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Age Is Just A Number: Mariam’s Journey to Becoming a Tailor at 40

As we chat with Mariam Baisikolo late one afternoon in May of this year, she is interrupted by customers coming to seek her services or a passerby or two shouting “Atelala!…(Tailor!)”. The intriguing story of how the mother of 4 and grandmother of one became a trained Tailor at 43 is what brought me to Ntata Village in Dowa District.

After the unfortunate passing of her family’s patriarch, Mariam’s mother could not manage the responsibility of educating the children that she still had in school out of her eleven. Mariam was the 6th born in that long line.  Fortunately, her oldest brother took up the duty of keeping the rest of the siblings in school and Mariam completed her Primary school. However, her continued stay in school was short-lived as the joyous occasion of the selection of both Mariam and her brother to secondary school created a conundrum in the family. Due to the strained resources, who would be allowed to continue with their education between the two of them? This is how Mariam found herself dropping out when she was in form two and marrying her now husband.

While life still moved on for Mariam, she still hungered for the education she had failed to get as a young girl. This is why in 2021, a conversation with a Leadership Development student from There is Hope (TIH) piqued her interest in considering skills training. A year later in 2022, Mariam was ready to enroll and she was accepted into TIH’s Tailoring and Fashion Design program which was supported under the World University Service of Canada’s (WUSC) Partner Innovation Fund. She reminisces of the time she decided to go back to school, “many people around here told me that the school usually has young people. They questioned if I would be able to manage because of my age….why not just stay home? They used to ask”. The discouragement did not faze her.

Although she admits that it was not easy, quitting was never an option. “You can see the distance that I had to travel to get to the centre (TIH). But, I was still willing to be a slave in order to get that education. I would sometimes go through the day without eating any food so I could learn”. That is just a glimpse into Mariam’s endurance to attain the skill that she desired. While taking her course, Mariam resorted to selling “Mandasi” to her fellow students and members of staff in order to lessen the burden of the costs that she incurred on a daily basis.

As Mariam recounts the road that she has travelled to get to There is Hope’s Technical Vocational Training School, she does so with a smile on her face. As she talks to me, she is busy sewing a dress for one of the many clients that she has acquired since she graduated from TIH in September 2022. Ever supportive, Mariam’s husband bought her a sewing machine in order for her to launch her business after completing her training. “Now I am a role model”, remarks Mariam. “I have been fixing clothes for men and women from as far as Mbalame village.” Perhaps the biggest highlight for Mariam is that her quality of life has seen an improvement. She now contributes towards her family’s financial well-being in a way that she was never able to in the past. She is empowered enough to cater to some of her needs without having to rely on her husband for everything. In a good week where she is consistent with her work and not tied by other household duties, she can make as much as MK7000 from her tailoring business.

Just by talking to Mariam, one can’t help but notice the determination that she possesses. This is just the beginning for Ntata Village’s newest Tailor. She aspires to learn design as this is an aspect that she did not get a chance to master during her training at TIH. She also hopes to learn more skills such as embroidery to truly hone her craft. She sees her work now as an opportunity to establish herself as one of the best in an area that doesn’t have a plethora of Tailors.

“In the next 2 years, my wish is that people around this area can say, I am going to get something custom-made at Mariam’s”, she wishes out loud. As I watch her sew the dress while talking to her granddaughter every now and then, I cannot help but think to myself that if there is anyone that can make that happen, it would be this 43-year-old woman who was told she could not manage to acquire the skill that she has now turned into a blooming business.


Credits: Eleanor Macheso