Published on Fri, 26/05/2017 - 12:18
Rebecca Baldwin, Thresholds
Crossing Thresholds in Africa

As I stepped into the airport terminal in Abidjan, I had a strange sense of familiarity and confusion. It was an interesting start- yellow fever guards, some enforced passport displacement, navigating around sim card salesman to find the correct minibus to the hotel on behalf of the surprisingly non-french speaking group of hotel guests. It was March 2016 and I feel this way every time I go to a different part of Africa. Somehow comforted by similarities but also aware of the completely particular environment I’m experiencing. This is one of the things I’ve always loved about this continent through the various times I’ve lived, visited and now worked there. Which is why I feel so lucky to have been able to work with 44 varied, accomplished and totally unique women from across Africa for the last 15 months.

This month we concluded the delivery of our flagship programme for two cohorts of women in the African Development Bank (AfDB) in Côte d’Ivoire. Although we were based in Abidjan, the economic capital and home of the Bank’s HQ, many of the hand-selected high-performing participants flew in from Rwanda, Tunisia and other country offices. This was a signal of the commitment by the Bank to open up access to an innovative and exciting opportunity to focus on career development, and offer thinking time for their employees to reflect on what they want from their lives. As many of them noted, Abidjan is a great place to visit. The largest city in the country, complete with skyscrapers and neon lights, it was more of a metropolis than I was expecting. Although I can safely say that after 5 trips I’ve covered off all the tourist attractions the city has on offer, I know there are also many more local treasures than the few I got to experience. We heard tales of Abidjan’s heydays in the 70s where its broad French styled avenues were home to new developments and growth, complimented by the dolphins leaping in the lagoon. I don’t think anyone had personally witnessed the dolphins, but there is much anticipation about the Morocco-led lagoon development project helping to get the city back on its feet following the lack of investment due to the two recent civil wars. Coming from the UK I’m not used to seeing armed police, though it was perhaps to be expected on our way to Grand Bassam, given the terrorist attack last year. I did see some fleeting flare ups, but other than that it’s hard imagine what the people here witnessed such a short time ago and there is very little evidence to the naked eye. To an outsider normal life appears to be carrying on.

All of this history and the current environment heavily affects our local participants' daily experiences. New road routes are opening up, but some still commute for hours every day. Many have recently relocated back to the new Bank headquarters from Tunisia. They told us that import dependence forces prices up in Abidjan, and utility, food and accommodation costs are high - despite regular power cuts and limited variety. In many organisations there is a strong emphasis on academic achievement, and many of our ladies hold multiple graduate degrees. They’re a well qualified bunch, but it often means evenings of study or facing a barrier to entry for those with other responsibilities. Similarly to international civil servants who we work with in the UK system, it can also be tricky for them to accept foreign postings if they are carers or their family doesn’t currently have that sort of mobility. One of the reasons the African Development Bank asked us to start the programme was because they were going through a period of restructuring towards their priorities, and wanted to ensure they kept equality and progress at the front of their minds.

So this is how we started - with a wide range of personal experiences, a city in transition and a changing organisation. It has been extraordinary to witness the clarification, hopefulness and determination that has come during the programme - both from the hard working HR team in the Bank itself and the wonderful participants. Their aspirations were broad and ambitious, and the inspiration and support they provided one another was very touching. We had a huge range of diverse speakers: senior bank staff, consultants flying in from the US, youth theatre groups performing provoking pieces about modern and knotty equality issues - we had it all! One of my favourites was a video a peer group made of themselves set to “We are the Champions”. The rise in confidence has been commensurate to the level of engagement and enthusiasm they’ve each put into their personal development. They’ve also benefited from the Bank’s first official mentoring scheme which we set up at the same time. As all our graduates and mentors are aware, mentoring is the backbone of our programme. It proved so successful that when I asked our mentors to join us for the final module, I strangely found myself craving a whistle. It became almost impossible to rotate them among small groups because they were all so engaged and connected. Over 3 hours later it was clear how invaluable this experience was, and it has provided an excellent springboard for future mentoring events.

By my final trip it was nice to have the satisfaction of a valid visa, improved French and deft use of the superior ‘Africabs’ - Ivorian version of Uber (complete with iPads and wifi) to transport the team in our colourful custom tailored outfits to our huge family of participants, interpreters, supporters and colleagues at the venue. I was also given a tip for how to work with each other’s definition of time management when I was unsuccessfully trying to regroup following an afternoon break. The tables were filled with pastries, mini pizzas and cakes. Somehow trays, foil and napkins had materialised and there was a frenzy to hoover it all up to take home for lucky children, relatives, employees etc. I realised I could not interrupt this process, and it was too amusing anyway. One of the ladies came over and said to me: “African Women! What can I say?”. Normally it’s fairest to be strict with timing, but coming from such a culture of food waste, I have to say on this occasion I thought it was worth the wait.

Overcoming practical difficulties really allows you to just focus on what you enjoy, and it was a once in a lifetime experience to go through this journey with such a giving group of hard working, impeccably dressed, hilarious African women. Their final updates on how much they’ve achieved over the course of the programme were so impressive in contrast to the difficulties many of them faced at the start of the programme. Nothing brought me more joy than hearing one of the graduates say “It was as if I was in a box, and now I’m free!”. I wish every single one of them perseverance, optimism and luck for their continued pursuit of their amazing evolving multifaceted goals.