Ten years ago, life for a young girl in a small Angolan village changed with the flash of an explosion. Deolinda Tchihnga, known to her friends and family as Minga, was six years old when she picked up what she thought was a toy. The item exploded, blinding Minga permanently and resulting in the amputation of her right arm.
MAG had been working in Angola for over 15 years at the time, and Minga's story was similar to thousands of other children in the region. Forty years of conflict throughout Angola left a deadly legacy of 25,000 acres of land contaminated by landmines and other explosive remnants of war - an area larger than the entire island of Manhattan.
A special interest by a committed group of supporters allowed MAG to provide life-changing services for Minga, including a scholarship to attend a school for deaf and blind students in the capital city of Moxico Province. Steve Solow, currently a partner at Baker Botts LLP, and longtime pro bono legal counsel to MAG America, told us: "Seeing Minga’s story, captured in film by MAG, raised a question: how can we ensure that a person whose story is being featured as a way to help MAG continue this work, receive the support she needs to move forward in her own life? MAG cannot help every person impacted by conflict, so given the circumstances, I turned to my then law firm colleagues and we established a fund to help support Minga’s unique educational needs.” Since 2013, Solow and others in the legal community have championed Minga's education.
Minga began attending school for students with visual and hearing impairments in the 2014 school year. She is now proficient in reading and writing in Braille, including operating a custom, one-handed Braille typewriter for completing her assignments. To date, her favorite school subjects have been chemistry and civic education. Her school is also a space for Minga to grow personally and make friends outside of her home village, which is located an hour away.
Like students all over the world, Minga's school has closed temporarily due to COVID-19. But she is eager to get back to her lessons and graduate from school in the next 18 months.
As Minga entered the final years of her schooling, supporters looked to the future and how they could continue to foster Minga’s growth. Katten chairman Roger Furey and Seth Messner, a partner in the firm’s Structured Finance and Securitization practice, recognized a unique way that Minga could enhance her education while helping MAG continue its critical work. The firm provided funds for Minga’s education and helped secure an internship for her with MAG.
MAG's model of service includes leading critical risk education classes in local communities, alerting children and their families to the dangers of landmines. These classes allow MAG staff to teach the best practices of safety in an area with unknown explosives, and help children just like Minga. An internship in the risk education department would amplify Minga's voice and story as a survivor, and help her develop robust professional skills like public speaking.
“Serving those who are most in need has been a hallmark of Katten since our firm’s inception. When we saw the opportunity to help better the life of a young woman permanently impacted by the ravages of her surroundings and at the same time to support an organization dedicated to restoring safety and hope in communities, we jumped at the chance,” Messner said. “We could not be more proud to join forces with such an extraordinary group or more eager to continue the partnership.”
With support from Solow, Furey, Messner, and other donors throughout the United States, MAG welcomed Minga to the global staff as the organization's first youth team member. To prepare for the role, Minga spent 44 hours in an intensive training, and delivered a capstone project to her classmates. To date, she has delivered 22 classes to over 400 people.
“It was great to have her in the training course and she did really well. She speaks in public with so much confidence. Some days were a bit emotional, especially parts where we covered the different type of mines, how they work and the damage they can do. But she worked hard and got through it, she was fantastic,” said Ian Topping, MAG's Technical Operations Manager in Angola.
"MAG considers me a human being," Minga said when asked about her internship. "I have learned a lot, and am continuing to learn. [MAG] made me feel important in our community, working with other colleagues as an equal.
Being a mine victim, I like to talk about the effects of mines and unexploded ordnance on people and their livelihoods, how [they] injure, maim, and kill. I talk about myself, how as a child, I lost my sight and a limb due to unexploded ordnance. That is the moment where I can convey my message in a way to influence people’s behavior, so they know to avoid touching or handling suspicious items, avoid entering areas marked as dangerous, and report any suspicious items to the authorities.
Since MAG started working in my community, many areas have been cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance and made safe. This allows safe movement of people and goods, more fields for farming, more housing. Thanks to these risk education classes, the numbers of mine accidents have reduced."
Minga is an incredible young woman who continues to grow in the face of hardship, but her story isn't unique. There are millions of children around the world that live with the threat of landmines and bombs in their backyards, their playgrounds, their paths to school.
But Minga is determined to do what she can to protect children. "I want my messages as a victim of unexploded ordnance to trigger in others a change of behavior, so that they take serious the risk and danger of mines and unexploded ordnance."
On International Youth Day, we commend Minga for her perseverance, resilience, and dedication to her community. Read the full interview here with Minga in Assembly, Malala Fund's digital publication and newsletter for girls.
Most importantly, join us in supporting Minga's efforts in Angola to get to a landmine before another child does, to educate others about how to stay safe, and to bring peace and security to communities that have lived among the dangers of conflict for far too long.