Just her name makes me happy. Pronounced as “ooh la la,” there is a sense of beauty, appeal, and fun. But, there is more to Ulala than a beautiful name, within her is a beautiful heart, dedicated work ethic, and desperate need to help young women in Malawi and beyond.
Ulala is the founder and CEO of Girls Network Malawi. She participated in the 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow Program in the US and was selected as an honored fellow of the 2018 Obama Foundation Leaders Africa program. At the heart of all her accomplishments, Ulala is a teacher.
She began her career at a high school in Malawi where the system presents many challenges for teachers and students. As with many, her first years of teaching were busy and filled with new responsibilities. As her first class of students prepared for graduation, she reflected on their progress and successes during years spent together. There was much to be proud of. However, what she also found during this reflection was that somewhere along the line, within her average class of 55 students, there were 8-9 girls who did not complete school to fulfill graduation. What struck her most was that she really didn’t even notice this gap and wasn’t sure of the reasons her female students didn’t succeed.
With research and reflection, she discovered the reasons they faded out without much communication or intervention. Some of the root causes for leaving school included early marriages with families seeking one less mouth to feed in their homes, challenges with menstruation supplies that kept girls missing multiple days of school each month and falling behind, shame caused by UTIs which can be inaccurately linked to stigma of HIV, pregnancy, and lack of understanding of how education could have a positive impact on their lives.
Instead of sitting by and making excuses, Ulala began to meet with girls for one after school session each week to provide mentorship and education on issues that mattered to them.
At the end of her training in the Mandela Washington program, each participant was asked to make a commitment to using what they learned to enhance their programs. Ulala committed to building an organization that would provide a network for girls at other school to experience the same type of outreach, mentorship, and education.
At this time, Girls Network Malawi meets with girls in six schools, with the help of on-site teachers, and supports 420 girls. Activities focus on physical health, reproductive information, mentrual hygiene management, gender-based violence, and more. Girls are active participants in the sessions as they learn to advocate for themselves and care for their own needs. For example, during recent sessions, girls learned to make reusable sanitary pads that can be used to keep them from missing school. During this process, they learned a great deal about their physical health and ways to prevent infections and address monthly challenges.
Ulala realizes that there is still great stigma in addressing mental health proactively in Malawi. In many countries, just the words mental health lead to parents who are unwilling to provide consent for support as there can be great shame in this topic. However, that doesn’t stop Ulala. She recognizes there is a great need and continues to seek professional development on the topic while partnering with other organizations who have common purpose.
During my time with Ulala, I was not only impressed with her focus and drive, but also with her great attention to detail. From the moment we met, she had a plan for our time, lists of information, and had taken care of all the major details of our painting and workshop sessions. She had also created partnerships with multiple organizations who would benefit from collaboration. This diligent focus allowed me to be a collaborative mission partner doing a small part to support her much greater investment. I loved it!
In two short days, we painted a mural with teens from Samaritan’s Trust which is an organization that finds children living on the streets and takes them in for vocational training and leadership development. We also partnered with Chikondi Girls Project and Rehabilitation Hope – two organizations providing support for children, teens, and young adults. Together, we shared information about mental health and the importance of raising visibility through proactive conversations and education with young adults.
When I start to be overwhelmed by challenges and hardships I have seen along this journey, I think of people like Ulala – who are not sitting by and waiting for change – they are making it. The contagious appeal of her energy is inspiring – and helping me to consider ways to extend this journey to the time when I arrive home again. While there is much work to be done, I know that there are many people willing to do the heavy lifting needed to create change in their communities.
Thank you, Ulala for inviting me to be your mission partner and friend. I hope we meet again someday and will happily watch your continued journey to make a difference.