Celebrating Women for the Environment in Africa
This International Women’s Day I would like to highlight the amazing opportunities and experiences I was afforded by participating in the Women for the Environment in Africa (WE Africa) leadership program.
I am one of 20 women that were selected to participate in the WE Africa leadership program in 2021. We are the founding fellows for the program and when I signed up for the course, after much cajoling from friends (because of course I did not feel worthy),I had no idea how life changing it would be.
WE Africa 2021 and 2022 cohort meeting in Botswana earlier this year (C)WE Africa.
Photograph by WE Africa
When you think of a leadership course or program – what comes to mind?
Systems thinking, autonomy and control, financial management and organisational structure – those subjects come to mind right?
Well, WE Africa was anything but that! The five leadership pillars include personal leadership growth, wellbeing and wellness, relationships of collaboration and peace building, visibility for impact and radical imagination. We met regularly throughout the year and attended tailored trainings, facilitated dialogues with experts, and received one-on-one coaching and mentoring. All of this contributed to creating a safe space for us to build a community and foster peer support. Even though it was all online, it was done with such sensitivity, care and love that I have never felt as safe to be vulnerable before – with 19 other women that I had never met in person before nogal!
Participation in the program, promises WE Africa, will increase resilience, impart coping strategies to reduce stress and improve physical well-being, transform careers, and improve ability to achieve lasting environmental impact. We Africa promised and WE Africa delivered!I Increased self-belief, and confidence in my decision-making, have brought about a major shift in my work, and in my personal lifestyle. Being personally coached on how to constructively manage conflict and to remain consistent in my approach, through defining my five-year mission and my values, has shaken up my people-pleasing nature, and helped me set up healthy boundaries in my work and personal time management.
Photograph by WE Africa
Covid-19 prevented us from meeting in person in 2020 – alongside our weekly meetings online we participated in two online retreats that were carefully curated by the Open Circles team. The integration of meditation, journaling, sharing stories, listening, structured course work and involving guest speakers to share their journey and experience with us has been so powerful, and a demonstration of how leadership courses can be done differently – leading with love and care is possible and WE are changing the narrative about how we lead.
Getting to know 19 women, from across Africa, that are working in conservation, and sharing stories of frustration and hope has been such a gift. Knowing that we are in this together, and that we can support and nurture each other and work collectively to overcome the barriers that keep us out in a sector dominated by white males, has been both powerful and raw. We have formed the WE sisterhood and it is ever-expanding.
At the beginning of 2022 we got to meet in person, all of our stories converging like streams, at the Boteti River in Botswana. Wewere welcomed by Natural Selection to their Meno a Kwena camp, with elephants grazing and bathing in the river and hippos chomping on the water lilies. We lounged and marveled at the pool overlooking all of this wild and natural beauty, so grateful for the the opportunity to come together and to finally meet in person, to hold each other and celebrate who we are!
Photograph by WE Africa
Our purpose for meeting was also to build and develop the WE Connect program, an extension of the WE lead program we had participated in. WE Connect is a movement which will keep growing. It is an alliance of effective women environmental leaders in Africa who will collaborate to empower themselves and others, to restore balance within environmental leadership and achieve greater impacts for African conservation. Jackie Asiimwe led some of the discussion on the movement and shared key steps we should consider:
- You should always be able to see yourself in the movement. Ask yourself the question – are we closing the door to others being part of the movement and who are we closing the doors to?
- A movement needs leaders but leadership is not positional. You can lead from the front, back, side and it could be intergenerational. Leadership is always intentional.
- The movement calls upon leaders that drive social change.
- A network of cells is the life of the movement, so that at any point the movement won’t fall apart because it relies on and is supported by this network and is not dependant on one person who might leave or not be available.
I am very excited about the projects we discussed and how we take them forward. One of the themes is inclusivity and paying close attention to what barriers exist for women leaders – a group of sisters is leading this and is trying to ensure that WE Africa represents women from the entire continent. At the moment representation from West Africa, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Central Sahel is lacking. Another group of sisters will address sexual harrassment issues in the conservation work place and possibly co-creating a charter to address this, for organisations to include in their human resource policies. Developing a youth mentorship program was also identified as a possible theme and a few sisters will be researching the potential of this and integrating it into the WE Lead program.
Special thanks to Dr Leela Hazzah and Dr Colleen Begg, the co-founders of WE Africa, along with a Leadership Council of eight African women conservation leaders who have created the space for women to feel that they belong and that our voices are heard and can contribute towards decisions that consider both people and planet. The WE Africa founding fellows were able to meet the second cohort of fellows for 2022 in Botswana and this concrete expansion of our growing circle of sisterhood was exhilarating. I look forward to participating in this growth and the aim to have 100 women complete the WE Lead program. This poem written by Jackie summarises so much of how it feels for me to be a woman leader in conservation.
The Awakened Queen
I work from my heart
As well as my mind
I receive as well as give
I am duly grounded in my worth
I no longer apologise for taking up space or holding court
I embrace my capacity to contribute and make a difference
I am not afraid to shine.
I am equal at the table,
Whether sitting with peasants or presidents
I do not look down on anyone
I honor the divine in all people
I show up for myself
Curious, open hearted, present
I value my voice
I am daring and majestic
I am competent, capable and savvy
I create space for others to flourish
Knowing I’m on a journey towards wholeness,
I create space for others to discover theirs.
I am a work in progress
I do not pretend to be all put together
I bare my wounds
I am aware of and own my imperfections
I do not make excuses for them
Instead I seek to grow
While loving all of me.
I step into my royalty.
By Jacqueline Asiimwe