Join us in this exclusive feature with none other than Ms. Sandra Okoed a human rights advocate, feminist and distinguished Alumna of the African Women Leadership Institute (AWLI) as she vividly narrates her rich, dynamic, stimulating AWLI experience and its trails in her leadership journey. In this interview Sandra also triggers reflections on our own feminist journeys challenging us to step up our game for a truly feminist Africa.
AMwA: Kindly tell us about yourself and your work?
SANDRA:My name is Sandra Okoed. I am a human rights advocate and feminist. I manage the Communications Team at a USAID funded agriculture project in Northern Haiti. One of the aspects of the work includes managing reports, organizing events, producing a radio program and managing the development of extension materials for the project. Our role is to showcase the project’s achievement as well as support teams to produce materials which help educate farmers on ways to better their crop production.
AMwA: Which animal character would you best relate yourself to and why?
SANDRA: I would relate myself to a horse; strong, quick, graceful, independent, operates in a herd, works hard but also knows how to relax when there is need.
AMwA: Why was AWLI appealing for you to take part as a leader?
SANDRA: At that point in my career, I was a journalist and a leader in my own right but knew that I could use my communications skills to do something more for the women’s movement. As luck had it, I met Algresia Akwi-Ogojo, AMwA Regional Director then, who encouraged me to apply for the AMwA Program Officer role. I would then help organize and also participate in the AWLI.
The AWLI sounded like a fascinating idea. I was particularly intrigued by the P.O.T framework, a holistic approach which covered personal, organizational and the transfer of skills. Undergoing this process would be part of the journey and process of self-examination I was exactly looking for. Besides the theory, the fact that African women, feminists, people who looked like me organized, facilitated and executed the training was powerful in its self. What an amazing human resource development tool, I remember thinking to myself.
I was also keen to take advantage of the opportunity to meet, engage, network and build solidarity with women from all parts of the continent. I had seen profiles of AWLI alumnae and was intrigued by their achievements, their testimonies and the journeys they took after the AWLI. The women were from Nigeria, Senegal, Liberia, Ghana, Gambia, Mali, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia; places I would later on in my career visit.
AMwA: What were your expectations before joining and did the Institute live up to these expectations?
SANDRA: I expected to obtain tools and information that would help me in my leadership journey. Never did I expect such a dynamic and interactive way of learning. The theory, role plays, sharing of experiences and localization of concepts surpassed my expectations of what I thought the leadership institute would be. The networks and opportunities opened up to me after the AWLI were and continue to be numerous.
AMwA: What exactly about the experience at the institute was transcendent to your work today?
SANDRA: Well, the AWLI helped me not only honestly review my personal life but also made me make strategic choices about my career. I now utilize my communication skills to uphold, promote and share information on various aspects of agricultural production. In the past, I used these skills to share and inform women of opportunities to share, grow, and empower themselves and others.
The AWLI also supported my growth as a leader in affirming female leadership and creating dialogues and spaces for women to debate grow and access information for them to be more effective in their work. Through role models and by engaging with AWLI alumnae and female leaders I met and continue to meet, I am able to hone my leadership skills and share my experiences.
AMwA: How were your interactions with faculty, who were they and how exactly did they impact your journey during AWLI and beyond?
SANDRA: My interactions with the faculty entailed really positive discussions and sharing of experiences that positively impacted me. Up until today I remember anecdotes shared by Bisi Adeleye Fayemi, Joanna Foster, Algresia Akwi Ogojo, Jeannette Eno, Jerusha Arothe Vaugh, Zeedah Maneli Meeihofer, Sarah Mukasa, Stella Mukasa, Florence Butegwa and Mukami McCrum.
There isn’t enough time nor space to write about how this wonderful lot of faculty who in their own individual ways impacted on me. But one thing is for sure that they taught me the importance of empowering myself, female solidarity, pushing frontiers, managing personal and personal life, staying true to yourself and taking care of self. Whether it was an encouraging nod during a role play, an affirming word during my interventions, kernels of wisdom on how to do things better, professional advice, these women have been instrumental in my journey. And then there was the wisdom shared during lighter moments. I recall rib cracking laughter, mischievous smiles during the AWLI’s evening parking lot sessions.
AMwA: How important is sisterhood and networking in your line of work, has AWLI helped in this way?
SANDRA: Networking is crucial in the work that I do. It is what promotes the work the project does, it is what helps me get scoops and be able to document success stories. It is what also facilitates continued professional and personal development growth. The sense of sisterhood has also helped me find mentors who have been able to share their experiences with me as well, given me the opportunity to support many women, their work and causes they support. Sisterhood has also facilitated the creation of a treasure trove of sisters who I can count on when I need and who can always count on me. We all have impacted and added value to each other’s lives.
AMwA: The AWLI Alumna of the month of July Ms. Juliet Were spoke about self-care and how this should be taken seriously among aspiring feminist leaders. What advice would you give future AWLI fellows?
SANDRA: I agree with Ms Juliet Were that self-care is important but first and foremost is being self-ful. Self-love is key in nurturing ones own existence but also in supporting those around us. It is also important to build alliances and support each other as women and feminists in both our personal and private lives. As we speak, the Gambia fielded its first ever female presidential candidate. It is for us as feminists to garner support for Dr. Isatou Touray’s nomination, just as feminists and members of the African’s women’s movement rallied around President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia’s bid for president.
AMwA: Where did your passion for feminist leadership stem from? What adversities have you faced during your journey, how have you conquered them?
SANDRA: My passion for feminist leadership stemmed from seeing ordinary women push frontiers, challenge patriarchy to advance women’s empowerment, using approaches they designed and gleaned from their mothers, aunts, sisters and friends.
Patriarchy and dealing with misconceptions about feminism are some of the challenges I encountered along the way. One thing that was clear especially in the AWLI was that the feminist journey was not intended to be easy. Being a feminist is like being an athlete, you have to train, build your stamina and equip yourself with skills you need to start and finish the race. There will be set backs and sometimes you feel like you have hit a brick wall, the important thing is to keep going, review your strategy, train and build your endurance for the next race.
Learning about other women’s journeys, reading and sharing experiences have helped me conquer the challenges. I have a support network of feminists who weren’t necessarily part of the AWLI but are feminists who supported me along the way.
AMwA: What do you believe needs to be done in order to encourage young African women to become feminist leaders? And or/Resources? What platforms need to be utilized? What other platforms have motivated you to continue on this journey?
SANDRA: There needs to be increased inter-generational dialogues between older and the younger generation. African women need spaces such as these to pass on skills, experiences and also challenge the next generation to continue to have an increased impact.
We also need to document the journeys African women have undertaken and the struggles they experienced in order to get African women where we are at this point in time. In the past AMwA was keen on documenting ‘Herstories.” Regardless of the medium, African women’s stories need to be documented. Be it the woman in the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, Monrovia in Liberia or Dakar in Senegal; all their stories need to be told. For such a rich and vibrant movement, we have too many unsung heroines.
AMwA; You have indeed iced the “feminist cake” and wrapped it well for us to continue strengthening the capacities of African women, the sisterhood and celebrate ourselves.
Stay on the lookout for our next feature of November 2016.
Compiled by Irene Kagoya