Developing Freedom: Interview with Jemila Abdulai

We recently added the following sentences to the ABOUT section of our website:

“For women to Live Unchained, they must be allowed to simply, live. For many black women across the globe, this basic entitlement is threatened on a daily basis.”

We thought it was important to acknowledge that although the intended scope of the project is vast, we recognize that so too are the challenges facing women of African descent. The resources and perseverance needed to bring about basic opportunities for women of African descent, their communities and family members is bigger than any one movement or publication–especially our own.

We were so honored and happy to connect with and learn from Jemila Abdulai, an International Development Correspondent based in Washington D.C., who believes that free women are important to Africa’s economic and political growth.

Born in Nigeria, and raised in Ghana, Jemila developed a keen interest in the history and current policies that continue to shape African development initiatives. Fluent in English and French, she also keeps her ear to the ground concerning Francophone countries, such as Senegal, where she traveled with the African Women’s Millenium Initiative (AWOMI). Jemila believes in the power of information sharing and discusses many of her experiences and ideas on her blog:

In this interview Jemila shares how she became involved in the African Women’s Millenium Initiative (AWOMI) in Senegal (as well as how you can travel and help with AWOMI), her interest in international development and her vision of empowered women and Africa at it’s strongest.

Can you tell us about your background?  Where are you from?  Where have you been?

I’m from Ghana. My family is Muslim and both my parents are educationists, so from a very young age, the importance of seeking knowledge –a requirement in Islam – was instilled in me and my four siblings.  I’m the eldest of five kids: four girls and a guy who’s smack in the middle.

As a child I was extremely inquisitive and often very troublesome, but surprisingly, as I grew up – and apparently used up the excess energy – I became calmer. I have a whole range of interests, and I always try to explore them. In high school, I was given the “most all round student” award for my involvement in many activities.

I’ve had the opportunity to experience many facets of my personality – as a book-worm, a song-writer, HIV/AIDS peer counselor, actress, basketball player, goalie, activist, and now, I’m exploring my journalistic side. Where I’ve been – recently went to France, visited Senegal for a leadership program in Summer ‘08, lived in Norway for a while, then came up to the U.S. for college.

I am very hopeful about the prospect for development in African countries and I also value information-sharing – hence my blog Circumspect. I’m looking to get back into school soon for a Masters degree.

How did you become involved in the African Women’s Millennium Initiative on Poverty & Human Rights (AWOMI) in Senegal. Why do you think this organization is important?

A friend of mine forwarded me some information about the Young Women’s Knowledge and Leadership Institute – a leadership program organized by AWOMI – in 2006, I believe. I was unable to apply for the program then, so I kept tabs on it and applied for the 2008 edition of the program.

Thankfully, I got into the program and headed to Senegal with over 60 men and women from Africa and the Diaspora. We spent a month at the historic Goree Island where we lived at the Mariama Ba Boarding School- the only all-girls boarding school in Senegal.

In addition to taking courses on HIV/AIDS, FGM, fistula, international trade, privatization, gender-based violence and so on, we had the most profound discussions on what it means to be youth and women from Africa and the Diaspora, and how we can make a difference. I must say that my experience at the institute is irreplaceable.

In addition to learning from some of the most inspiring female experts in development, I’ve made some amazing lifelong friends, gotten a deeper understanding of economic, social and political issues in the Global South, and I’ve been able to identify my niche areas in development.

AWOMI is important because it provides a forum for young women and men from Africa and the Diaspora to talk frankly about issues affecting them, and also, to brainstorm creative solutions. I highly recommend the program to anyone who’s looking to not only expand their horizons, but also to delve deeply into their personal and professional strengths and weaknesses. You can apply by checking out their website

Can you share with us how you became interested in international development?

That’s a pretty long tale. But to make it short, let’s just say I’d been exposed to development issues from a very young age. Having lived in Ghana, I was all too familiar with water shortage, power cuts or “lights off” as it’s called back home, poverty and so on. I studied Economics and French at Wesley Girls’ High School, and I fell in love with those two areas right away.

I always knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of other people, but it wasn’t until I came to the U.S. to study at Mount Holyoke College (an all women’s college) that the stark realities of life in Ghana and other African countries hit me.

My majors in college turned out to be Economics and French (no surprise there), and I joined the college newspaper to explore my passion for writing. Initially, I just wanted to have an “African voice” on the newspaper – until then, there hadn’t been an African on the editorial team – and once I got other international and African students to share their views on issues, I focused more on development in my articles.

I believe the media plays an important role in development, but I also feel that African issues are starkly misrepresented. I wanted to change the somewhat default image of the starving African child to include the image where talented individuals are making a difference despite the poverty and what-not. Like any developed country we have challenges. But we also have opportunities; it’s important to show both.

