I came away from Kenya thinking a lot about leadership and in particular, women in leadership. Perhaps I was influenced by the hype around the recent release of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. I remember watching her interview with Jon Stewart the night before I left for Kenya on one of my many outdated recorded DVR episodes of “The Daily Show”. I recall her saying, “Rather than call our little girls ‘bossy’, we should say ‘my daughter has executive leadership skills.’” The quote traveled with me to Africa.
In Kenya, I noticed the same stereotypes that constrain me and my female peers here in the U.S., also challenge my counterparts there, as well as many of the women living in the communities we visited. Women were less likely to speak up, especially when in the presence of men and elders. The women entrepreneurs who I interviewed were quiet and humble about their achievements, whereas men were willing to show their success and ask for continued support. Women had fewer mentors and fellow women to help support them in their goals and aspirations.
Gender stereotypes have an affect on development, the same way they have an affect on me, and everyone around me here in the U.S.
I took this all in, sat back and watched it unfold. When I had time to think deeply on the issue of women, leadership and the developing world, I felt myself being guided by the mission of Pamoja – to create a collaborative learning environment where we could each learn from one another. I developed a deep sense of accountability to that mission and to Beatrice Anyango, the Kenyan student I was paired with, perhaps because I saw that we were both young women, at different stages of our careers, struggling to find a foothold as leaders in our respective communities of practice.
In this process, I learned something new – I learned a lot of things in Kenya, but I’ll continue with the one takeaway that stuck most with me – that leadership is often best executed by taking a step back.
It’s natural for leaders to look for shortcuts, especially when confronting looming deadlines and large workloads. But one leader who didn’t take shortcuts was one of our BU technology trainers, Jeungah Kim. For two weeks, Jeun helped to train and troubleshoot the Kenyan students technical challenges. One evening, after spending the entire day in the field, my partner Beatrice was struggling with the video technology. For the first time, I saw how much she was scrutinizing her own performance. For the first time, I understood that for her, the bar was much higher than the ones I had to confront in years past.
Jeun, who is Korean and completing her PhD in Education at BU, saw this bar long before I did, perhaps because she struggled with a unique set of challenges being an international student herself. That evening, from 8 p.m. until late into the night, after even the cicadas had gone to bed, Jeun went through the technology again. When I walked in to check on their status, Beatrice’s hands were on the keyboard with Jeun’s hands on top of hers. Jeun wasn’t doing the work. She wasn’t taking shortcuts. She was just walking through the keystrokes and commands when Beatrice got stuck. Jeun patiently stood like that for 30 minutes or more, her arms over Beatrice shoulders, waiting for her to decide what step was next and correcting her when needed, while periodically sneaking bites of a cold dinner.
Days afterward, I reflected on this moment. I was touched by Beatrice’s earnest willingness to learn, to spend hours on end until she got it right, and Jeun’s patience to sit beside her and cheerlead and coach her until she did.
In the past few years, I’ve been encouraged to see many international NGOs making the same kind of investment in women and girls that Jeun did in Beatrice that one night. They have helped them aspire to reach for new opportunities and dream of possibilities they would not have considered before. They have given them avenues to access and achieve those dreams. And when women and girls reach those goals and grasp that success, we all applaud together.
In fact, in Kenya I found myself clapping all the time. When Beatrice said something funny, or when she spoke up, or when she navigated a tough technical program, or when she taught me a new Luo word, as she often did, or when she submitted her final project and beamed at the positive reviews from the Pamoja faculty. I clapped.
But Beatrice was as much my teacher as I was hers – probably more so, because she is studying to be a teacher. She helped me stumble over my first Luo vocab lesson, laughing and smiling as I butchered the words. She guided me through remote communities, translating patiently and offering up her own questions to the people we interviewed. She taught me about the origins of the Kiswahili language, gave greater clarity on the important issue of land tenure and access, and described to me the challenges of being a young woman in Africa. And when she lacked answers to my endless questions, as teachers often do, she simply said, “Lindsay, this is Africa.”
Along the way there were periods of leaning in and stepping back, and then leaning in together as a group. Because that is what leadership is, one of simultaneously guiding while providing a window for autonomy and growth.I’m still applauding, , because at some point in the process, as we all tried to mentor one another, learn collaboratively and create good stories, leaders emerged. Pamoja created leaders out of each of us – Kenyan and American, man and woman, alike. As the days and evenings blurred together and we trekked in dusty, sweaty and some of us sunburnt from 12- and 16-hour trips to visit communities far and near, we supported one another the way leaders do. And those first few drops of leadership nurtured a few kernels of ambition, ones I hope to see grow both in me and in all of the Pamoja team in the years to come.