Africa: Graca Machel - Rooting for the African Woman

Graca Machel at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, May 7, 2010.

"The time is now," said Graca Machel, quoting the book title of American nun and women's activist Joan Chittister.

Machel was opening her speech at the launch of the 2X Impact to Invest initiative in Nairobi last week.

There is a sense of urgency mixed with hope when you listen to Machel talking about the issues that are dear to her heart--women, children and education.

We caught up with the former first lady of Mozambique and South Africa when she was in Kenya under the auspices of the Graca Machel Trust.

Ms Machel cuts a tall figure of confidence and grace. In spite of her global acclaim and celebrity status, in person she is charming, warm and ever-smiling.

She speaks with passion, an astute understanding of the continent's challenges and a fervent desire to change the fortunes of African women.

At 73 years of age, Machel could have chosen to leave the limelight.

We asked her why she didn't just go into a quiet retirement to rest and become a woman of leisure.

She replied that she often asks herself, "Have I done enough, given the fact that I have had so many opportunities and privileges? How do I use the platforms that are provided to me to take along young women so that they are recognised, valued and gain exposure for what they have been doing?"

Naturally, she is frequently asked to speak on behalf of African women but Machel self-deprecatingly says, "I'm not qualified anymore because I am a species facing extinction, and there are lots of young women who are so brilliant."

On July 11, Machel unveiled the 2X Impact to Invest competition in Nairobi an initiative of international financial institutions, including FinDevCanada, Britain's Commonwealth Development Corporation, French agency Proparco and the MasterCard Foundation to provide financial and technical assistance to women-led businesses in Africa.

"African women are not supposed to be born and die only in the informal sector," Machel said to a Nairobi audience made up primarily of women.

It is not by chance, Machel believes, the the Trust was chosen by FinDev to partner in the Invest to Impact initiative. "It's because we provide the fertile ground, the pipeline through which these initiatives can flourish."

The Graca Machel Trust was formed in 2010. After years of championing the rights of women and children, it became evident to her that an institutional framework was lacking.

"The trust is not about me or my generation. It is about providing a platform for young women to take centre stage. Our mantra is multiplying faces, amplifying voices. With the trust, I can rest knowing that I have provided a place for women to network and grow," Machel said.

What does she feel are the challenges facing the African women today?

"The challenges and obstacles facing women come from the way we have been socialised not to blow our own trumpets. It's a psychological barrier. There are a large number of successful women, but they won't tell you how much they are making. They are afraid to say that they have a lot of money. I encourage them to celebrate themselves.

"Research shows that many middle-class young women are afraid to go to banks to ask for loans, so they get start-up money from family and friends. For example, Clara, who spoke at the launch this morning said she used her own money to start her business.

"We teach women that the bank can be your friend. Some institutions are slow to recognise women as business partners, and this is where we come in, this is where the strength of networking lies."

Game changers

Machel says women must have the courage to learn and to acquire experience. Now is the time, she urged, for a second liberation for African women from poverty.

She is challenging African women to become the game changers of the relationship between the developed and developing countries, by transforming "attitudes, perceptions and mindsets on both sides."

The World Bank estimates that globally, female-owned business have a financial deficit of between $260 billion and $320 billion a year.

In the Impact to Invest competition, 100 women entrepreneurs will be selected from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda. They will benefit from support such as mentorship, business skills, network building, enhanced visibility and potential funding.

One of the areas in which the trust helps women is in agribusiness.

"The trust identified sectors like agribusiness, to harness the knowledge, experiences and practice so that women can transform their work from agricultural subsistence to agribusiness," Machel said.

In 2018, according to a Food and Agriculture Organisation, 37 out of 51 food-deficient countries were in Africa.

Machel reflects, "This is a continent which is not feeding itself. We still import billions and billions of dollars worth of food which is nonsense. We recognise that those who produce what we have are mostly women. Women have to be taken much more seriously in the shaping of agricultural policies that help agribusiness to flourish.

"The women organise themselves, then we strategise together to find spaces for them to grow. The women do all the work, then we act as a catalyst to facilitate and connect them to international financial institutions, government and the business community under the umbrella of the trust. In the three days that I am here, there are several conversations happening."

The World Bank estimates that globally, female-owned business have a financial deficit of between $260 billion and $320 billion a year.

In the competition, 100 women entrepreneurs will be selected from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda. They will benefit from support such as mentorship, business skills, network building, enhanced visibility and potential funding.

Machel says the 100 female entrepreneurs selected in the competition would be the first crop women to change the relationship between the north and the south.

Machel knows first-hand about the lot of the average African woman. She came from a low-income background, born in 1945 to a poor family when Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony.

She and her five siblings were brought up by their mother, after their father, a farmer and church minister, died just three weeks before she was born. Machel completed school in Mozambique, and went on to university in Portugal during the colonial era.

During Mozambique's liberation struggle, she joined the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) where she underwent military training in camps based in Tanzania.

It was during this time that she met Samora Machel, founder of Frelimo. In 1975, he become the first president on the newly independent Mozambique and the two married shortly after.

Eleven years later, President Machel died in a plane crash in South Africa's Lebombo Mountains in 1986 during Mozambique's civil war.

Graca was devastated. Like her mother before her, she was tragically widowed and left with young children to raise. For five years after her husband's death, she says she wore only black clothes.

Her relationship with President Nelson Mandela, who was 27 years her senior, caused something of a stir when it came to light in 1996, the year he officially divorced his second wife Winnie Madikizela. Yet the two had known of each other for years.

Yet Machel was not keen to remarry and even after their relationship became official, she maintained her home and work in Mozambique. Eventually Mandela won her over and they were married in 1998, on his 80th birthday.


Machel does take time out from her work and travels to relax. "I like to read stories of people who have faced huge challenges and how they overcame them. My life has not been easy, and many people have faced bigger struggles than I have. I like to know how they deal with pain and reality.

"When my first husband died, my children were young, my daughter was 10 and my son was seven. How do you bring up your children on your own while you're bleeding inside? You learn from other people.

"I also read lots of books related to the work I do. That's where I get inspiration and ideas. Many of the books are gifted to me by people who understand what I am doing."

Machel has had the unique position of serving as First Lady of two countries, but it is not a privilege that she rides on. She refuses to be defined by her husbands and is resolute about her individual identity. "I have a name," she said to audiences in Nairobi.

She has a law degree and was a teacher during the years of Mozambique's liberation war. She was the first minister for education and culture in Mozambique after Independence, a post she held for more than 10 years, working to reduce the illiteracy rates and raise school enrolment.

During the civil war from 1977 to 1992, Machel witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of conflict on children and this galvanised her to campaign for their rights.

Her 1996 Impact of Armed Conflict on Children report, presented to the United Nations, prompted global strategies to protect the rights of children during wartime.

In 1997, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain named her an Honorary Dame of the Order of the British Empire.

Last year she was appointed the deputy chair of The Elders, a coalition of global public figures working towards peace and human rights.

The Elders was co-founded in 2007 by Richard Branson, British musician Peter Gabriel and Nelson Mandela.

Machel offered a word of encouragement to women: "Don't underestimate your own journey, don't think of yourself as small, or say you don't count. I'm telling you this because I underestimated my own life when I was younger, I could have valued better the process of my transformation.

"Write about women," she said to us..."How they are doing, their struggles and their successes. You are already the change you are looking for. We can multiply faces and amplify voices together."

Her own journey continues. "I have changed, and I am still changing with time," she says.


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