Upile Chisala Oxford University Dream

Dark girl,
dream all those dreams.

Upile Chisala, from her book,’ Soft Magic’.

I came across Malawian writer, sociologist and human rights advocate Upile Chisala when I saw her gofundme campaign on instagram. She has written a poetry book (available on Amazon) called Soft Magic that encourages self-care, celebrates people of colour and explores gender, joy, diaspora and survival. She is also the co-founder of yanja, a monthly gathering series in Baltimore that strives to create a safe/courageous space for people of colour to connect, unwind and express themselves. Upile has another poetry book called ‘Nectar’ coming soon.

During her time at New Mexico State University (NMSU where she graduated with a High Honors BA), she worked part time, volunteered locally and internationally, helping asylum seekers as part of an internship and managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA. In 2014, she was awarded The Honors College Scholarship For International Research and with it she conducted maternal healthcare research on Likoma Island, Malawi.

Upile has been accepted to the University of Oxford to study for an MSc in African Studies starting October this year (she was also accepted to the University of Cambridge for an MPhil in African Studies) but cannot achieve this without financial support, which is why she created her gofundme.

Her dream is to continue conducting women’s rights research in Malawi and attending Oxford University is a way to make that possible.

I am a storyteller. I am the author of the self-published poetry book ‘soft magic’ and I hold a degree in Sociology, Law & Society, Women’s Studies and Contemporary Social Studies form New Mexico State University.

I was born and raised in Malawi and I am the last of five children. Growing up, my father was an educator and my mother was an accountant. They raised us in a small university town called Zomba.

Though there were degrees on the wall money was always scarce in our home. I never lacked for love or support and when secondary school came along my parents chose to send me to international schools. There are several instances where my brother and I were sent to the principal’s office because our school fees were overdue but somehow my parents always pulled through.

Though government secondary schools are fairly cheaper arguably international schools have more access to certain educational facilities that my parents did not want us to miss out on. I have family members who went to schools that did not have computers or desks or bathrooms with running water.

Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world.

I think in the global north there are more opportunities for people who do not desire or cannot complete a ‘traditional education’ to still make a good living and sometimes even make more than their traditionally educated peers. However, I think it is so competitive in urban Malawian society that if you don’t have some sort of schooling it becomes much more difficult to truly make a living. The fact that there are not too many tertiary education options does not help this problem. Many middle-class to upper class Malawians would tell you that gaining an education was a must in their households.


Is education for the privileged alone in Malawi?

The answer is yes and no.

The Malawian government’s main university, the University of Malawi, is free for ‘normal’ students meaning those students that sat the entrance exams and passed. So insofar as education being mainly for the privileged, when it comes to tertiary education, Malawi is highly competitive but for the most part it has more to do with a student’s scores than their socioeconomic status.

Catch 22

However, if a student could not afford to go to secondary school then they would not be eligible to write for the entrance exams to college. Recently my mother called her family in Usisya, the rural area in which she was raised, and as the phone was being passed from relative to relative somebody mentioned that a niece, Tiwonge, had to drop out of school because she could not find the money to continue. This child had to stop going to secondary school at 16 because she couldn’t pay the MK10, 000 fee (MK10, 000 is $14). Right away we sent her the money but it is crazy that Tiwonge’s story is like that of many individuals. Primary school is free in Malawi but secondary school isn’t and you need to complete secondary school to get even a chance to go to college, it’s such a catch 22.

I mentioned that I am a storyteller and that I grew up in urban Malawian areas, so once I got a chance to I did research on the rural and isolated island of Likoma. In 2014, I was awarded a scholarship for international research from my university and I used this conduct feminist maternal healthcare research.

This research experience opened up a whole new thought process for me where I got a chance to listen to mothers and healthcare workers from a rural area discuss maternal healthcare.

I am dripping melanin and honey.
I am black without apology. Soft Magic

My face-to-face interviews with mothers that had delivered on the island truly inspired me to my very core to continue to research knowledge from a counterhegemonic aspect.

Out of 8 women, 7 did not complete secondary school. When asked where they learnt about reproduction and childbirth all the mothers said a traditional midwife taught them. One of the mothers went so far as saying she did not see a difference between going to a traditional healer and going to the one hospital that is on the island.

There is a sense of isolation on the island that calls for an amount of self-sufficiency. There is one ambulance on the entire 6.95 mi² island and one hospital serving the needs of over 11,000 islanders, so the mothers created their own rite where most mothers accompanied by their female friends, neighbours and family members walk with her to the hospital during labor. This is only one of the amazing things I was able to document.

 Today and all days,
I am thankful for women of color
who love/ write/create/emote
from the root
and never apologize for their magic. Soft Magic

I want to go to Oxford so that I can gain access to a world-class institution with research tools and the opportunities that will allow me to continue telling stories from the margins.

I’ve sat in so many classes with people who looked nothing like me and may have never even heard about Malawi and I felt the need to constantly address stereotypes that were being conveyed as fact. In my poetry, my volunteer work, my research work and my personal life I hope to continue shedding light on counterhegemonic ways of viewing the world.I want to go to Oxford so I can challenge epistemic privilege when it comes to feminist ideas.

here you are,
black and woman and in love with yourself.
you are terrifying
they are terrified
(as they should be). Soft Magic

For so many people, myself included, my acceptance to Oxford has meant a big deal but I wish to see a time where it isn’t, rather, where it is expected.

I am a straight-A student who so happens to be an African woman of color and I belong in spaces like Oxford just as much as the next student.

My ultimate dream is to open my own nonprofit in Malawi that will cater to mothers and children in rural areas.

I am very passionate about reproductive, maternal and infant health and want to help address some of the issues that affect such health like education, socioeconomics, etc. I would also like to continue this work of telling stories by writing a few more poetry books and eventually becoming a professor at the University of Malawi that teaches classes on gender, justice and history.

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There is danger in letting people misname you. If you are a fire, do not answer when they call you a spark. Nectar

I am strong believer in community that is why I started my gofundme campaign. Though I qualify in every way for this program I have not received the financial backing from Oxford to attend their school.

My hope is not to pressure anyone to contribute but to make people understand how even the littlest of contributions goes a long way. I think we often forget the small actions we do and view them in comparison to large acts but at the end of the day both made an impact and isn’t that something?