Editor's note: Heifer will be featuring posts about women farmers and from female leaders the development sector who are inspiring change both at home and abroad. Check back all week long for these posts in the run up to International Women's Day 2014.
As I consider the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, “Inspiring Change,” it occurs to me that some of the most important lessons I have learned about being a woman leader have come from the unlikeliest of places. Let me start from the beginning:
Everything about my life should have been impossible. After all, I am an African woman, and the statistics about my demographic are not often encouraging. I was born and raised in Cameroon, West Africa, and named Elizabeth after both my grandmothers, who were illiterate. But it is to my maternal grandmother that I credit with much of the trajectory of my life. She was one of two wives, and though she could not read a word, she insisted that my mother—who was one of 14 children (most of whom were male)—be educated. What I know for sure is that if my mother had not been educated, I would not be educated and my life would have taken a different turn. That education led me to where I am now, the Vice President of Africa Programs at Heifer International. That should have been impossible too.
Heifer’s work focuses on small farmers both in the United States and worldwide. And when you are talking about small farmers, you are talking about women. According to the U.N., poor women worldwide produce up to 80% of food and have access to only 20% of resources and benefits for these products. Improving women's knowledge of nutrition and food safety can prevent illnesses, disabilities and premature deaths.
What poverty also means in places like Africa is that there is little or no access to potable water, and even less access to healthcare, education, fuel, influence and power. Because poverty is a mostly female phenomenon it is important that women be a part of finding the solutions. It is important that the women who have the voice, the influence, the resources, the leverage, apply all of those things to finding the solutions.
I learned this lesson while on a trip to Sierra Leone. For one week we traveled from one end of the country to the other, on bad roads, crossing rivers where bridges didn’t exist. My colleague Rashid, the country director for Heifer there and who reports to me, accompanied me on the trip. Rashid comes from the Mandingo tribe: tall and imposing but one of the most gentle people I know. In each village we visited with groups of women that we had been working with. Most of them are farmers, growing just enough food every year on small pieces of land to feed their families. In every village Rashid introduced me as his boss, which elicited chuckles of disbelief from the women. After the last visit, as we were leaving, one woman came up to me and touched my elbow timidly. I stopped and turned to her, wondering what she wanted to say to me. Shyly, she asked, “Is it true that you are his boss?” I was a little taken aback. I downplayed the importance of the hierarchy, explaining in local Krio that it was just a technicality. But when we got in the car Rashid, who had overheard the conversation explained his intention to me, “When I introduce you as my boss I do it deliberately. It’s very important that you don’t take it lightly. It may not be important to you, but it’s important to these women. Because for them to see a woman who is as young as you, the same color as them, the same background as them, having accomplished what you have and [to] be the boss of a man as big as me changes for them what is possible in their lives. Because the only difference between you and them is an education.”
That was an, ‘Aha!’ moment for me.
In an unintentional way I was inspiring change. Women are often inspired by other women. One way to inspire change for other women is to be an inspiration yourself.
Each of us women who has attained a certain level of success can point to an army of people or maybe just one person who gave us a chance; who gave us an opportunity; who believed in us; who was our cheerleader. We owe it to ourselves and to others to pass that on. Whether it is through our time, or our energy, our resources, our intellect or our voice. We need to do this because other young people—other young women—are watching us. We need to do it because mankind runs on the fuel of passion and service. And that is the kind of fuel that seldom, if ever, runs out.