*By Peggy Mativo – Founder and Founder & Executive Director – PACEMaker International

“Ladies, I’ll be honest with you, we must find the boldness and courage it takes to be a woman in African society.

We live in a day and age that is different from that of our ancestors. And yet, it is just as challenging. We live in an ever changing world where Twitter can end your career, and blogging can make you an overnight star, a world where socialites compete with politicians for shock stories and media attention, a world where news is largely negative, where the bodies and brains of African women are under constant assault from forces that push us to be more western, to be thinner, to be more Kim Kardashian; a world where cultural values clash often with corporate demands; a world where we must be both modern and African.  We live in a world where it is possible to have more education, and more wealth than your spouse. Careers were previously defined as specifically male or specifically female…but those boundaries have fallen. We live in a world where Africa is rising. 

Ladies, Kenya is rising.  If you go to the North of Africa, you’ll realize that Africa is rising. If you go to the West of Africa, you’ll realize Africa is rising. If you go down to the south; you’ll realize that Africa. Is. Rising. Ladies, Africa is rising. So how do we ensure that as Africa rises, we do not get left behind?

In today’s Africa, we are still struggling to get more women into political leadership. On average, women still earn lower salaries than men for their entire lives.  In South Africa, the gender pay gap sits at an estimated to be 14%. If you look at board seat distribution, the picture is equally dim: women occupy only 14% of board seats.  In Kenya, we have 19% of the board seats- slightly better, but a far cry from the 50-50 that is possible. The key to changing these statistics, and the key to improving the prospects of female leadership on the continent is properly structured, high quality mentoring for women.

Our goal is to get us to a place where we each can build up such a community: a network so tight and so powerful that it accelerates you to the great destiny that you are each called to. And note: each of us is called to greatness. Playing small does not serve the world.

If we are to develop Africa’s future in the right way, then we cannot separate conversations about leadership from conversations about mentoring. It is the fiction writer, Erica Jong, who once said this regarding the future of leadership:

The next wave will be women mentoring younger women and women helping younger women…

Thus I’ll start out with a challenge to each of you. If I was to ask you to list down 10 African women leaders from the past century how long would your list be… 2 women? 5 women? 10 women? And why? I bet that many of us thought of the usuals, Wangari Maathai, Graca Machel, Margaret Kenyatta. But now I must ask: How many of us knew about Margaret Kenyatta before she became the first lady? How many of us know more about Graca Machel than she was married to both Samora Machel? What is your definition of leadership? Why did you not list your mother? Why did you not list down the name the lady who raised Kwame Nkrumah?  The truth is that 90% of us will not make it to the spotlight. Will it mean that we are any less of a leader if the spotlight is not shining on us? No, it won’t. We need to be great leaders, with or without the spotlight.

“If you cannot find a good African story, go out and become that story,” argues Ms. Serrainne Nyamori, one of my mentors. We need to go out and start mentoring. The mentors of the future are all in this room.

If you asked Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, Zig Ziglar, Lorna Rutto and Tabitha Karanja what it took for a young person to succeed, they would tell you that good mentorship is the key to achieving your goals. It is the difference between problem and possibility, between potentially promising and certainly successful. But even they did not invent mentoring. So who did?

To discover the answer, we must travel back to the tumultuous times of the early Greeks. Odysseus, the King of Ithaca and also a father, left his home and family to head for the Trojan War. In his absence, he appointed Mentor, an old friend to oversee his palace, protect his wife, Penelope, and take care of his infant son, Telemachus. Mentor, though a good man, was a weak advisor and gave impractical guidance- thus he was unable to help Telemachus effectively transition from childhood to adulthood. Because of the prolonged war, Odysseus’ kingdom came under threat from suitors and usurpers who wanted to force Penelope to choose a replacement husband from amongst them- so that they could take over Odysseus’ throne and deny Telemachus his birthright. It is in this time of distress that Athena, the goddess of wisdom and (patroness of the arts and industry), stepped into the life of a rather depressed Telemachus. She disguised herself in multiple animal and human forms, including the physical form of Mentor and is able to guide Telemachus on how to fend off the suitors and usurpers. Penelope and the Palace were saved- and the kingdom is secured when Odysseus returns home to reunite with his son and wife. We reach this happy ending thanks to the advice and encouragement of Athena- and of course, because of her clever disguise as Mentor. From this story, the word “mentor” came into the English language to refer to an older person who guides a younger, less experienced person through sharing wisdom and knowledge, generally without expecting any payment.

“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself…someone who allows you see the higher part of yourself when it sometimes becomes hidden from view,” Oprah Winfrey.  Miss Winfrey, who was not much of a reader in class 4, got assistance and support from her teacher, Mrs. Duncan, who often stated after school to help her choose books and show her how to grade papers. Oprah says: “For many years after that, I had one goal that I would one day become a fourth-grade teacher who would win the teacher award — because I was going to be the best teacher anyone had ever seen.” We all know that Ms. Winfrey did not become a classroom teacher, but she did carry elements of Mrs. Duncan into the shows that we know her for. According to studies in the Journal of Psychology, young people with mentors “are more likely to succeed professionally and experience career satisfaction”.

