Reflections on matriarchy, fierce females, and yes – elephants – from a three-week M & E trip in Sierra Leone and Uganda from our Programs Director, Erica.
Just a few weeks ago, Micaela and I returned from a Monitoring and Evaluation (M & E) trip to Sierra Leone and Uganda. As the name suggests, the purpose of M & E trips is to monitor and evaluate our current programs, develop and build relationships with implementing partner organisations, and seek new opportunities to strengthen and improve upon our work in both Sierra Leone and Uganda. During our three-week trip we completed 11 community visits, 12 school visits, 19 Focus group discussions, 4 training sessions, 9 partner meetings… all totalling to about 209 hours work.
But as important as all these meetings, focus groups, data collection, training sessions and nitty-gritty detail of monitoring and evaluation trips are – they weren’t the first things we wanted to share with everyone when we returned home. In fact, as we reflected on all the incredible people we’d met, the conversations we had, and the experiences we shared – the one image we kept coming back to was that the people we had met reminded us of elephants.
Now, I’m guessing that sounds a little strange to you, doesn’t it? How are people like elephants? Is it a comment on a larger-than-life facial feature – their great schnoz or obtrusive ears?
No, not quite.
For us, an elephant is the ultimate example of a strong woman, a female leader. Whilst males leave the herd at a young age, female elephants remain to rear their daughters with the support of their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts.
Usually, the oldest female elephant becomes the respected, wise elder who protects younger generations from harm and teaches them how to survive in this big frightening world. A matriarchal society like this is unique but not entirely foreign in the animal kingdom or societies around the world.
Yet in Sierra Leone and Uganda, matriarchy is less common; women and girls are often subjected to discrimination and remain in lower positions in most communities. For example, the governance structure in Sierra Leone supports a system of patriarchy, with dignified men called ‘Paramount Chiefs’ from tribal families ruling for life in the communities where we work.
Whilst these chiefs provide access for One Girl to work in their communities, they are also symbols of a prevailing patriarchy that automatically chooses men over women as leaders of change. In the South and East of Sierra Leone, some women have been crowned as Paramount Chiefs, but where most of our work is focused in Northern Sierra Leone, there isn’t a single female in this official leadership position.
This is why One Girl works here and in every other similar community – we know that young girls need strong female leaders to transform their own realities. Officially, there might not be any female leaders in the communities where we work, but while we were there we were blown away by the strong women we met who were challenging this norm.
This is at the very heart of what we do at One Girl – giving women and girls a platform where their voices can be heard. This may be through becoming a Champion with LaunchPad, a trainer of future girl entrepreneurs in Business Brains or a mentor to our scholars as a member of the Alumni.
And so a way of summing up our M & E trip, we wanted to introduce you to three inspiring women and girls we met in Sierra Leone and Uganda – and how each of them is creating and leading change in their own communities, in their own way.
On our trip to Northern Sierra Leone, we met a young woman called Yeonah. Immediately we were blown away by her confidence, drive and unwavering commitment to her community. Yeonah is a graduate of our scholarships program and has now taken the role of Alumni President in the Tonkolili (Northern) region.
We met her as she was advocating for our new WASH program at her old high school and I remember joking that it must be annoying to have suddenly left and then see your former school finally get proper toilets and running water. She looked confused and told me that she is simply happy that future students won’t have to go through what she did. She wasn’t bitter or resentful, which she easily could have been – instead she was excited and hopeful for her younger peers.
Yeonah, in the centre in the checkered shirt, is the Alumni President in the Tonkolili region
At just 19, Yeonah has chosen to dedicate her spare time to advocate for young girls like her. As Alumni President, she is leading a group of passionate young female graduates in creating a mentorship program for One Girl scholars and funding this through launching their own soap business!
The Grafton Group.
If you want to talk about women’s leadership, you have to talk about LaunchPad. Visiting our LaunchPad Champions and Savings Group women knocks your socks off in terms of strong, powerful women. Whether it’s creating songs and dances about menstruation or engaging male chiefs and dignitaries in enormous forums to talk about “women’s issues”, they are actively changing the lives of women and girls.
On one of our first days in Freetown, we travelled out to visit a LaunchPad group, situated in a former refugee camp Grafton- a relic from the civil war – now a permanent slum community. Driving along in our truck, we see (or maybe we heard the music first?) a group of women with handmade signs, welcoming us to their community through dance and song. These women beckon us from the car and we find ourselves dancing beside the road to call and response acapella singing in 97% humidity for two kilometres.
Now drenched in sweat, we sit in a large shed and watch woman after woman, girl after girl, stand up and tell us about how they are spreading the word about safe menstruation in their communities. They used this opportunity to also engage men and boys, telling their husbands why this is important and how they can be involved in and support girls’ education. The meeting concluded with forty women and girls standing and singing a song they had wrote to educate others about menstruation.
This may sound unique, but where we visited in Sierra Leone, this was not an unusual experience. Time after time, we danced, mimed songs (unfortunately not yet fluent in Krio or Temne!) and sweated profusely with groups of passionate women and girls. These experiences drove home the significance of the LaunchPad Program in giving women and girls a platform to talk openly about taboo topics and highlights a move towards change in traditional leadership structures.
Brenda and Ritah – the women leading Business Brains in Uganda.
In Uganda, you may have heard a little bit about the Bulogo Women’s Group, a female-led grassroots community organisation, who are literally championing everything we believe in: women and girls creating transformative change, on their own terms.
While we’ve shared lots about our exciting work with Bulogo Women’s Group before, while in Uganda we got to meet the fierce females behind this work, and while visiting with them we saw some extreme girl power going on!
Brenda and Ritah are two incredible women we collaborate with at Bulogo Women’s Group. They lead sessions where they teach young girls everything from ‘getting out of your comfort zone’ to doing a market analysis. Ritah is passionate about girls’ education and particularly economic development, whilst Brenda brings expertise in healthcare and well-being. Both of these women juggle their own family lives and even travel from Kamuli to Kampala (a 4 hour drive, including a crossing of the Nile River!) various times per month for work.
The relationships that these two outstanding women have built with the hundreds of girls in the Business Brains clubs are gorgeous. They are continually joking around, dancing and playing as if they have formed a family with hundreds of little sisters, but also have a deep understanding of each girl’s challenges and are working with them to overcome these.
It may seem a little strange likening people to elephants but when you meet such strong, powerful women like this, it’s hard to avoid. This said, I think we need to be careful not to overly romanticise these women as larger than life, or worlds away from you and me. Each woman and girl we met on our trip is highly intelligent and feels joy, anger and grief and has developed tough skin to rise above the marginalisation and inequality they are faced with every day.
But in order for women and girls to continue to rise, we need a movement, not just of women and girls, but men and boys too – this is the major difference between elephants and us. At One Girl, we believe in women and men working together in partnership, lifting each other up to achieve equality.
And we’re so excited to keep working with you – our incredibly passionate community – to make that a reality that involves more girls, women, boys and men – than ever before in 2018!