BY ALLYSON HUNTOON '19
“It all started as a small summer project,” Ellen Chilemba ’17 said from her seat in a dimly-lit room in the back of Rockies Dining Hall, trying to finish the rice and potatoes on her plate before going to class. Some may know Chilemba as a flash of red hair speeding across campus on her bicycle. Others may have seen her DJing a party in Chapin on the week- ends or working on a project in the art building. Chilemba assumes many roles and has recently been assigned yet another: College Woman of the Year.
Chilemba is an economics major from Malawi and the founder and executive director of Tiwale, a community-based organization. She has been recognized as a Powell Exemplary Leader in Forbes Africa’s 30 under 30, a Commonwealth Youth Awardee for Excellence in Development Work and Ashoka’s Future For- ward Awardee for Youth Innovations for Employment in Africa. She says her most recent award from Glamour Magazine is “financially the biggest award” she’s recieved.
A week before the accouncement of her Grand Prize win of the College Women of the Year contest held by Glamour Magazine, Chilemba was notified that she was on the list of top ten honorees. “Looking at the other people on the list,” she explained, “I didn’t expect [to win].” There were journalists, filmmakers, athletes, business owners and activists on the list, all of whom are making waves in their respective fields. Chilemba won the grand prize of $20,000, which she says is “very humbling,” adding with a smile that it’s “strange to think of being in the magazine.”
Chilemba’s project, Tiwale, is a community-based organization centered in Malawi. When Chilemba was a teenager, she received a scholarship to attend secondary school in South Africa. While in South Africa, she took Africana studies classes, in which she learned about both the issues and potential of the continent. Her family also helped build her awareness.
“I’m part of a generation that was born in post-independence Malawi. My grandmother grew up with a vision of independence ... a vision of Malawi with skyscrapers. But, over time, with corruption and selfishness, we have not seen that,” Chilemba said.
The majority of Africa’s population consists of young people, and Chilemba says they are capable of fulfilling the continent’s potential, “If anyone is going to do this, it’s going to be us. We’ve seen what waiting looks like.” She attributes her country’s failures to poor leadership.
Tiwale began as an idea, a first step to ending the waiting. The organization’s first project was a business education program in which women could enroll for two weeks of business, leadership and self-development classes. The turn-out was much greater than expected, and the women were asked to come up with entrepreneurial ideas. The participants with winning ideas were given micro-loans that could be used to make their plans into reality. This education program has resulted in the training of 150 women in business education programs, the guiding of 40 women to start businesses via micro-loans and the training of 66 women with new vocational skills, according to the Tiwale website.
After that first project, Tiwale became a full business and started a tie-dying program, which had been one of the participant’s business ideas. She taught the other women how to tie-dye, and they began selling tapestries and tote bags online. “From that ... we were able to save up, buy land and start construction,” says Chilemba. The organization has been building a women’s center where classes will be held and greater educational resources, like computers, will be accessible. This construction project has been challenging financially. Chilemba said that Tiwale raised just $5,000 in a recent fundraiser while the project would cost approximately $20,000. This is where the Glamour Magazine award is particularly helpful. “Now, with this award, we are going to finish the women’s center. Maybe even expand it!” Chilemba said.
Chilemba could have used the prize money for whatever she wanted, yet she continues to invest in Tiwale because of the women who participate. “I know a lot of them on a personal level,” she explained. “They talk about their stories and their life journeys, and I can’t imagine abandoning that community.” She sees serious potential in them, and thinks about them even while she is at school on another continent.
Being at Mount Holyoke, she said, “Widened my scope of imagination in terms of the project.” She says when she began, Tiwale was originally only economically focused, but that has changed as she has learned more about society, art and communication at school. She at- tributes much of her personal growth to Mount Holyoke. “What I’m able to contribute to Tiwale would not have been possible without this school,” she says.
Not only does she feel that she has gained skills and confidence at Mount Holyoke, but has also found valuable team members here. “Half of our team is Mount Holyoke-based. The community is very supportive,” she said. When her friends and classmates initially found out about Tiwale, they wanted to buy tapestries for their dorm rooms and even volunteer.
After graduation, Chilemba wants to spend another year in the U.S. before moving home to Malawi. “Most of our market is U.S. based,” she explained. “We focus on external markets ... we are bringing back income to the country.” Building networks and getting the word out about the organization are her main goals here. She then hopes to go back and “get programs going on the ground” at the new women’s center.
Tiwale will have a table at Mount Holyoke’s upcoming Global Fest on April 22 from 1-5pm on Skinner Green. “We’re looking for anyone who’s interested in joining our team,” Chilemba said.
In the dining hall, Ellen scoops the last bit of ice cream from her bowl with just five minutes before her class begins. She says not to worry, though, because she’s made it there in a mere minute on her bike before.
Chilemba is excited to continue building Tiwale, saying “I dream about it ... then I wake up so I can do the work."