Life in Malawi inspires Annie Mbale’s goal to empower women
Annie Mbale was organizing a few of her belongings earlier this year when a piece of paper she didn’t recognize fell to the floor.
Curiosity drew her to pick up the note and begin to read through the bulleted list:
- graduate from high school
- wait until at least 30 to get married
- leave the village
The list continued on with 27 more self-imposed challenges for Mbale, a Malawi native, to meet by the time she was 30. Some of the checklist items were frivolous goals her 15-year-old self had composed after flipping through magazines. Eating pizza with her hands and resembling Beyoncé were a few such items. Others were loftier career and educational ambitions she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to accomplish.
Fifteen years later, the University of Missouri–St. Louis graduate and current MBA student has crossed off all but three items and expanded on many of the goals. But until recently, Mbale wasn’t particularly proud of what she had accomplished thus far.
“I wish I was proud,” she said. “That’s one of my struggles. I don’t get satisfied that easily, and maybe that’s because I’ve always said I needed to do better. I didn’t feel very accomplished until I found the list I wrote myself when I was 15. When I read through it, I finally felt like I had done well.”
Until the list reappeared around her 30th birthday, Mbale had never discussed or shown it to anyone. Even she had forgotten about it.
But she does remember drafting it at a tearful moment in her teens and then tucking it away, somewhat embarrassed about its contents and also unsure that anyone would care to hear about her dreams.
Growing up in Malawi, Mbale’s main ambitions were to acquire a strong education, get out of the village and then empower other women through her knowledge and experiences.
None of those goals were simple.
Mbale’s parents, who were educated professionals, died when she was 11. The couple had invested their life savings to start a business a year earlier, leaving Mbale and her three siblings with no financial stability. The children then left their comfortable life in the city to live with extended family in a small village.
Mbale’s strained financial circumstances particularly plagued her high school education. All students pay for high school in Malawi. If students don’t pay tuition after three weeks, they’re sent home.
At points when Mbale didn’t have the financing, she still tried to find ways to educate herself and stay out of the village, where she would be repeatedly encouraged to stop going to school and just get married.
When she couldn’t be in the classroom, she would spend time reading in the school library or peeking through windows attempting to listen in on lessons. She was one of the top students in the class and had no intention of slipping behind.
Even the walks to school could be physically and emotionally draining.
Girls were expected to wake up early to help with household chores. By the time they got to school, many were already tired and found it difficult to concentrate. Female students were also repeatedly harassed on their walks. Among other things, they were asked to take their tops off and told they could not proceed down a path until men had groped their breasts.
“It got to a point where I thought, ‘OK. Whatever. They can beat me up. I am still going to go to school. I’m still going to make it,’” Mbale said. “It was a tough ride, but I knew that the only way I could get out of that was to get an education. It wasn’t easy. I won’t lie. It didn’t feel hard until now that I think about it and see American culture. I wasn’t supposed to be going through that s—, but I did.”
Luckily, Mbale found someone who took a vested interest in her education during her junior year.
Alexis Denny, an American Peace Corps volunteer, arrived at her school as its first female instructor. Other teachers directed Denny to Mbale since she was the highest achieving female in the class and founder of the school’s Girls Club.
The pair began to build a strong rapport until Mbale started missing school. Denny caught Mbale peering through a window one day and reprimanded her for missing class. Mbale explained that her absence wasn’t her choice: She simply didn’t have the money to continue going to school.
Denny then gave Mbale a life-changing proposal.
She offered to pay for Mbale’s education if she came to live with her and helped her navigate Malawian culture, cook on an open fire and live without electricity.
Mbale agreed hesitantly.
“I was scared at first,” she said. “But I told my friends and family, ‘This is an opportunity, and I need to go.’ We became friends, and now we are sisters.”
The assistance helped Mbale finish high school and also provided an introduction to the American education system.
At the time, there was only one university in Malawi, and Mbale had little hope that she would gain admission. She mentioned the dilemma to Denny, who encouraged Mbale to apply for a student visa to study in the U.S.
It took three years, but Mbale eventually acquired a visa and admission into Jefferson College, a community college near Denny’s family in Hillsboro, Missouri.
Now that she was continuing her education and out of the village, Mbale had one major goal remaining – develop a meaningful career working with women. Elements of that vision have evolved over the years, but Mbale traces the ambition to grade school.
“When I was in fourth grade, I said, ‘I’m going to be a police officer, and I’m going to beat up all the men who are beating their wives,’” she recalled. “I seriously said that. Then in sixth grade, I was going to be a human rights lawyer helping women. It has always been about women. I realized a few years ago that I’ve been a feminist for a long time.”
Mbale’s attitude toward advancing women’s rights and interests is based on the plight of those in her home country and the strength of the females in her family.
“My family is influenced by women,” she said. “But growing up in an environment that as a woman you are less, I think that’s what inspired me. I won’t lie that it has made me the person I’ve become today. I’ve been seen as less and less and less, but I’ve believed in myself. I’m not less. I can be more.”
When she arrived at Jefferson College, Mbale still maintained her desire to become a human rights attorney. She eagerly navigated her way through school and life in America with the assistance of her newfound family, adding a term as Jefferson College’s Student Senate president to her résumé.
As her graduation approached, Mbale began researching institutions where she could finish her bachelor’s degree. She stumbled upon UMSL and its high-ranking international business program. It was then that she realized a business degree could better serve her interests in advancing the lives and careers of women.
Mbale enrolled at UMSL and quickly became involved in a variety of international student and College of Business Administration activities. By 2016, she had earned her long-awaited college degree with an added certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College. She’s the first woman in her high school class to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Mbale now expects to graduate with an MBA and certificate in digital marketing in May.
Until then, she’s keeping busy as a graduate research assistant for UMSL’s International Business Institute, digital marketing teaching assistant and virtual mentor for girls in Malawi. She’s also interning this summer for Odd Couples Housing, a service company that pairs healthy seniors with young professionals or college students for shared housing.
As a digital and social media manager for Odd Couples, Mbale is helping enhance the online presence of the fledgling company. But with Odd Couples’ two distinct demographics, she’s also offered input on traditional marketing methods.
“The internship has been a challenge, which is good for me,” she said. “It’s challenged me to think beyond. When I came in, I had this proposal of what I was going to do. Now that I’m doing the internship, it’s changing every day.”
With two semesters left and professional experiences underway, Mbale is looking ahead to the future. She’s not sure where she’ll be in a year, but she’s creating a new checklist to help guide her.
“Honestly, I’ve gone through a lot, and I’ve survived it all,” she said. “That’s something that I’m proud of about myself. I know that no matter what life throws at me, I’ll be able to handle it.”
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