A Conversation With Pamela Mitunda: GEN’s Community Solutions Leader
Contributed by: Ashley Erickson
Pamela Mitunda is the Girls Empowerment Network’s temporary staff member through the Community Solutions Leadership Program with the U.S. Department of State. The Community Solutions Leadership Program is a professional development program for the best and brightest global community leaders working in issues such as transparency, conflict resolution, environment, and women and gender issues(1). Leaders, like Pamela, participate in a U.S. fellowship with a local nonprofit organization or government agency over a four month time span.
Pamela’s interest in GEN was supported by her work in her community back home in Malawi, Africa:
“I have always wanted to come to the USA, so when I saw this, I thought that this might be my chance. I knew it was my opportunity to be exposed to gaining more knowledge and skills through a different perspective.”
As fall 2016 GENtern, I had the privilege to sit down with Pamela and discuss her work at home in Malawi, her present interests, and what she hopes to accomplish in the future, drawing upon the insights she gained at GEN. As Pamela and I met for the interview, there was a familiar feeling comparable to the warmth one receives from family and close friends; the feeling of trust, openness, and respect for one another. This is how the interview started, with an effortless opening that quickly transitioned into a conversation between friends. This was a dialogue full of an admiration for each other’s insights. In other words, this was a conversation with my friend, Pamela Mitunda.
Where are you from?
I come from Malawi, a small country in South Eastern Africa. Our capital city is Lilongwe, but I was born and raised in the second largest city of Malawi, Blantyre, the commercial city.
Can you tell us a bit about Malawi?
Malawi is nicknamed “the warm heart of Africa,” because out of all the people, we are known to be friendly, always smiling, and helpful. We have over 10 languages, but the national language is Chichewa and the official language remains English. Malawi has two major tourist attractions, a beautiful lake called Lake Malawi and a mountain called Mulanje, which is the highest mountain in South Central Africa. Our staple food is Nsima, which is like a hard porridge that is made from from maize flour; we take it with relish, chicken, or fish with vegetables.
What work were you doing prior to coming to GEN?
I work for a hospital called Beit Cure International, an orthopedic specialized hospital. I do a radio program that brings awareness to people in rural areas so that they know that the hospital exists and the service it provides for the community. Through the same program, I formed radio listening clubs in different primary schools where we talk about issues that are affecting girls in their community and share some solutions to those challenges. These girls don’t have a lot of information, there is a gap in which someone needs to come in and help fill them in. It is an opportunity for these women to participate in once a week and share their stories.
Then, I started thinking that it wasn’t enough to reach to the women in these situations, and so I thought about girls who are still young, in school, and might end up in a similar situation. So, I went to schools and talked to the headmasters and they were positive about bringing the program into the school. My boss and I bought small radios and distributed them to about 7 schools now. A lot of the topics of interest are about peer pressure which they can’t talk to their parents about. The radio program offers a safe space for girls to learn about information and have support they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
Coming from another country, what are some of the cultural differences that you’ve seen while working here in Austin?
Everything is a culture shock! We see U.S. on T.V., but it is different when you are actually here. Dressing is different here than in Malawi. We are more conservative in our clothing- we don’t show off a lot because people look at you differently; they judge you. But it’s really hot here and people are wearing shorts. Wow, like wow, I have to try it myself! I still feel like it is a dream to be here. And the food! You have a lot of everything, which makes it hard to decide where to eat. At home, we don’t have as many choices, we are limited. Everyone is telling me to try the Mexican food here! The public transportation here it is much easier. Back home we have mini buses, or vans, and they stop wherever they want to stop. So, if they see someone walking they will just make a stop right there for you to get in. It’s good for you because it’s convenient, but it is not very organized.
The people here are really friendly, which is different than what people were telling me back home. So, I had a different perception before I came to the United States— I’ve been surprised. Also, the language is difficult! I miss some words like “y’all” and I have to speak English everyday, oh my god! I was talking to my friends and they were like “Do you still have teeth in your mouth?.” But, everything has been a cultural shock, you guys have everything here, right at the tips of your hands. Like downloading apps, it takes me 2 hours back at home and I can do it within seconds here. It is a dream come true.
If you would tell your 12 year old self anything, what would it be?
I am the only girl, first born, and as the first born you have to be responsible and set a good example for your siblings. The way my dad talked to me, he would talk to me like I wouldn’t be able to achieve anything- very critical. But, I look back and understand that was just his way of communicating, which made me want to work hard and be resilient. I have always looked at myself as someone who could achieve so much. Most of the things I have always wanted in life, I can’t lie, I have always managed to get them.
The advice I would give to my younger self would be to “stop doubting yourself.” Every time I have done something, I have done it myself but I always doubted how I got there and what I was doing. For this program, I said “I don’t think I am going to get this,” but here I am. So, 12 year old me, don’t doubt yourself because the moment you do, you fail to even try.
Why do you feel passionately about GEN?
When U.S. Department [of State] said that I would be attached to GEN, I went on the website to understand what they do, read their mission, “GEN’s mission is to support and guide girls to make wise choices as they navigate the unique pressures of girlhood.” It caught my attention, they would see the best in the doubtful me when I was growing up. They see something unique in each girl, very inclusive and empowering. Telling girls that they are better than what they think. I loved the fact that they are involved in the community even the guardians/ parents care. I would love to work with my community like this, where these girls are coming from. That it is possible, even when they go home and hear conflicting things from what I am telling them, to not believe according to what your friends are doing and to believe in yourself.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that girls are facing today?
I keep thinking self-esteem, we have some powerful women doing a lot of things, but a lot of women still look down on ourselves. We doubt that we can do a lot of things. It could be that we are raised in these societies that talk about women negatively. Women’s decisions and opinions, even back home, are not very valued. It comes from the family itself where they say the man is head of the family. But, if he makes decisions that may not be best, you have to go with it anyways because he is the man of the house. I think everything else flows from there. There are also other issues on peer pressure, losing their identity to conform to a group, not fairly and proportionally represented in the media, stress, social isolation and teen to parent communication.
What do you hope to accomplish during your time at GEN?
I know a part of my job is to get involved with these girls and talking, getting active. I want to work on my public speaking skills – to improve that. Most importantly, I want to learn how to best engage the community and to gain the necessary skills of program coordination to bring back to Malawi and put my knowledge I gained here into action. I want to create a GEN-like program there and have after-school programs as well. I am looking forward to making this program grow, to reach as many young girls as I can, but also to find other young women who I can work with to make this grow. Who knows, I might end up starting an NGO that will just focus on girl empowerment back home!