Women taking Africa “by the horn”

I recently set out on a mission to find successful women who are transforming their African communities. To make this challenging task more exciting, I decided to visit countries at the lowest rank of every World Bank economic index. With the help of old friends from Queen’s, I mapped out an itinerary that took me from Toronto to Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Along the way, I met many amazing people, and I’d like to share the especially inspiring stories of two women, who are “taking Africa by the horn.”

I arrived in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa one evening mid-June thoroughly confused. According to my watch, it was 8 pm and a translucent darkness had fallen over the city. However, the taxi driver who picked me up at Bole International Airport had tried to convince me that according to Ethiopia’s orthodox calendar, it was actually 2 pm on the third day of a month called Sanni in the year 2004. Out of sheer bewilderment, I stuck my head out of the window of the cab to clear my head and enjoy the cool breeze sashaying through the city as pedestrians darted dangerously between cars.I was in Addis Ababa to interview Bethlehem Alemu, the woman with the fastest growing brand in Africa. I met her at the flagship shop of soleRebels, a multi-million dollar shoe company she started in 2005. In a neatly decorated room surrounded by loafers and flip-flops, I discovered that Bethlehem grew up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Addis Ababa. Fueled by a strong desire to create employment opportunities there, she assembled community artisans to start manufacturing shoes out of old car tires.

As demand for her climate-practical high-quality shoes soared, she expanded her operations to employ 200 local artisans and began exporting Ethiopia’s eco-sensible shoes to Europe, North America, and Asia. With a simple dream to better the conditions in her community, Bethlehem Alemu has been able to build a highly profitable business that has earned her accolades and awards at home and abroad.

After a week in Ethiopia, I boarded a plane to South Sudan, the newest African country to gain independence. As the plane began its rapid descent, my heart rate quickened. I did not know what to expect of a land that had been under the ruthless dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. For decades, the two regions engaged in guerilla warfare until South Sudan seceded and was recognized by the world on July 1, 2011. Since gaining independence, thousands of South Sudanese have returned “from exile” to rebuild their homeland. As I strolled through the streets of Juba, the capital city, I saw signs that South Sudan is ready for the world.

The roads are lined with wooden kiosks out of which petty traders sell phone cards and food items. The city is filled with construction workers hauling cement to build houses and hotels supported by the influx of foreign investment. However, by far the most impressive evidence of progress I saw was in a little yellow house with a white sign that read “The Roots Project.” This non-profit organization was established by a young girl called Anyieth D’wol to teach trade skills to underserved women in South Sudan.On the sweltering hot day that I visited the Roots Project, Hargeisa, the manager, was helping a group of 20 women with their handiwork. With children strapped on their backs and spools between their toes, the women ­delicately threaded beads into necklaces which they would later sell in the markets. The women use the income they earn to ­support their families and help start their own businesses. Although Hargeisa and her team may not be on the same financial ­platform as soleRebels, the success of this ­outreach program lies in its commitment to rebuild a country by empowering the most marginalized sector of its population.

I left Juba with a deep sense of optimism that with people like Hargiesa leading the way, South Sudan is being steered in the right direction.

Bethlehem and Hargeisa are just two of the amazing women I met during my three-week expedition across the Horn of Africa. Each of them demonstrates that with minimal resources and unwavering resolve, a single person can change lives and transform communities – even countries.

This article originally appeared in the Queen’s Alumni Review 2012 Issue #4

Help!

I usually roll my eyes when desolate photos of Africans dominate headlines. Here they go again, ready to ridicule Africa. This week however, several heart breaking headlines have forced me to pay attention to  gaunt frames and withered children walking miles to find relief  from a ruthless famine that has ravaged Somalia. Truth be told, I would rather be skimming through horoscopes and you would prefer to read about Jlo’s divorce, but here is why you have to pay attention. This is the gravest famine to hit East Africa in 60 years. The already desperate situation has been exacerbated by warlord blockades and regional politics. 

In a typical famine, relief agencies intervene with food and medical aid. In the case of Somalia, an al-Qaeda splinter group called al-Shabab control the drought stricken areas and they are preventing aid from reaching the people.  As a result, thousands of Somalis in the rebel controlled areas are fleeing to government controlled camps where they can receive aid. Sadly, these camps are overcrowded, and the resources cannot support the deluge of refugees. The drought has now spread to Ethiopia, Eritrea and South Sudan – many more people are expected to suffer.

 

An immediate solution to alleviate the crisis is for neighbouring Kenya to open Camp IFO 2 which international donors built at a cost of $16million dollars. The camp can provide relief to about 40,000 people and is equipped with schools, a police station, and a medical facility. Unfortunately, the Kenyan government refuses to open the camp to Somalis because they are concerned that the exodus of Somalis from the al-Shabab strongholds poses a security risk to Kenya. The Kenyan government is  also concerned that if they make  the amenities in the camp available to Somali refugees,  there will be a greater influx of  Somali families into Kenya to take advantage of these facilities.  The government is pressing for aid to be delivered directly to Somalia, but the warlords continue to bar humanitarian agencies from reaching the needy. This is a classic example of how one nation’s  problem rapidly evolves into a desperate regional crisis.  Meanwhile, the stalemate is costing lives. Refugees are forced to ‘self settle’ or wonder about in search of better living conditions. The farther they drift, the more vulnerable they become to rape, attacks and death by starvation.

 

They need aid, they need food, they need rain. This Saturday, one of those wishes was answered and torrential rains came down, but, it destroyed makeshift  structures and tents in refugee camps. Currently, more than 11 million people are estimated to be in need but the Kenyan government refuses to budge. If Humanitarian organizations cannot act and governments will not help, what can we do? We can follow the example of ordinary Kenyan citizens who have bypassed their government and donated $200,000 by mobile phone banking to help the victims of this famine. 

 

11 million starving refugees is an overwhelming image to digest. Whilst some erect blockades and others look away, I beg you to donate. Any amount will help heal this wound.