On Mother's Day I walk down Columbus, then Broadway, through flea market after flea market past stands selling handbags, jewelry, sunglasses, spices, and clothes. My walk reveals a smorgasbord of cultures, intricacies, and smells: the smell of hot cement, the fumes of cigarette smoke, the distinct perfume of summer -- fried chicken. I drink in the very specific culture of this street in New York City on a Sunday in May.
That moment in time becomes a dot on an internal digital map of my home country-- the place where I grew up-- the United States of America.
If I rewind back to a few weeks ago my walk shifts to a different street in the same city. I stroll down Bleecker Street, in the West Village, on my way to interview Oley Dibba-Wadda, a 10x10 ambassador, and at that time, the Executive Director of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE).
Buds decorate the trees; the street smells of spring.
Oley is in New York for a series of dinners and talks related to FAWE. My colleague, Cassia, and I arrive at Oley's friend's apartment to film her telling the story of FAWE-- of her work in the arena of girls' education.
We take some time to set up, to adjust the mic and lighting. Oley sits in an armchair in a bright pink traditional Gambian dress. She wears a head-wrap and glasses. She laughs as she snakes the mic under her dress and up to her collar: "This is definitely not gender-sensitive."
After some final adjustments we begin.
We learn that Oley is a gender equity specialist within the international policy programming field, and that she previously worked as a global gender advisor to Oxfam Great Britain. As both a former project manager for the Commonwealth Education Fund and assorted education-related organizations Oley spent a considerable amount of time coordinating and managing gender and education-related organization projects operating in both Africa and Asia. FAWE, her labor love at the time of the interview, is a pan-African non-governmental organization working in thirty-two African countries to empower girls and women through gender-responsive education. It primarily works with schools, communities, civic societies, other NGOS, and ministries to further both gender equity and equality in education. FAWE pushes for policy change and positive learning environments to encourage equal treatment of genders throughout Africa.
Oley's journey up to now has been one of travel and transition. Whilst originally born in the UK she was raised in Gambia, to Gambian parents. She completed both her primary schooling and secondary education in Gambia, before returning to England to attend graduate school at the University of East Anglia.
During our interview she recollects that, as the eldest of four siblings, the issue of education never came up for her personally; both of Oley's parents insisted that school was non-negotiable, that all of their children had to go to school. It wasn't until she entered the work world that she fully encountered gender biases in education. At that time, she became aware of poverty-related explanations for gender biases in education, in addition to traditional and cultural biases against educating girls. That awareness signaled an intervention-- became a calling.
When asked what education means to her, Oley speaks from the heart. She references her daughter-- the second of four children, and the only girl. She is currently eighteen years old, and Oley marvels at her personal ambition and self-awareness.
"I see how confident she is, how she is able to put her foot down... if she has homework she says that she has homework and needs time to get it done. I see how she communicates and bargains with her friends, siblings, and even father ... she was provided with an education and a background and exposure that gave her this opportunity. And that's what I think education is: it's not just about the classroom, but it's about learning to be empowered, motivated, and to appreciate other peoples' lives and livelihoods. It's about getting to know what you want and going for it. My one daughter is a living pilot for me to say that this is how far I would want every girl to go ..."
Oley views FAWE as a platform to provide educational opportunities for girls throughout Africa. Unlike other organizations with similar goals FAWE stands out because it is the only organization in Africa run by African women for African women and girls on issues of gender and education in Africa. Up to the present FAWE has done an extensive amount of advocacy work to drive ministries of education to address policy change for girls. Oley emphasizes, however, that in order for policy to change the girls FAWE has been advocating for have to become directly involved in those conversations.
She says fondly of FAWE's twenty-first birthday, "This young girl has matured into a woman."
Oley anticipates FAWE's future womanhood burgeoning into a period of dynamism and action. Over the next twenty years she believes that the young girls currently supported by FAWE will take over-- that those girls will become agents of change. She tells the story of Faith, a Kenyan girl who was a beneficiary from the Masai community:
"FAWE brought her over to do a 6-month internship at the Headquarters in Nairobi. She was going to university after six months and we had a party for her to celebrate her going away. One thing she said gave me goose-bumps. She said, 'that chair is mine and I'm coming for it.' That's what we want to see. Faith was someone who was going to be married off. She ran away from home to go to FAWE for help. She went through a very, very rough journey, but she knew what she wanted and she wanted to get there."
As our interview draws to a close I am inspired to ask Oley about her perspective on leadership. I am simultaneously intrigued by her passion for FAWE's work and compelled to ask the trite question at the tail end of most interviews:
"Who are your role models?"
Although Oley initially lists females-- her mother and grandmother; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia; and Madam Zuma, the first female chairperson of the African Union-- she hones in on Nelson Mandela.
"When I hear him speak my eyes glow because what he emulated as a leader was that he wanted what he did, not just for himself, but for the people. And when he got them to the Promised Land he stepped back in a very, very humble and modest way. And, for me, going forward that is where I would want to see myself ... Do it not for me, but for all of us together."
Cassia hits pause on her camera, just as the battery runs out. Oley rises gracefully to hug us, to thank us: gratitude and humility-- important qualities in a leader.
Outside the street is flooded with warmth. Parents stroll with their babies. College students walk peacefully to restaurants and stores. In this area of the world education is a priority for all genders; it is an opportunity too often taken for granted. We have been blessed with a host of rights and freedoms, all forms of opportunity: the right to education, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. Regardless of how we might perceive these rights, they are gifts in a world where the struggle for opportunity is endemic. As Americans, opportunity and freedom inform our cultural identity.
Before we leave Oley smiles:
"For me, as an African woman I believe in an identity. I believe in who I am, where I come from, and what I stand for. I remember when I was first leaving home to pursue higher education in England and an uncle of mine said to me: 'Whatever you do, remember where you came from. Because if you don't know where you came from, you will never know where you are going.' And that is something I would want every youth or child who wants to aspire to something, to always look back and remember where you're coming from so you know where you want to get to."
Walking through the streets of New York I am always astonished by the diversity of what I see, smell, taste, touch, and hear. In this country of everything, the colors run wild. New York, a microcosm, is a melting pot-- of people, experiences, and stories. Every street is a window into another subculture; every street is an invitation to explore. Regardless of where I walk, I am reminded that the collage works because of a base spinal cord. In this city, in this state, in this country the spinal cord is an integral avenue: 'Opportunity.'
To see a clip of Oley's video interview please follow this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5GJ0uqiGPY&feature=youtu.be
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