Be bold. Be change. #BeBoldForChange
The above is the theme for International Women’s Day (IWD) 2017. March 8th is a day set aside to celebrate women every year worldwide – a call to action for each of us to individually and collectively empower the women around us and enable a more gender inclusive world. This weekend, the LR platform is dedicating our work to all the bold and beautiful people out there, women and men inclusive, who are not afraid of change but rather are agents of change themselves.
From Mufulira town in Zambia to London in the United Kingdom, the story of Valerie Muzelenga is one that exemplifies how empowerment has a snowball effect on the lives of women and by extension on the economies of the world. She is one bold agent of change that inspires many women across continents; let us take you through her journey in her own words, in the next few paragraphs.
I started living with my elder sister from the age of two; she practically raised me until death struck! I lost my sister to the cold hands of death. She died of liver failure, although death was not a topic that was discussed in the course of my growing up and was only first explained after I lost my dad. These very sad and unfortunate changes in my life paved way for an inner desire to become a nurse.
Despite all odds, I qualified as a Zambian Registered Nurse. I worked even harder and further trained as a Midwife in 1982. In the course of my work, I had the opportunity to live and work in Botswana where I became interested in women sexuality, safe motherhood, and health promotion.
The Ministry of health in Botswana places great emphasis on Primary Health Care. It was therefore routine and in accordance with the health care delivery protocol for me to practice independently within my training limitation where there was no doctor and refer when clinically indicated. I functioned as a nurse prescriber, ran the family planning, child welfare and antenatal clinics. In light of all these opportunities, I was exposed to a lot of other skills and knowledge including the culture and language of Botswana.
The Government provided robust guidelines and protocols to follow when participating in these clinics as well as continued training in safe motherhood, counselling and management of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These made me hunger for more and aroused my interest; I knew the next step was in the direction of reproductive and sexual health.
Malaria, Reinforcing the Change
Malaria is a major primary healthcare issue and a common feature in African countries. When you get a patient with fever, you must get a blood slide to check for Malaria parasite and screen for other possible infections as well. It turned out that, there was a large number of older women who tested negative to malaria but were having symptoms of malaria like ‘night sweats’ and ‘hot flushes’. After deep reflection, I realised what was happening – menopause.
Having experienced menopause “the change” at a relatively early age of 45, I was able to share my experience with women in clinics. This generated a lot of interest and a quest by the women to know more arose. Questions such as: Will you still be a woman if you do not menstruate due to early menopause? Will your partner still consider you to be a woman? What is really happening with all these symptoms of heat and sweats? Can you still have sex? It was amazing but I was able to address their fears based on medical evidence available and I was further able to tackle the cultural myths on menstruation and menopause, hysterectomies, fibroids and every subject in-between.
HIV/ AIDS Further Propelling The Reinforced Change
The fact that Sub-Saharan Africa suffered the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS is no longer news. However, to witness young men and women go to early graves leaving orphans behind is heart-wrenching. The Pandemic led the Botswana government to carry out a pilot project, which they needed to go national. They distributed free anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs to patients and invested heavily in the prevention of HIV/AIDs transmission from mother to child. I was one of the privileged few selected to attend the course on Prevention of HIV/AIDS transmission from mother to child. We were trained to be trainers and also educated to adopt relevant counselling skills. Our work as super trainers in each district was to train other health workers so that the programme could take off to help relieve the pain of those living and or dying with the opportunistic diseases like tuberculosis (TB). Sometimes, in a day I would give three positive results by the time I did the fourth one, I realised I needed counselling myself. I would ease off and relax by listening to music and going for long walks or talking to one of the other counsellors. Every counsellor needs a counsellor too. Not long thereafter, I started getting consent from the mothers who wished to have more inspiration from one another to form small discussion and support groups. This helped to foster a spirit of togetherness and reduce feelings of isolation.
I did all of these things I have described above for nine and a half years. I sojourned through my career pathway with a brave attitude. Refusing to give up even when things were tough. All that time, I kept undergoing positive metamorphosis as I went along. The change at first was gradual and then it became so strong and magnified I could contain it no longer. I hungered for more enlightenment to enable me make the desired positive difference on a larger scale. So after the nine and a half years in the field, I decided to move to the United Kingdom for further capacity building and the opportunity to be the change.
