“Young African leaders need to find, hone, and – most importantly – use their voices.”
Umba Zalira grew up in Lilongwe, Malawi, in a family that valued communication. They discussed family issues, made decisions together, and supported one another in achieving goals and becoming individuals. But as Umba got older, she realized that even though her voice was heard and encouraged from a young age, using her voice always came with an unwritten manual book. “Certain things I could not speak of or ask about,” she says.
For a long time, Umba did not consider herself a leader. In fact, she recalls shying away from leadership opportunities in the early days of her budding career. In 2015, Umba was selected as a GHC fellow, serving as the Partnership and Programs Officer at the Ministry of Health-Reproductive Health Directorate in her home country. It’s at GHC where Umba’s leadership journey truly began.
Through her GHC fellowship year, Umba tapped into the power of voice that she had initially discovered at an early age. She realized the power of her story, the expansiveness of her feminist values, and the true reach of her voice. “My voice is [now] my weapon,” Umba says. “I use it to share my story, and using my voice means I am aware of the power and privilege I have as a young, educated, English-speaking African woman. This awareness helps me to navigate the platforms and spaces I access and occupy.”
For Umba, telling her own story was just the beginning. With the support of GHC’s immersive leadership storytelling training and broader communications and advocacy coaching support, Umba and the 1000+ fellows who have joined GHC’s global community are able to use their own stories as invaluable tools to transform broken health systems.
Stories can and should be used effectively and powerfully by leaders to motivate, inspire, galvanize, and achieve results. Umba has used her story to advocate for and amplify the voices of women and girls across the continent: “I use [my voice] to share my story, fight patriarchy, and challenge the status quo,” she says. “I share my story and those of others so that we can break the silence and start having uncomfortable conversations around issues that are deeply entrenched in our culture and power structures. Systems and structures that favour men and perpetually oppress girls, young women and women.”
Umba now speaks publicly about issues including sex worker rights and sexual and reproductive justice in her role at Theatre for a Change, a Malawi-based organization using a combination of drama and education to enable women and girls to find their voice and assert their rights. She is the creator and co-host of the podcast Feministing While Malawian which explores topics like mental health, abortion, and menstruation. She is also the Co-Founder of mentorship nonprofit Growing Ambitions. As Umba continues to hone her own personal story, she is using it to facilitate tough but important conversations to catalyze broader change.
Umba has written about African feminism, menstrual shaming, and her journey to cultivate self-respect and grow into a leader. She was named one of four young women changing the world by the Graca Machel Trust.