The field of international development involves many different areas including women’s empowerment.  How do you define women’s empowerment?  Do you think the definition remains broad or changes in different countries and situations?

For me, women’s empowerment means increasing women’s awareness of the situations affecting them, and giving them the tools and information necessary to make informed decisions. This spans a whole range of issues – economic, political, sexual, educational, health etc.

Although women share key concerns, there is diversity in those concerns and in the women involved. Personally, I think the definition of women’s empowerment cannot and should not be broad. A Congolese woman’s concerns might not necessarily be an Italian woman’s concerns, but they all fall under the umbrella of women’s empowerment. It’s the same thing with the notion of feminism. It means different things in different places.

How would you like to see Africa develop?  What is your vision of the continent at its strongest?  What role do women play in this picture?

As I mentioned earlier, I believe in access to relevant information. From my experience, this has been one of the main elements influencing the opportunities I have been blessed to encounter. I come from a middle-class Ghanaian family and I cannot say I, or my family, had any particular “connections” before I came to the U.S. What I had were parents who value education and who allowed me to go off and do “research” whenever I wanted to. My parents were strict about going out at night and on weekends, but they were always supportive when it came to books, research and education.

Having access to the computer and Internet from a very young age – five years I think – made me privy to accessing relevant information and making the most of it. That’s what Circumspect is about: providing a platform for sharing and accessing relevant information. Once Africans have the necessary information, they can make informed decisions. Informed Africans – and people in general- are invaluable assets.

How I would like to see Africa develop. That’s a tough one, but I’ll give it a shot. I would like Africa to develop holistically with vision, commitment and unity. I would like African governments to design and implement policies that are strong enough to deal with current issues, but flexible enough to take future developments into consideration. In this regard, research is essential. I would like Africans to adopt a holistic approach to development; realizing that the economy is as much related to health care as it is to agriculture, and as such mismanagement of resources cannot be afforded.

Additionally, I would like Africa to develop with Africans at the helm. Meaning, if we’re basing our development on policies used by the West, we fine-tune it to our respective circumstances. And, we should be committed to taking charge of issues ourselves. In that vein, unity is the key. Nobody is going to come and save us; they haven’t in the past and if history is anything to go by, they won’t in the future. Everyone has something on their plate; it’s time we take charge of ours. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, it’s time to unleash it.

The continent at its strongest – our diverse culture would be appreciated and integrated into our daily lives. Everyone would be enjoying basic human rights; we would be managing our resources well –both human and natural, and finally, there’d be peace and harmony. So much is lost from wars, or people being stubborn and not wanting to work together. It’s crazy.

Women’s role – it’s undeniable. We’re the majority. And that’s not even counting the future kids we’ll usher into the world.

Women are important in every aspect of life. That’s the beauty of it, but it’s also the curse. If our issues are ignored, we’re not only ignoring the majority of the present population, we’re setting future generations up for failure. I know many people consider this feminist-talk. But it’s not. What you deny a woman, you deny humanity. Men need to realize their issues are strongly linked to ours, and we need more men coming on board.

Many movies explore the notion of the end of the world. I don’t think an alien invasion is going to end our era; ignoring women’s issues however, could just do it. They should do a movie on that.

Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to seeing in our forthcoming anthology made up of black women’s audio, visual and written works from across the Diaspora?

I think this is a great initiative – putting together a diverse collection of women’s work.

What I would like to see is participants telling how they got where they are, how they’re doing what they do. This is important because many people think it’s only a certain type or group of people who can make a difference or pursue their dreams. I beg to differ. So long as you have something to your name – even if it’s just your name – you count.

Sometimes just sharing your experience can make a lot of difference. I hope the anthology has elements that every woman can relate to in one way or another.

Anything else you would like to share…?

Anyone who’s interested in finding out more can check my website or contact me. Let’s get things back in top-shape: we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

Living unchained means living passionately. It means pursuing what I love, striving to make my contribution to humanity, AND keeping an open mind.

It means never allowing past mistakes or the perceptions of others to hold me back.

It means realizing that history is being made right this moment, and that despite the challenges, I have the power to decide how mine will be written.

Sometimes you just have to try, give it your best and see. It means being willing to take risks in getting to know and love myself.

4 responses to “Developing Freedom: Interview with Jemila Abdulai

  1. This is a great interview! Jemila continues to be a wonderful inspiration to those of us who know her!

  2. Well-said! No one will solve the problems of Africa but Africans! As Jemi’s little sister, I completely agree with her that your background does not determine the difference you make. You do!

  3. Yay for African women going place. And I totally agree – I will like too see Africa develop with Africans spearheading this development

  4. Yay for African women going places! And I totally agree – I will like too see Africa develop with Africans spearheading this development

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