This Day (Lagos)

16 August 2014

Africa: Graca Machel - There Is Nothing Exceptional About Me...

Her trajectory in life is compelling and enigmatic. At 28, she was the Minister for Education and Culture, leading a team of more experienced older civil servants and professionals.

She's the only known woman who had been a First Lady of two different African Presidents, of two different African countries (she served as the First Lady of Mozambique from 1975 to 1986 and the First Lady of South Africa from 1998 to 1999) -and twice a widow. She was born without a father; he died 17 days before her birth. Yet, she brought joy into a family that was still mourning. Raised by a loving mother with five other siblings and being the youngest, life was not always easy. Like many other girls, it became almost impossible for her to pursue higher education until fortune smiled on her. Little wonder she's passionate about helping millions of destitute children in Africa. Born on October 17, 1945 in Mozambique where she had her early education before gaining a scholarship to the University of Lisbon in Portugal, where she studied German,, Graca Machel, widow to the late former South African legend and President, Nelson Mandela, is a paragon of passion, modesty and beauty. Though she likes describing herself as not being exceptional, she's been doing exceptional and extraordinary things. In the last four years, her New Faces New Voices, a non-profit organisation, has continued to organise a biennial summit, which brings together key stakeholders in the financial sector in Africa, as well as influential global leaders, to consider the place of women at the centre stage. In this first public outing, the former First Lady opens up to Funke Olaode at Lusaka in Zambia, about her childhood and her advocacy for the African woman and the girl-child. The occasion was the 3rd African Women's Economic Summit held at Mulungushi International Conference Centre.

What is this Pan-African group, New Faces New Voices, all about? New Faces New Voices is a Pan-African advocacy group. We focus on expanding the participation and influence of women in the financial sector. We realise that women have the potential to contribute significantly to the economic growth in Africa. To harness this potential, we engage with decision makers at national, regional, continental and global levels. Our research shows that if the financial and business sectors become more inclusive to women, the result will be a large-scale and fundamental shift in business and financial landscape across Africa.

Would you say the advocacy group has achieved its goals and objectives? To some extent it has. Our goals are to improve and economic well-being of women and their families, to reduce inequalities, and to strengthen African economies and societies. Not only that, to increase women's access to finance, and financial services; to strengthen the skills and capacity of women and consumers, entrepreneurs and investors. To access finance; and, to increase the number and visibility of African women in leadership and decision-making positions in the financial sectors and even in governance and not just to be around the table when important decisions are being made.

The 3rd African Economic Women's Summit was recently held in Lusaka, Zambia; what prompted the idea? As said earlier, New Faces New Voices was borne out of the acknowledgement that women do not have much presence in terms of visibility and powerful voice in the financial system on the African continent and globally. Each Summit seeks to unlock the value that is inherent in the female economy in order for women to take their rightful place as equal partners in meeting the development challenges of Africa. This year's theme, 'African Women: Realising Africa's Economic Potential' was an eye opener that if women are given equal opportunity like their male counterparts in terms of finance, they will excel. We held the first summit in Kenya in 2010 and in Nigeria in 2012, in honour and recognition of changes which are taking place in Nigeria, a vibrant society that has role models in women in business. We still think though that the women can still do much more. We want to acknowledge that there is a progress taking place and there are policies in place. These are lessons that we want to expose with the summit to many other countries to learn from.

You are passionate about women issue which gets you moving from one part of Africa to another when you can afford to sit down and enjoy life. What drives this passion for the development of African women? I can't afford to sit down because I have been a child who has been given love, care and protection. I did not go through the hardship which many millions of kids passed through. By the way, I was born a fatherless baby. My father died 17 days before I was born. I was born when my family and everybody was still mourning my father's death. I was born in that kind of environment. Can I say I didn't have love? No, I did. Oh yes, I was cared for. I was given a sense of dignity. My mother was a real mother. She brought six of us up on her own and didn't re-marry just to take care of us. I was the youngest and they sent me to school at the right age of six and then paid for my education until I completed secondary education.

With a widow mother and five older siblings how did you manage to acquire university education? My mother couldn't afford to send me to the university but I was lucky someone gave me a scholarship. All those things are lessons in life. You know if I had not been born within this family, being cared for and loved; if I hadn't been given a scholarship by a good Samaritan, I wouldn't have completed my education.

You were once one of the youngest ministers to ever emerge on the continent of Africa at a relatively young age. How did you achieve such feat? It was because of my participation in the struggle to liberate my country, Mozambique. And out of the blue in my late 20s I was put in charge of ministry of education as Minister. I had no clue of what to do in such situation. I think the only credit I can give to myself is that I built a team of experienced hands and said, 'Guys, this is a very big task. How can we work together?' I was given an opportunity to lead a complex ministry of education at the age of 28. It was a revolution in those days and you have to work with what is available. It is not because I was the best but someone had to do it and it fell upon me to do it. When one is given all these opportunities there comes a time when you realise that with opportunities come a responsibility. You have the responsibility and when you look back at those millions of kids or millions of girls who are subjected to inhuman practices, someone has to speak on their behalf because they don't have a voice.

