“First of all, it’s Mara Kumbweza Banda. I come from the Banda clan. The family name is Kumbweza. So it is important to identify myself from which family I come from.”
Mara was very specific that I address her by her family name and not just her clan name. I should have known better….hers was a name that I would not soon forget. Mara Kumbweza Banda is one of the most inspiring people I have met in Malawi.
We met Mara at her office of the Pendulum Project on June 23rd and she was very keen to do a narrative. Her reputation had been built up before our meeting by two of her co-workers and I had a good feeling. My instincts were right. Mara was amazing:
She was diagnosed HIV positive over a decade ago and at the time faced intense discrimination in part due to a public largely uninformed about HIV. Seizing the internet and every person she could corner about CD4 tests, ARVs, co-infections, and beyond, Mara created an NGO, “Paradiso Project” whose focus was to combat the stigma through coordinated activities for fellow HIV-positive community members and inform uneducated village women about their health risks and choices in life. What started as a small co-hort of people swelled into a massive NGO, garnering official status by the Malawian NGO Board, a government body who oversees the ocean of NGOs. She coordinates youth groups, organizes activities for bed-ridden patients and does educational plays to inform people about healthy sexual behavior, to name a few activities. She has 267 Paradiso children who are under Amayi Mara’s (mother Mara) watchful eye. Women began to ask her to name their babies. People began knocking at her door at every odd hour of the morning asking for a meal, some advice, any kind of help. Amayi Mara always answered. She answered until she had to move to the city, a decision she made begrudgingly, but a necessary disentanglement of her personal life from her work life. She was truly becoming the most powerful woman in her village….in fact now she is. That’s right; the village elders deemed she should be chief, a rare and impressive feat for a woman from the Chewa clan. But electing a woman turned out to be a good decision. Amayi Mara is one of the most progressive chiefs in Malawi. Besides being a staunch advocate for HIV awareness, she opened up a village bank account where her chiefly stipend (that the government pays each traditional chief) goes. Also, in a village dispute, the usual chicken or goat paid in damages to the chief by the offending party is sold in the market and the money likewise deposited in the village bank account.
Amayi Mara’s life has just been a series of unexpected promotions inspired by her actions as an ambassador for Malawian women and Malawian women with AIDS. She was flown all the way to Paris to lecture on AIDS issues in Malawi. Just recently, the National AIDS Commission of Malawi made her a commissioner on its board. The Pendulum Project recognized the good work Mara was doing and teamed up with her. Mara now runs the Pendulum Project in addition to Paradiso. She is a rarity in Malawi. She’s profoundly articulate and is constantly pushing the government to do more. Mara represents the grassroots, the bedrock of Malawi’s public health response to AIDS, and traditionally the grassroots get walked all over. Little of the donor aid reaches the grassroots organizations who often have the best means of reaching their communities—especially in Malawi. This country is more than 90 percent rural and the physical removal of people from the nearest clinic or hospital literally kills people. Women die giving birth in ox-carts because they can’t be wheeled fast enough to the nearest hospital. Children die from cerebral malaria on the back of a bicycle. Even the mini-buses for those who have the change are cramped little box-cars that are never on time and could put one’s health even further at risk (car accident). It’s not that the government doesn’t realize it has problems in addressing the public health epidemic and it’s not as if they aren’t doing anything about it. Mara is a loudmouth and she might as well stick a vuvuzela through their office window. They know she’s there. Still, as Mara told us, a lot of women are dying unnecessarily…being killed both through lack of information and a poorly equipped public health sector.
“In Malawi, if you are looking at a woman, who is out in the rural area, it is impossible. So there has to be a voice, someone to fight for them, at least so that people could know these are the reasons. I became an activist to speak about those issues and even argue with the government and everybody else I could argue with. I talk to people and things change.”
–Mara Kumbweza Banda