subjective and very contextual as some define it by using education while others value money and others, find success in marriages. However, truth is success is a personal perspective and it is fluid.
Gertrude philosophises that in life it is important for people to always create time for self-reflection and also take time off to reboot, reset themselves and rebrand. Time and again.
“Don’t allow the usual you to define you. Be more and do more and never settle for less. We all have a thousand and one sides in us. So, invest on rediscovering yourself,” she says.
For a girl child to succeed in this world, she thinks that all children, and a girl child in particular, needs a booster for self-drive, which will then propel them to achieve their heart’s desires.
Gertrude says children needs the software more than the hardware support adding that hardware is not bad, but software quickly builds self-confidence, self-belief and self-drive.
Malawi’s former president, Dr Joyce Ntila Banda’s book titled “From Day One” makes a good case for Gertrude’s philosophy of life and living.
The observation made in Dr Banda’s book is that programmes seeking to empower women in sub-Saharan Africa have multiplied—and yet, a critical piece is missing; focusing on rural girls from zero to 10 years old—a fact that makes Gertrude.
She observed that discrimination and social norms that penalise girls and women do not start at adolescence, and by the time girls are 10, it is often too late to undo the damage done. So, catch them early.
Gertrude feels that the common assertions that women are favoured or that they sleep their way up to the top are nonsensical and that women work hard to get to the top.
She strongly believes that women must be given a chance to ride high because one ‘woman’s success opens a thousand doors for other women and that sadly, one woman’s mistake closes almost all the doors for other women.
“We have made good progress towards gender justice. We count the gains. However, we continue to work on the losses, and finding ways i.e. what can be done to double, treble, quadruple the results? We need to change our gender justice strategies,” Gertrude says.
She says she is happy that these days there are good men out there who are pro gender justice and there is need to tap into their energy.
“People must understand that gender justice is not about men versus women. It is about promoting co-existence, acknowledging, and celebrating our differences,” she says.
For Gertrude, her journey of life has been one big classroom, and a practical education that has kept her grounded.
Gertrude is very proud of her achievements. Even when she was a receptionist, for her, at that moment, this was a great achievement and there is no single one of them that she received on a silver platter.
She says there is no formula to success. Like a dynamite, success come in small packages.
However, she believes that a combination of so many things helped to catapult her into higher positions of influence, including strategically positioning herself, being open to learning, exploring opportunities and using them, being positive, tapping into her social capital, and building relevant professional relationships.
Her achievements, nonetheless, are not just limited to professional growth, though; she also feel happy that she has over the years impacted other ‘people’s lives.
She holds a Masters in Women’s Law from the University of Zimbabwe, Bachelor of Arts in Human and Social Studies with a concentration in Development Studies from the University of South Africa.
Gertrude also holds a University Diploma in Journalism from University of Malawi and Certificate in Education Policy from University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.
She has been recognised as an African Visionary Fellow with Segal Family Foundation and a Perennial Fellow, and serves on a number of Boards, including the Malawi Union of Academic and Non-Fiction Authors, Root Change, University of Malawi Council, Integrity Platform (Affiliate of Transparency International), World Bicycle Relief-Buffalo Bicycles, Women and Law in Southern Africa (WILSA), Coalition of Women Living with HIV and AIDS (COWLHA), and Concerned Youth Organisation.
Her life story is non-monotonic, there is no single story in it, her story is a wonderful blend of so many dark and bright moments that were generally purposeful.
Her life is a mixed bag with blended experiences as she grew up in the village and town—and in poverty and plenty and that means that she’s very well-seasoned.
She’s slept under leaky roofs; muddy floors swabbed with cow dung, and grass-thatched houses brings her mainstay childhood memories to life.
She knows how to go into a forest, climb the hill and collect firewood and bundling firewood is an art and no child play.
On the other hand, she was also privileged to grow up in some households that had plenty and her’s is a balanced-diet life having grown up in different homes and communities and was also raised by good-willed neighbours, sisters, uncles, brothers, and aunties.
Everything she has gone through or experienced in life, is a practical education to her being.
According to Gertrude, education has helped her a great deal to have a better sense of her own intrinsic value and to recognise the value of other women and girls.
With her eyes on the prize, the young Gertrude started from the bottom. She kicked off her career working as a temporary receptionist and later communications assistant at World Vision International Malawi.
From that time, she has remained in the development sector changing organisations and positions in the process.
She has so far worked for Blantyre Synod Projects Office, Mineral and Appropriate Technologies Applicable in Malawi, Dignitas International, Action Aid International, Concern Universal, now United Purpose, Advancing Girls Education in Africa and she is currently with Yamba Malawi whose focus is on eradicating child poverty.
