We recently traveled to Isiolo County part of the former Eastern Province in Kenya, to visit one of our 2015 Fellows – Antonia Naregi. Antonia is mentoring young school going girls; encouraging them to pursue education. She is also equipping women with entrepreneurial skills so they can start and/or grow businesses that will support their families. When we arrived in Isiolo, we were welcomed with enthusiasm and warmth and as we began talking to the group of women their hard work and determination to provide for their families was evident in their rough dry hands.

One woman started to outline the major challenges she faced;  how she struggles to provide food for her family, how she did not have cow dung or strong polls to rebuild her manyatta because all cows had died of drought and all trees had been cut and burned to make charcoal that they could sell for income. As she spoke, I noticed something strange – she made no mention of her husband. Who was he? How did he contribute to the family? Why did she seem to bear the burden of caring for her family? I was afraid to ask about him for fear of the worst, maybe he had died.

As her story unfolded and she begun to make mention of the men in her community, I saw a possible reason for the omission. The men, in general, were not dead; they were simply otherwise engaged . “All they do is sit under trees and talk” she lamented. I wonder now if this is why she did not speak of her husband.

Traditionally, Turkana men sit under trees and discuss politics, leadership positions in the village and how many cows they have. They update each other on which homestead has a girl who they could marry off in exchange for more cows and goats.

In this community, it is the woman who takes the lead role in the family: she provides, she protects, she has the burden of dealing with every aspect of her home and family- from building her house, tending the cows, burning wood for charcoal, to feeding her children. Her strength is amazing; her stamina is beyond measure.

Akili Dada seeks to empower young women across Africa to take up leadership positions.  As I think of the woman we spoke to in Isiolo, I find every reason to believe that she is perfectly capable of leading her community.  I can imagine her working tirelessly to bring water closer to her community; saving the many women who travel kilometers away to seek water, I can picture her seeking to empower women with skills and knowledge that will help them earn an income and take care of their families. I see that this woman understands the needs of her community. And I feel that she cares.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I choose to celebrate these women and the millions of women across Africa in her situation. Indeed women are the backbone of this continent!

By Doris Mugambi* : Program Associate – Innovation In Leadership Program