Words of Wisdom from African Women Moving the World Forward

When African women come together to discuss transformative leadership, one can’t help but feel amazed, inspired and energized. The African Women’s Leadership Conference recently hosted by Wellesley College provided seasoned African women leaders with an opportunity to share their leadership journeys with the continent’s emerging young women leaders.

I had the immense privilege of moderating one of the final sessions of this conference, aptly titled Women Moving the World Forward. This session was an opportunity for conference participants to share key insights and reflections from our two days together. Before we dialogued, I recapped the presentations that had provoked our discussions over the Conference’s two days.

The speakers were different in many ways: hailing from different counties, operating in different sectors, leading in different ways. But they had much in common, notably the four conference themes — courage, confidence, creativity and resilience — that each displayed in spades.

The conference kicked off with Wellesley College’s own Dr. Filomena Steady, who spoke of African women leaders rising up in critical moments, from the decolonization, to conflict, to climate change.

After this historical journey, four Mastercard Foundation Scholars reflected on their own early leadership journeys.  Tanyaradzwa Chinyukwi (EARTH University), Eunice Adjoa Yeboah Adu (Ashesi University), Leah Nakaima (Arizona State University), and Jennifer Amuah (University of Ghana, in the Scholars Program at Camfed) argued that young women must be the change they wish to see in the world, and that they must embody the message and values of their generation. As Leah remind us: “if your goals are not clear, results will not appear.”

Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, a pioneer and activist in the global public health sector shone a light on gender inequity at all levels of global health. She also shared her newest project — the University of Global Health Equity, in Rwanda — a revolutionary model of health care provision that puts equity at the center. She told us: “find your passion. Fight for it. Be ready to die for it. It gives you life.”

Mfoniso Udofia, a storyteller, playwright and educator, shared her experience in a profession that is not always valued, but that is essential. She spoke the name of other women leaders in her field; sharing her space and platform with others, as women leaders so often do. She implored us to be creative, and reminded us of the importance of feeding our heart.

Kakenya Ntaiya shared her incredible personal story with us and her hope that the stories of the girls who follow her will be different. She reminded us that leadership is not a journey that we take by ourselves. We need our families, our communities, our supporters and our detractors with us. “Your dreams are the transformation the world has been waiting for,” Kakenya Ntaiya told a packed house.

With the Queen of Comedy, Kansiime Anne, we laughed and were reminded that we are our best when we are truly ourselves. She demonstrated that we are free and that we can and must bravely chart our own path, even when it defies convention. She told us to “be sure about what you want to do, and do it!”

Farida Bedwei, an award-winning software engineer and disability rights activist described her inspiring journey in a professional space dominated by men. And, of smashing perceptions, stigmas and demonstrating what is possible along the way. She said “nobody had any expectations of me. But I had expectations of myself.” She cautioned us that we will lose out on opportunities if we are afraid of the word ‘no’.

Hawa Ibrahim, an international human rights lawyer and Sharia law expert described her experience creating change from within. “Know your dynamic; work within it” she told us. “Remember that there is wisdom in listening,” she said. She is a force; her courage and wisdom are deep.

Finally, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf shared her leadership journey, a journey which — as she described it — was one of failure and success, tragedy and triumph. The first Liberian president to peacefully transfer power after her term came to a close, President Johnson Sirleaf underscored that this achievement was not hers alone — it was shared by four million Liberians who dreamt of a more secure future.

But it was perhaps the impact on the conference’s youngest speakers that most resonated with the audience during our reflections session. Four Scholars who have only just begun their own leadership journeys bravely agreed to join me on stage, with very little time to prepare. In sharing their key insights and reflections, Grace Aguti (EARTH University), Susan Abraham (University of Edinburgh), Naomi Kamutha (Michigan State University), and Sarah Nzau (Wellesley College), convinced us that the future is bright.

“We can’t be what we can’t see,” the Scholars argued. Leaders are not born, they are made, they continued — and we young women leaders must be bold and courageous, we must aspire to greatness and model it for others. We must build networks, never take no for an answer, and if necessary, we must walk through the door — regardless of whether or not we have been invited.

Courage. Confidence. Creativity. Resilience. These African women leaders are poised to take the world by storm.