Africa: Festivities, Fashion and Calls To Action As Women Gather in Monrovia

"Little Ellen" and Rita
7 March 2009

Monrovia — Today, I had the privilege to wither in the searing African sun, shielded somewhat by a thatched roof held up by bamboo polls, as an international delegate to a two-day International Colloquium on Women's Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security.

I was one of 500 delegates from more than 25 countries who were summoned by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, to help develop creative and workable solutions that promote women in their societies, economies and governments. The international delegation was joined by another 500 Liberian participants in center field at the Samuel K. Doe Stadium, named after the late Liberian President who is credited with ushering in 30 years of civil conflict.

For more than a decade, I have been a friend and supporter of President Sirleaf and have watched her turn into a rock star on the world stage for all the right reasons. This was her latest act.

Dignitaries, also melting under the airless thatched roof around the Liberian president, included co-convener, Tarja Holonen president of Finland, (who in addition to co-hosting the colloquium, is on a state visit to Liberia); President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal; President Paul Kagame of Rwanda; the first vice president of Spain; the governor general of Canada; the vice president of Gambia, the prime minister of Mozambique; the vice president of the European Commission and the daughter of Libyan leader Muammar Al Gaddafi.

Why Liberia? Two reasons: First, there is no better place to recognize the importance of empowering women than in Liberia, home of Africa's first woman president, brought to office partly by the powerful role Liberia's women played in turning the tide against the previous repressive regime. Second, however, is the president herself, whose passion and determination are formidable. When she calls upon you, whether you?re a consultant like me or the president of a great nation, you want to say, "yes, Madame President." So here we all are.

At the morning plenary opening the Colloquium, it was the children that stole the show away from the world leaders. In a skit to celebrate women who changed the world, girls from the ages of 5 to 15 acted the roles of influential women. There was Cleopatra, Rosa Parks, Catherine Cummings, Oprah and finally little 'Ellen'. Commanding the stage like pros, the children spoke directly to the president with the authority of a teacher to a student, and referred to Her Excellency as "Ellen, my child." Then little Ellen, dressed like the Liberian President on the day of her inauguration, white, African dress, a green sash of honor, gold-rimmed glasses and sensible shoes, proceed to tell the nation what its priorities were.

Alongside the proceedings on stage, the traditional dress of African women in attendance caught the attention of visitors. Hostesses wore a special textile made especially for the occasion. The fabric's background was either violet or sky blue with the flags of Finland and Liberia patterned throughout. Each of the outfits made of the celebratory textile was designed by a local tailor to suit the personalities and styles of the individuals. There were fitted bodices; ribbons and ruffles attached; cropped pants with tops; tight fitted skirts for the young women and large loose fitting outfits for the full figured. But the violet and blue textile was only the side show. The show stoppers were the individual adornments of African women of all ages, most wearing matching headdresses, some as high as two feet. Each outfit was a work of art, in fabrics from stiffened cotton to silk, in all colors of the rainbow.

But back to the official program! The Liberian president opened the colloquium but made no speech, turning over the podium to as many as 18 guests who were given five to ten minutes. Not one kept to the allotted time, so the opening ran two-and-one-half hours over schedule. I paid close attention to most of the speeches, whose common themes were the progress that women have made, the vast gap they still need to overcome, and the better place the world would be with more women in board rooms, political office, peace negotiations and the like.

Two speakers particularly captured my imagination. Governor General Michaelle Jean of Canada is of Haitian decent. She cited her grandmother who worked her fingers to the bone so that her children and her children's children could be educated. Ms. Jean referred to the women who had inspired her, from Afghanistan, to Kosovo, to Sudan to Colombia to President Johnson Sirleaf. The vivid descriptions made the references more than sound bites; invoking the color of their eyes, the smell of their homes, the expressions on the faces and their thoughts, sorrows and appeals.

"Education is the key to freedom," the governor general insisted. The evident passion of this woman of dark skin, representing North America, riveted the crowd, as well as me. When she called discrimination against women "an unjustifiable crime against humanity," the audience was with her, as they were when she thundered that "when you exclude women your country is doomed to fail!"

My other favorite speaker was Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank. I know Ngozi, largely from her work in Nigeria. She didn't make a statement; she called us to arms. She cited evidence correlating gender equality and reductions in poverty rates. She talked about how the world economic crisis had fallen disproportionately on the backs of women and families and cited Albert Einstein's observation that "insanity is trying the same thing and expecting different results." Calling for a new paradigm for inclusive sustainable growth for the future, centering upon empowering women around the world, she asked the audience to ensure that all of the stimulus packages of their governments include programs to support women.

Finally, Ngozi praised President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for being an innovator in implementing programs for girls and women that bring together unusual partners to solve locally identified needs. Describing an adolescent training workshop she attended prior to her arrival at the colloquium, she concluded by saying that these women are the next generation; it is our responsibility to give them hope and the tools to change their lives.

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