According to Gertrude, Yamba’s philosophy is premised on breaking the cycle of poverty, so that child poverty must be eliminated, such that it helps in promoting proximate leaders and local solutions.
She has served in high and low positions, she has sat on decision-making tables with people of influence, locally and globally.
For her, the greatest achievement which warms and gladdens her heart is the list of girls and boys she has supported to become more productive citizens.
Gertrude joined Yamba Malawi in 2019 with over 25 years of experience as a development practitioner and social justice activist.
Her breadth of expertise and leadership roles serves Yamba Malawi’s holistic approach to breaking the cycle of poverty.
Her expertise in working with local and international organisations uniquely positions her to lead the programme team, develop community-focused interventions and activities, and serve thousands of children each year.
With all she has achieved thus far, her life isn’t a walk in the park as she faces a myriad challenges in balancing different roles, being a wife, a mother, a neighbour, and pursuing a taxing career at a higher level is very difficult as the societal prescriptions and expectations are sometimes too harsh on women.
Sadly, for women, regardless of social status in society they are expected to fulfill their obligations as the lead ‘female’ of the household or community inspite of all other demands.
Gertrude is the first black Malawian woman holding that position and says dealing with colonised and gendered perceptions is sometimes difficult for her, as there are still some people who believe that women are too emotional and cannot not make good leaders.
Her advice is that women need to be themselves, free their spirit and fly—women must take advantage of every opportunity, but avoid compromising their integrity, for instance, seeking favours in exchange for sex.
Growing up, little Gertrude never understood the concept of role models. It is only now that she has become one that she understands what it means.
She used to admire to the bone her then secondary school English teacher and later radio broadcaster, Zeria Banda that she wanted to be everything that she was and more.
It was a no brainer, therefore, that my mentor, Zelia Banda, influenced Gertrude to study journalism and she was readily available to talk to her about her potential and pushed her to pursue her dreams.
During her primary school days, she wanted to finish her education, start work and buy herself a full chicken— growing up in a big family always left her with hunger for more during mealtime, so she and her siblings used to gather around plates and eat the left-over crumbs from the plates together.
Gertrude’s dad helped her a great deal to achieve her educational goals while her mother, Betty, but fondly known as aNamasina moulded her character and influenced her thinking on humanity, resilience, peace keeping and life in general such that at a tender age she became very daring and fearless but very respectful and caring woman.
She says she has always admired hard working women in her life, especially those who dedicated their lives and times in the service of mankind.
For this reason, Gertrude has always wanted to help others, especially girls and women because for her, no matter how old she’s grown, there is always that a ‘little girl’ trapped inside her and that this little girl comes alive whenever she comes across or hear stories of girls struggling to access education.
Understandably, although there is a generation gap between her and the current crop of girls – today’s girls face pretty much the same challenges that many girls faced years ago such as; child labour disguised as domestic servitude, poverty, early marriages and other socio-cultural practices that impede on their right to education.
As an advocate for girl-child and women, she’s committed to supporting girls’ access to life changing opportunities and she started supporting girls’ education wayback when she was in secondary school.
What a role-model, she is.
Apart from beauty and the guts, Gertrude is creative and artistic.
She is a published author and has a book under her belt, titled, Novella, The Golden Stick, a study on pests and diseases-impact on ‘women’s rights and Gertrude is in the process of authoring another book.
Unlike many women, Gertrude’s hobbies do not include cooking or knitting ponchos and scarfs. She finds delight in writing, listening to ‘good’ music mentorship, and coaching girls and women.
And, she has no time for gossiping. She is the kind that if she has an issue with anyone, she will confront the person and sort it with them.
When she is free from the hustle and bustle of life, she enjoys humour, spends time laughing and joking with friends and family and when she is not doing all this in her free time, she also love watching the sun set to its bosoms perhaps this takes her back to the foot of Mphunzi Hills in her home village where a sunset means something special as opposed to the city urban area she now lives.
Gertrude is a cream that needs to be celebrated. She is a song that every girl out there, aspiring to be great, must be singing.
For Gertrude, impossible is nothing and no mountain ain’t high to climb.
Just like she did often climbed the Mphunzi Mountain to its pinnacle as a child, Gertrude Kabwazi has been continuously climbing professional ladders to to peak in adulthood.
What a talented, blessed and hardworking woman-being. What a cream, what a pride and what an achiever.
Here is Gertrude Kabwazi’s favourite quotable quote.
“When you are kind to others, it not only changes you, it changes the world” – Harold Kushner.
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