My experiences in Botswana created a vacuum and the need to do more for our women, being a woman from the background of traditional marriage counsellors, this call was irresistible. When I was growing up, my grandmother and mother played a major role in the community they lived in. I saw women call on my mum several times either to carry out midwifery duties or pre-marriage counselling to young brides. I felt the urge to continue in their footsteps but in a modern manner. My first bold break to start speaking and empowering publicly came when I got an invitation to speak at an exciting event. It was the baby shower for a Zambian young lady here in the United Kingdom. I had to speak on how traditional Zambian upbringing impacts on the lives of migrants. I gave a speech on how the practice of a pregnant woman leaving her home and going to stay with her parents to have a baby in traditional Zambia was well meant. This allowed the woman to get the needed support and prevented issues such as new parenting anxiety and post-partum depression. This traditional practice though with well-meaning intentions could be tedious for some men as it might be a difficult time and they could fall into the temptation to cheat on their wives. My advice was to let the mothers or aunties stay with the woman in her own home and give the support needed during the immediate post-delivery period. The father of the baby will have a chance to also bond with the baby from an early stage. My interpretation of this and many other old cultural interventions in the modern context created massive interest from the women in my local United Kingdom community. This inspired me to do something new – traditional and relationship counselling in relation to the 21st century was born.
I began by speaking to small organised groups of women and occasionally in churches of Seventh-day Adventist. Huge interest was generated and I started to empower myself by self-development and attending online marriage seminars. At these seminars, the recurrent concerns expressed by attendees were the cultural teachings that women should submit and not give their opinions in the relationships. Women, therefore find it hard and extremely difficult to open up. When they do, their cry was the same – which is that some men don’t take it lightly for a woman to negotiate how she wants to be loved and cherished in their relationship. I tell the women, it’s their God given right to articulate what they want in a relationship and experience blissful marriages.
The feedback I got was encouraging and acted as the catalyst for me to do more. It was during one of these online sessions, that I stumbled on Ava Brown’s advert, of breakfast visionary book writing course. I needed to find a voice to put the things in my mind down; so I enrolled to attend the visionary breakfast book writing. From that stage on, Ava Brown and her team really ignited the need in me to be more creative. It was through her tutelage and guidance that my new book was born.
Parents, Aunties, Uncles and other relatives in my Zambian circles, and other cultures started calling on my services, either to give a talk on marriage or do pre-marriage counselling and rite of passage for their children and relatives. The media is full of news on who is divorcing who, marriage break-ups and separation, in all circles. Hollywood, Nollywood and Bollywood Actors/Actresses marry one day and the next day or a few years down the line, the next thing we hear is break-up news. Most people, including the celebrities themselves, do not wish these sort of challenges for themselves. These challenges are not limited to celebrities alone. The larger society is suffering similar challenge as well. Take for example, the Zambian courts of law, where marriages breaking down and divorce cases are statistically rising these days. People are beginning to seek answers to these challenges. In migrant communities, couples are now asking to have traditional marriage counselling to help consolidate their marriages. My cousin who does similar counselling and I have been asked to conduct these teachings as far as South Africa. I call these teachings in my new book the traditional blue-print, which our forefathers used and it worked for them, as divorce was unheard of in those days.
I formed a group called African relationships in the 21stcentury a place where women and men share anything to do with marriage, parenting, financial matters and all things health. This is to help share knowledge and uplift one another. My services were being asked for in other cultures. So I said, wait a minute, ‘My cultural teachings are so great – the values passed on to me by my family are really valuable.’ We learnt a lot by the camp-fire, how to live in harmony in the community and respect for the elders. So I chose to write about new ways of African relationships, how African communities could embrace its past and its future.
I thought if I shared the basic blue-print our forefathers followed for so many years, it could speak to many, as it was clear some couples have lost their way in the merging of cultures in this global village that is our modern world.
Our environment has changed greatly; technology, immigration and loss of our culture have affected marriage relationship, parenting, and courtship. My passion to make a difference in the lives of others spurs me on. I do my writing during break time, on the bus, or the train and on my days off my formal nursing job. In life, consistency and dedication to duty is what makes the difference. I must confess it is not easy to juggle the jobs but it all works out at the end of the day. I like giving to the community I find myself and sharing my passion of disseminating information to those who need it. By being bold and having a voice, I hope to reach out to more men and women and empower them. I have help from my cousin and her best friend here in the United Kingdom and together we are building a team of bold and beautiful women for change. You too can do the same where ever you are, whoever you are, to help create flexible all inclusive cultures that promote the value of us all irrespective of gender.
Valerie Muzelenga journeyed from Zambia to the United Kingdom, empowering herself, making changes and now being bold enough to share this journey with the world and empower other women. Her new book, The New Way For African Relationships is one of the many ways she is reaching out to the world. At LR, we commend this lady for her continued stance on what we termed “cultural integration” which represents sieving and keeping the positive aspects of one culture and merging it with the positive aspects of another while discarding the non-progressive negative aspects of both. We can now see why this lady is the poster child for this year’s theme of the IWD. There are many everyday people in our midst like Valerie, making a difference. Are you for change? Are you bold? Tell us more in the comments section as you empower the women around you, this year’s IWD and beyond.
*This week’s article was prepared for your reading delight by our editors Omoyemwen Agbonwanegbe and Winifred Osakwe-Kokroko*