Meet Anna Msowoya Keys, a Fearless Leader who Empowers Women in Malawi
Born in a small village in the Northern region of Malawi in the early 1960s, Anna Msowoya’s career in humanitarian assistance began at the International Rescue Committee in Malawi, where she helped resettle the more than one million refugees fleeing the Mozambican civil war in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1991, she met and fell in love with John Keys, Malawi country director for the American Rescue Committee. In 1995, in response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the couple moved to Rwanda to continue their work assisting the world’s most vulnerable. Anna and John celebrated their wedding in 1996 at the Hotel Rwanda. Bullet holes in the walls were still visible as testament to the hotel’s role as a makeshift refugee camp for terrified Tutsis fleeing the Hutu massacre months earlier.
In 1998 Anna and John, now with two young sons, left Africa for the United States. For the first time in decades, Anna was now living safely thousands of miles from the humanitarian crises she had spent a career alleviating. But her physical distance did not keep her from battling the world’s most urgent humanitarian crises for long. As she explains, within five short years, four of Anna’s eight siblings had passed away:
“In 2003, I returned home to Mzuzu, Malawi to attend my sister’s funeral. Like so many, she died of HIV/AIDS. The number of children that attended the funeral shocked me because when I was growing up in Malawi, children were not allowed to attend funerals. When I asked why there were so many children, I was told they were there in hope of receiving food. I realized immediately the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS on the community. The disease had wiped out a generation of caregivers, teachers, and community leaders and left thousands of children orphaned. I was heartbroken and decided something had to be done.”
It did not take Anna long. Only one year later, in 2004, she along with twenty local Mzuzu women, pooled their own very limited resources and created the Kwithu Community Based Organization (CBO), a volunteer group dedicated to feeding twenty vulnerable children one hot meal a week. The name they chose for the organization was fitting as Kwithu (pronounced kwee-too) means home in the local language of Tumbuka. Today, the Kwithu Women’s Group is still under Anna’s leadership and feeds over 350 children a hot meal three times a week. But that is not all. It also offers early childhood education programs for three- and four-year-olds, after-school tutoring in English and math for primary school children, HIV/AIDS counseling to hundreds of families, and scholarships for the needy children to attend secondary school.
Anna’s co-founding of the Kwithu CBO had other ripple effects. A visionary, she realized that all of their efforts would be for naught if the children of Mzuzu didn’t ultimately go to high school, even college. To her, the most promising way to help Malawi change its dire course was to educate its children. So, in 2006, Anna courageously defied expectations, securing land from the government and seed money from an angel investor, the two vital resources needed to make her vision a reality. Four years later, Mzuzu International Academy opened with its first 35 students in two classes, freshman and sophomore. In 2015, eight of the original twenty children fed by the Kwithu CBO graduated from the academy. The 2017 school year began with 120 primary students and 130 secondary boarding students in grades Kindergarten through Twelve.
Another ripple effect of Anna’s dedication and drive was felt in America. That is where Anna founded Maloto (Tumbukan for “dreams”), a US-based organization dedicated to raising money for Kwithu’s various programs. This month, Maloto is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Since inception, it has raised more than 8 million dollars, primarily through individual donations.
Anna’s selflessness and accomplishments on behalf of refugees have not gone unnoticed. In 2006, she received an unexpected phone call from Tom Brokaw, the iconic American newscaster. Mr. Brokaw had been told Anna might be of assistance with an interview he was working on in Africa concerning the Rwandan refugees. After he successfully explained to Anna who he was and Anna finally overcame her embarrassment at having no clue as to who he was, she agreed to accompany the newscaster on his trip to Africa. During this trip, Anna and Meredith Brokaw became friends, and Anna subsequently took Meredith to see the work of Kwithu in person. It was this trip that led to another legacy of Anna: the Kwithu Kitchen.
Meredith Brokaw grew up in Montana, and when she saw the abundance of tomatoes that were harvested but left over to spoil, she recognized a business opportunity right away: the women should start a tomato canning business. Anna always recognized how much the CBO’s success owed to the shared love and sacrifice of the original twenty women. Meredith’s idea aligned perfectly with Anna’s desire to repay these women and to further empower them. Soon Kwithu Kitchen was born. Today it is a fully functioning tomato canning cooperative owned and run by seventeen of the original twenty Kwithu founders (sadly three of them passed away). The kitchen provides income for its owners as well as revenue to help sustain the other Kwithu CBO programs.
When members of the original Kwithu Women’s Group discuss the strength of their organization and specifically why their CBO has accomplished so much while so many groups in their community fail to achieve impact, each and every woman credits the shared passion of the volunteer group to care for the children. This team dynamic saved Kwithu from becoming what one of the women described as “a CBO in a briefcase,” more concerned with applying for grants for personal benefit than remaining focused on the children. The women’s sense of shared mission has not just sustained its work but allowed it to grow exponentially.
Interestingly, each member also specifically credits the fact the founding members were all women. When asked about the role of men in founding Kwithu, Victoria, the eldest of the women, let out a hearty laugh and said, “Nooooooo! At first, we didn’t have (men) because we knew that if a man were to be among us, we would soon break. So, we were sticking to be only women. Then, at last, when we realized that this thing has grown up, and we didn’t have this skill, we brought in a man to be an accountant. But, it is still a women’s run group!” Sophia explained that “in Malawi, women are considered inferior and men are considered superior, so if you have a group with maybe 2 men and 18 women, you tend to expect the men to dominate, so it was much better to have women only in their group.” Lorencia describes the power of Kwithu as growing from “that heart of a mother, because all of the women know how it feels to raise a child, and the prestige you feel in raising a child.” She adds, “if a man was involved who had the same feeling as they had, it would work, but if a man was involved that had just a feeling for money, it would not work.” Martha points out that today Kwithu has several male employees: “Now the power is secure, so men can be brought in.” She laughs thinking of the five or so men as she describes the spirit of Kwithu: “Everyone who comes here is a woman!”
After all they have contributed to their community over the past thirteen years, I wondered what the women have gained personally. While the term empowerment can differ in meaning depending on the context, Martha once again captured the group’s sentiment. “I didn’t manage to finish my own education,” she said. “But from the skills I have acquired at Kwithu, I am respected in society.”
A few years ago, Anna was photographed by Lisa Levart, creator of the powerful Goddess on Earth, Portraits of the Divine Feminine. The multi-media project conveys the universal message of the power of women engaging in social action. For her portrait, Anna chose to represent Enekpe, the African goddess of family, explaining in her own words
“I am a Malawian woman happy to be in America. But as much as I love life here, I have not forgotten my roots, the small village where I come from in northern Malawi. The closeness of family and the importance of community I experienced in Malawi sustains me to this day. I now live in two worlds. One is not better than the other. They’re just different. Don’t ask me to choose, but do give me the space to live fully in both.”
Anna Msowoya Keys is a passionate and fearless leader of female-led, community-driven programs that are creating significant positive, sustainable changes for Malawi. By any measure, she and the women of Kwithu are modern-day goddesses.