You are passionate about women in agriculture which is something inter-connected to financing and wealth creation. In terms of agriculture, there is always impediment in accessing finance, apart from land which is an issue. What can be done about giving women more access to the means of production in terms of agriculture? We ought to encourage women to be organised whether it is in association or cooperative or any form of organised ways. What I have in mind is to support women to see agriculture as business even when you have only one acre. You can produce food for your family but beyond consumption they can also save money in a bank. In other words, I am going to be working with these organised groups to move from the hoe because there is no way women in agriculture can expand if they are using such kind of tool. And you don't have to jump from hoe to a tractor. You can have those very simple tools which are in the middle of the hoe and tractor. The reason why I am saying they don't have to jump is because the tractor is much more complicated to maintain. And we have learnt from other parts of the world that you can have those machines which increase the produce and reduce human effort; in every area, agriculture is produced the same way. What is important is that whatever women are doing, it has to go beyond consumption. The message is food on your plate and money in your bank. And when we say bank, it is because we are telling the women not to keep money under their mattresses; that they should take their money to the bank so that they can become part of the financial system. And that is where the New Faces New Voices comes in. Our network which is working with another network of ours is to educate the women to use the financial system. I gave an example of our chapter in Uganda of about 250,000 rural people working in agriculture. They are now getting more knowledge on agriculture. We would like to support a system, in which those who have small businesses grow, and the medium grow big and the big ones become a conglomerate. As women, we are not meant to be born and die in the informal sector. We have the ability to grow and do big businesses. Actually, New Faces New Voices wants to see those captains of industry who are women. Why? Because we want to change the mindset of millions of young girls when they see these captains of industry and are inspired. When Ellen Johnson and Banda became the first female presidents on the continent, many young girls looked up to them and said 'I can be a president'. They were inspired. Therefore, we need to have this in a 100 or 1,000. And that is why I am talking about multiplying faces; it has to be many faces so that these little girls have to been seeing these faces every day in different sectors. In that way, it will build in them the sense of 'nothing can hinder me' from reaching the sky. Our network is focused on the smaller but more and more on the big.

What is your view on economic integration; do you think African women are ready to collaborate? My answer is yes and no. I think we shouldn't often generalise that all women don't want to work with each other. We have very good examples of women who want to work together. It is not by chance when I say we have to move in waves. I am trying to indicate that the bigger progress we need is partnership -working together. For instance, some countries have reached 50 years of their independence and if you look at progress which women have made economically it is very small and one of the factors is fragmentation. During the Summit I gave an example of when you have a 100 organisations talking to one minister: it will be difficult to identify who is who here and what are the priorities. As women, we need to be organised, and have our needs strategised and categorised. Above all, we have to be able to define what is going to be strategically and critically important to effect a change to the system because we want to change the system. Small project will solve a problem of a small group of women but networks which work together can effect a change in terms of changing the structure in the system. We are concerned with changing the systems which are marginalising women. Women are very intelligent but they have been moving in circles for decades. If you break this circle and work with each other, you will be able to communicate and articulate your views and aspirations and you make a better impact with those who have the power to change the situation. That is what we are trying to do. And talking about integration, our network is based in one country but we have women from Southern, Eastern, Western and Central Africa. For us, talking about regional integration it is collaboration. When you have a Nigerian lady who is a member of New Faces New Voices working with somebody who is from Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, or Malawi they are naturally connected. They learn from one another, build a relationship with one another and develop common goal. That for us is regional integration.

Talking about changes, it has to start from the grassroots; changing the mindset of people particularly the girl-child. Can you shed more light on the vision you have for New Faces New Voices? At the just concluded Summit we discussed finance and how to accelerate women economic potential on the continent. I will also be willing to discuss the issue of the girl-child including the harmful practices. We already have a programme which deals with the girl-child particularly with child marriage. Why we choose the child marriage? When you say a child should be allowed to grow and to develop until she becomes 18 you are protecting this child. When you say this child has to be allowed to grow so she can make right choices. This is the right to choose. When you say this you are also giving an opportunity to this child to have information about her, about how she has to be in command of her body and to decide when she wants having a relationship with somebody, when she can get married and when and how many children she wants to have. It is a lot of rights which are involved just to protect children from child marriage. You are also saying this girl is going to remain in education at least to secondary level. In this process, you are promoting girl-child education. We choose child marriage because it is her right and also to help the family and the community to change the value they attribute to a girl-child. It is not perception only; it is the value to know that this girl-child has the same value as the boy child. We are working on these practices in different context under another programme called Child Right Programme.

What do you think make your personality tick? Nothing really. When I speak it is not because I like to show my face. I am not talking on behalf of Graca but speaking on behalf of those millions of kids out there. I am speaking on behalf of the girl child out there; and I am speaking on behalf of women out there who don't have a voice. I want people to listen to me and take their plight seriously. I am not the only one doing this we are many doing too it. I am not exceptional; there are many people like me who are doing what I am doing. Those who have invested in me gave me that responsibility to invest in others. I think that is my

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