Since high school, I’ve had an army of mentors. I have benefited immensely from their arsenal of wit, wisdom and experience. My aunt, Stella, was the one I would go to for advice on how to be a young woman, a leader and how to deal with different relationships. I’d grown up in a house full of girls, and gone to an all girls boarding school- she walked with me through all those lessons I needed to learn.

Lorna Mbagara, who was a student herself, became my college application mentor and helped me craft a great application that saw me admitted to Harvard and MIT universities. She was a year ahead of me, and used her experience to guide me through decision-making in college.

Even though I majored in Chemistry, Dr. Gregg Tucci, my advisor did not just meet me to talk about course selection. He gave me lots of good advice and help when making bigger life decisions. He shared his support and helped me find funding when I wanted to go teach in rural Tanzania. When I told him about my dreams of improving education for children in slums and rural areas in Kenya, he encouraged me to pursue this dream. This same professor who had walked with me through 3 years of campus was now encouraging me to take time off school, and to chase my dream to change the world, or at least change Kenya. I took the big leap.

As a twenty three year old, I came back to Kenya with nothing more than a dream on a sheet of paper. PACE was that dream. The plan was to recruit recent high school graduates and engage them as volunteers in understaffed public schools. My mentors, Dr. Susan Mboya and Eva Muraya, became my guiding lights. They shared their insight, influence and networks to support me and help our work grow. So far, we have worked with 325 volunteers in 15 public schools in Nairobi, Kiambu and Kajiado. We have volunteered for 47000 plus hours and helped students improve their performance. North Highridge Primary, for instance, improved by 23 points in KCPE scores. We’ve worked hard, together with the teachers and gotten our students admitted to top schools like Alliance girls.

And now, I’ve also started my journey as a mentor- who is passing on the flame of leadership and support for younger women. Through PACE, my mentees Eneki and Hawaa, have set up their own social change projects: libraries and sanitary towels campaigns. And of course, the next generation: through sharing life stories, and tutoring, we’ve helped students like Beryl improve their grades and make history as the first girl from their school to go to a national school. The flame that was passed to me keeps getting passed on.

The point here is this- I’ve had a mentor for every stage in life. Initially, some of these relationships were a bit awkward- I didn’t know what to do with them, but now they flow more naturally. I’ve learned that you have to “find someone who with whom you have good chemistry, someone who is tough enough to keep you accountable, and someone who is truly committed to your growth. Otherwise the relationship will not work out.

Before taking on a mentor, it’s important to ask yourself why. As the mentee, you need to be very clear about your key goals for this relationship. Yes, there will be other fringe outcomes, but you need to go in knowing why you want this person to mentor you. I ask my mentors tough questions about factors that will affect the quality of our relationship: How much time does he/she have on his/her hands? How many mentees does she currently have? What successes, failures and challenges has she experienced with previous mentees?  And to meet them halfway, I make sure I go in with clear expectations: How many times do we want to meet? When should the relationship end? How do I prefer to learn from them? Good mentors are not hard to find, but you must dedicate time to developing the relationship.

So what does the future of mentoring for African women look like?

Like I said earlier, the future of mentoring for African women is right in front of me. Look at the person on your left, then the one on your right. These people are the mentors we need.

My first call to you is to go out and find a sister, a cousin, a neighbor, someone in your social network- and mentor them. There’s someone out there who is younger than you, who could used your experience. So, don’t be selfish- reach out to them, genuinely get interested in their success and help them reach their full potential.  A lot of us will say that we don’t know how to mentor, since we’ve not been mentored. Not knowing how to start does not mean you cannot mentor. To that excuse, I will say this: we live in a world where the information on mentoring is available online. You can learn from Youtube, or from sites like www.mentoring.org. Please go online, learn and start mentoring. As I conclude, in keeping up with one of the greatest African traditions, I will share a story. Once upon a time, there was a poor farmer named Ouma. He was an elderly man, and knew that he would soon leave this world to join his ancestors. He decided to leave all his earthly possessions to his wife and two daughters before he died. To the wife, he gave a chicken. To the first daughter, Atieno, he gave an egg. To the second daughter, Apiyo, he also gave an egg.  The following morning, after pondering on what she would do with the egg, Atieno decided to make a delicious omelet for breakfast. She ate it while loudly smacking her lips in enjoyment.(smack 3 times). Apiyo decided that she wanted more from her egg. She asked her mother if she would let the chicken sit on her egg. The mother accepted. A couple of weeks later, a chick hatched. Apiyo carefully tended the chick, and it grew up into a chicken. Soon, Apiyo’s chicken started laying eggs. Apiyo now had both the chicken and the egg. In that same vein, I hope that the lessons of today will be to you like Apiyo’s chicken- something that you invest in, and that benefits you for the rest of your life.

Thank you so much for your time.