Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Being inspired at the Barnard College 3rd Global Symposium in Johannesburg, South Africa

Who am I?
Where do I come from?
How do I see myself?
Where am I going?
How do I get to where I am going?
What is my contribution to my immediate community?
What is my contribution to the larger society?
How do I see myself as a member of my community?
What is my role as a woman, a mother, a leader in my community ?

These are a few of the questions that emerged from various presentations from deeply inspiring women who have led by example, continuing to strive for equality, for fairness, for integrity, for core values, for valued principles and most importantly for a better society, a better country, a better world for their children and generations to come after their children.
Listening to these women speak about their lives and the careers they have carved in spite of sometimes difficult and challenging circumstances, and also hearing the questions raised clearly highlighted for me, the many complexities facing women in today's contemporary and fast-paced societies. It would seem that we sometimes start the race with an unfair disadvantage because as a female it is somehow imprinted in your psyche that if you don't devote your life to being a wife and a mother, you are self-centered and selfish and you have not fulfilled your role as a woman. I think that is a rather unfair burden to place on women folk.

How then do we navigate the treacherous waters of having a career, and being a wife and a mother? Can it be achieved successfully without one area suffering neglect? How do we find that balance without feeling that we are forsaking our spouses and children? Are more and more women deciding to perhaps work on their careers and then start a family later or are we perhaps choosing other options such as single parenthood? Or the worst crime of all choosing to be single and focusing single-mindedly on our careers?

One of the key challenges that constantly comes to my mind is the fact that as we climb up the corporate ladder or the chain of seniority in our various fields of expertise it seems to me that we sometimes loose focus of our key objectives, our principles and our integrity. We find that we become more and more immersed in navigating the challenges and difficulties that come with the territory of executive management. We focus on the strategic alliances that we need to maintain to keep climbing up that ladder and the result is that all the things that we fought for, fairness, integrity, principles, core values get swept away in the wake of our success.

Maria Ramos said something that resonated for me, when asked if she had ever been in a situation where she had to compromise her core values and principles, she said that for every organization that she worked for she made sure that they knew what she stood for upfront so there was never any question about what she was about. Gill Marcus was emphatic about leadership not being so much about the personality but more about the people that had faith in your ability to lead, to take up the task at hand and do it to the best of your ability. Justice Yvonne Makgoro (a woman I find most inspiring), spoke of leadership as  the willingness to work tirelessly for a cause until the desired conclusion is achieved. She cited the realization of the principles guiding constitutional law in South Africa as a goal that she and many others continue to strive for tirelessly.

Mamphele Ramphela pointed out that as women and indeed citizens of our various countries around the continent (though the emphasis was on South Africa), the onus lies on us to bring about change 'we are all change agents' she said. No one can do it for us and it is vital that we understand this.

Senator Aloisea Inyumba from Rwanda, spoke about how Rwandese women are changing the political and socio-economic landscape with policies that speak directly to the issues that Rwandan women in particular and citizens in general are grappling with because they understand the change that is needed and have chosen to effect it.

We are living in a very complex world and it is going to get even more complex. As Susan Mboya wisely put it, African women in the 21st century and beyond will be required to navigate several cultural spaces. More and more African women have a western education and a mixture of a western and traditional upbringing. We are chameleons, constantly changing to fit into the various spaces we navigate daily.

There are no easy answers to these numerous dilemmas, challenges and difficulties that women constantly face. One theme that resonated clearly from all the speakers was the need to first know yourself. To love yourself, to nurture that self-esteem, that self-worth because if you don't love yourself how can you expect other people to love you? Believe in yourself, be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses but most of all be prepared to work hard. Do not expect things to be handed to you on a platter of gold. As Maria Ramos said, there is no easy road to success, at least to sustainable success. If you cut corners, you will definitely get bitten in the end.

Have respect for yourself and others, very wise advise from Gill Marcus. Be kind to your body,  says  Ndidi Okonkwo-Nwuneli keep it in good health because if you don't you cannot achieve anything. Something I thought that was really important and showed ingrained wisdom was a reminder by Nomfanelo Magwentshu to women to remember that their husbands are their partners (and I add not the enemy). Often in our rollercoaster ride to success we take out work and home frustrations on our partners. Nomfanelo advises that we make sure we give our spouses/partners the consideration and support they need as well. We do need their support to enable us manage all the various facets of our lives.

In my view, as a multi-cultural, Afropolitan, western-educated and cosmopolitan African woman, young women like me all over the African continent have to accept that at the end of the day whether you are a top executive, a movie star, a brilliant physicist, Miss World, the president of a country, a parliamentarian or a house wife and mother, if you have a man in your life, when you come home you take off whatever hat you wear out there and put on the hat of mother, sister, aunty, wife and basically the one that organizes everyone else's life. It doesn't matter whether you are in Antartica or Mali, as Susan Mboya said 'it is what it is'.

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