Widge Woolsey, 1989

Widge Woolsey (1989) founded the charity Ufulu named after the Chichewa word for freedom, when she returned to Africa and realised many women don’t have proper access to sanitary products. Widge will be hosting a webinar next month on her life in Malawi and the charity that she runs.  Details of this will be advertised in the coming weeks.


When did you leave the Abbey and what are you doing now?

I left the Abbey in 1989, having been there since Lower I.  That was a long time of wearing dark green and there were both good and bad points at spending pretty much all of your school life in one place.  I actually didn’t do very well in my A Levels, despite being predicted high grades. That was a big life lesson as I was suddenly left rudderless with no clue as to what I was supposed to do…my carefully planned out life for the next three years was suddenly snatched away from me. 

Instead, I went to a secretarial college in Oxford for a term, and during this time realised that I actually really wanted to go to University.  I spent a lot of weekends during that term driving down to Swansea to stay with a very good friend from school, who had gone straight onto Uni, and I ended up coxing the Swansea University 1st Eight, having been a cox for the Abbey 1st crew during the Sixth Form.  So, in December of ’89, as my seccy course came to an end, I put in my UCAS application to read English and Philosophy at Swansea, despite not having studied English A Level; and then did two years of English A Level in three months at Windsor College.  I have never worked so hard in my life; and ended up with the highest A grade in English in the South East – I knew I should have listened to Mrs Howes when she told me to study English.

I loved my time at Swansea, I discovered surfing and spent a lot of time on the beach. I travelled as much as I could in the long vacs and still had no clue as to what I was going to do with my life.  The summer after my finals was spent working double shifts in a wine bar and then I took a gap year and went to Africa.  I was supposed to go and work at the Gorilla foundation in Rwanda with Frontier, but the genocide of ’94 put paid to that.  Instead, I flew to South Africa, ended up working on a safari lodge for 3 months and then embarked on a solo hitch hike from Cape Town headed north.  I had no plans and no set route.  I ended up on the northern Ethiopian border some months later, blocked by the wars in Sudan and Chad unable to go any further; so I turned around, made my way back to Joburg and eventually flew home.

26 years later, I am back in Africa running an NGO in Malawi that I have set up (www.ufulu.org), distributing free menstrual cups to women and girls.  The work is hard, frustrating and scary all in one.  I had no set plan when I started this project – I was just outraged that in the 21st century so many women still suffer in silence from period poverty.  When it affects a young girl’s ability to go to school then something needs to be done.  Two years on from my initial crowd funding project I am the CEO of a charity registered in the UK and Malawi, having changed the lives of over 2,000 women and girls.  But an awful lot has happened in between.  I’ve worked in advertising, for investment banks and hedge funds, in the film industry in Africa, for a Wildlife Trust in the UK and as Student Liaison officer for a school in Wales.  I have not had what you might ever call a set career path, but I am loving where I am right now.


What do you miss most about The Abbey?

Having left school 32 years ago, I wouldn’t say that there is anything that I particularly miss about The Abbey – it was too long ago.  What I can say is that I formed some lifelong friendships which I treasure dearly.  I am lucky enough to have girls that I am still friends with, that I first met back in Lower I and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have them in my life.  I left The Abbey having been a prefect and House Captain, having represented the school on the hockey team all the way through senior school and been in the first truly successful rowing team. 


What would you say is your greatest achievement?

This is a hard one to answer and I don’t think I can pick one thing.  Definitely starting an NGO (with no idea of how far it would go), working on a BBC Wildlife documentary filming Wild Dogs in Botswana and gaining a chainsaw licence – I can legally chop down trees up to 2m in diameter if I choose.  If I were asked to pick one of those three, I would probably say that at the time, working as part of a 3-man film team, being paid to follow, study and film Wild Dogs in the Okavango was my dream job. 

I loved every minute of it.  Living 5 hours hard drive from the nearest human habitation, in the middle of the Delta, being paid to be in the bush was just magical.  

It was hard work, sometimes scary, sometimes mundane but I was in one of the most beautiful places on earth, surrounded by stunning wildlife and scenery and I pinched myself most days to make sure it was real.  I spent 18 months there, and it went by in a flash.  9/11 happened whilst I was out there, and we didn’t know anything about it until 2 weeks later when a helicopter pilot flew into camp to do aerial shots.  

We were completely cut off from the outside world – and having been in London for 7th July, I am still grateful for that level of isolation, when the world seemed to fall apart for so many others.  Right now, as I sit in a café in Lilongwe, Malawi typing this, surrounded by greenery and a freedom the West has long since despaired of gaining back, I am still grateful for everything that Africa has both given, and continues to give me.  I hope that in years to come, that starting Ufulu will be seen as my greatest achievement, my legacy if you will.  But right now, I can’t see the wood for the trees – who knows what a few years will bring, I’m just enjoying the journey.


What advice would you give to current students?

Don’t worry about what you are going to do with your life.  For years I mapped out my life – I was going to do this, this and this; and then this, this and this would happen.  I was constantly disappointed and frustrated.  If you are unsure as to what you want to do, then think about what makes you tick.  What gives you joy?  What interests you?  Is it people? Using your hands? Organising things?  Learning new skills?  Travelling?

What is your favourite subject – not necessarily the one that you get the highest marks for, but the one that you want to read more about?  Do that subject at university.  Get involved in as many activities as you can – the academic side is only part of it.