“I should have known that ambition and success were not to be expected in an African woman. An African woman should be a good African woman whose qualities should be coyness, shyness, submissiveness, incompetence and crippling dependency. A highly educated independent African woman is bound to be dominant, aggressive, uncontrollable, a bad influence.”
– Professor Wangari Mathaai (1979) right after the collapse of her marriage with Mwangi Mathai
The month of March has a number of internationally recognized days celebrating women’s accomplishments, achievements and the special place women occupy in society. There is the International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrated globally on March 8th and the forthcoming Mother’s day celebrated between March and April depending on the country. In the case of the former, the IWD, despite (ironically) having its origins in socialist political events and worker’s movements in the early 1900s, by 1975, during International Women’s Year, the United Nations (UN) began celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March and by 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed by Member States. The official UN theme for International Women’s Day 2012 is “Empower Rural Women — End Hunger and Poverty.” All over the world, women everyday are taking giant strides in breaking free of stereotypes and in improving their lives, those of their families and of their communities. In Sub-Saharan Africa as well, women are doing remarkable things – from Nobel Prize winners recognized by the international community to the ordinary women doing extra-ordinary things every day.
When strong African women are mentioned, heavy weights come to mind such as the late Kenyan activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Wangari Muta Maathai who passed away in September 2011. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 which planted over 30 million trees, she was an advocate for better sustainability in the management of natural resources, she worked with women to improve their livelihoods by increasing their access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water and was a pro-democracy and human rights activist. Others include Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected African Head of State, who won the Nobel peace prize last year for her efforts in rebuilding post-conflict Liberia such as negotiating significant debt relief, anti-corruption efforts, starting the truth and reconciliation commission to address crimes committed during the Liberian civil war and overseeing a rise in school enrolment by 40%. Sirleaf shared the Nobel laurel with fellow Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee who mobilised Christian and Muslim women in Liberia to call for an end to the brutal 14-year civil war by fasting, praying and campaigning for an immediate ceasefire and dialogue between the government and the rebels, and also convincing Charles Taylor to step down. The award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell chronicles the incredible efforts of Gbowee and her women’s movement in ending the civil war. Others include internationally renowned Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working, Siza Mzimela the CEO of South African Airways, Mariéme Jamme a London-based philanthropist, technologist and social entrepreneur, and so many others.
Coming closer home, in Nigeria, we have heavy weights such as Professor Dora Akunyili former Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) who has received international recognition and awards for her work in public health and pharmacology; Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala the Harvard-educated first female Minister of Finance in Nigeria, famous for negotiating the historic debt cancellation of $18 billion (60%) of Nigeria’s external debt with the Paris Club in 2005 and for fostering greater fiscal transparency in government. Though her reputation and popularity in Nigeria slightly plunged due to her prominent role in the Nigerian government’s recent removal of fuel subsidy, she still remains a powerful and brilliant woman who has made an indelible mark in a terrain dominated by men. Okonjo-Iweala is listed on the Forbes list of the World’s Most Powerful Black Women and Forbes Africa’s list of the 20 Most Powerful Women in Africa. There is also Mrs. Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, currently a World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region responsible for projects, economic and sectoral work in 47 Sub-Saharan countries; Mrs. Amina Ibrahim, a Senior Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria on the Millennium Development Goals, described by BBC reporter Mark Doyle as a “frank and intelligent woman”. Also worthy of note is Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar (CON) the first female Supreme Court justice in Nigeria, and Mrs. Ifueko Omogui the Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS)responsible for driving institutional changes to reform the tax system in Nigeria.Outside the public sector, we have young up and coming women who are blazing the trail in their various fields of endeavour such as the award winning writer Chimamanda Adichie listed on the Forbes’ 20 Youngest Power Women of Africa and Nollywood movie stars such as Genevieve Nnaji, who is regarded as “Africa’s most revered actress” and one of the most influential celebrities in Africa. There are many more of such amazing and inspiring women in Nigeria and across Africa.
By far, one of the most remarkable and extraordinary instances of a woman’s resilience in the harsh terrain in Sub Saharan Africa is that of Rabi’atu Abubakar Mashi, the female truck-driver with Dangote Cement company, in the conservative Northern state of Katsina, perhaps the only female truck driver in Northern Nigeria. Hers is a story of courage as she defies stereotypes whilst eking out a living doing something traditionally not associated with women neither in the developed world nor in the developing world. Her interview with the Weekly Trust newspaper HERE reveals that:
As a divorcee with two children it can be inferred that Rabi’atu’s income comes in handy in catering to her basic needs and that of her children, keeping her self sufficient, in an environment where the rate of divorces is reaching alarming proportions and divorced women who are typically without meaningful sources of livelihoods end up as dependents and a liability to themselves and their families. Interestingly, Rabi’atu acknowledges that she is doing something extraordinary and hopes that other women will follow the trail she has blazed. Having successfully trained and mentored another woman, she confirms that her protégé could soon start driving her own truck for the same company. Additionally, Rabi’atu is mindful of her deeply conservative environment built on mostly cultural and Islamic prescriptions which place a high level of importance on marriage. Thus she hopes to be remarry but prays that her husband doesn’t discourage her from the lucrative truck driving business she is very passionate about.
This is an amazing story of strength, courage and resilience. For pursuing her dreams in a tough environment and perhaps inspiring other women to take charge of their destinies and empower themselves, Rabi’atu deserves to be crowned woman of the year. I am probably over-excited and stretching it a bit, but a Nigerian Woman of the Year award would do. The fact that she is from my home state, Katsina is a plus and a feel-good factor for me . There are certainly many more women like Rabi’atu all around the world setting the pace in their own unique way, yet it is their individual efforts which collectively make a difference.