Exclusive interview with Lucy Gondor: “There’s still a long way to go for the ordinary women of Sierra Leone”

By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)

Lucy Gondor is the current President of the Kailahun Women in Governance Network (KWiGN), comprising 106 women groups with a total membership of over 5400 women in Kailahun District.

LUCY F. GONDOR: President of KWiGN

The wife of Paramount Chief Cyril Foray Gondor of Upper Bambara Chiefdom, Lucy rose from a house wife and teacher to become a change maker in her community in particular and Kailahun District in General. Her vision is to work for the socio-economic, political and educational empowerment of Sierra Leonean women.

I caught up with her last week in Ngolahun village, Peje Bongre chiefdom, where her organization held a meeting to present a female candidate to the people for the position of Member of Parliament for Constituency 010 come 2023 elections.

How did you become President of this network (KWiGN)?

After the rebel war, I was working with a woman group formed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC). It was called Nyahabagbay in Mende (meaning strong women). It was a solidarity group of seven sub-groups of women involved in skills enterprise such as gara dying, soap making, tailoring, weaving, gari processing, bread baking, adult literacy, etc.

The IRC built a literacy center and I was a tutor and chairperson for the center and for all the seven groups. The groups consisted of about 60 women in total. That was around 2004-2005.

In 2008, an NGO by the name of SEND Sierra Leone came to Kailahun District. They did a survey of groups headed by women in the 14 chiefdoms in the district and my group was among those consulted.

In the first phase the NGO organised a consultative meeting of all women groups, traditional leaders and other community stakeholders including religious leaders and teachers in the district. Their message was about empowering rural women, equal representation of women and men in political parties, promoting good governance and equal access to the resources of the country.

The second phase of their intervention was the formal launching of the Power to Women project. They invited all political parties, Police, Army, traditional leaders, women groups, religious leaders, youth, etc. From there we started KWiGN and I was later elected in 2009 as the District Treasurer. Because of my exemplary performance, devotion, commitment and active participation, my colleagues voted me as President of KWiGN in 2013.

As President of KWiGN, what will you consider to be your key achievement/s so far?

I can proudly say that the status of women in Kailahun District has improved a lot, thanks to our collective effort as women and other stakeholders, and the invaluable support of SEND Sierra Leone and their partners Christian Aid and Irish Aid.

As President I embarked on advocacy, lobbying, sensitization, training and workshops. Before now, there were no leadership positions for women in the district because of age-old traditions. But because of the inclusion of the traditional leaders from the inception of our programs we are changing mindsets and they are now willingly supporting women to hold important positions in the politics and administration of the district. For example, in the 2012 national elections we succeeded in electing 12 women as councilors and one female Hon. Member of Parliament. Though she’s now late, we ensured another woman replaced her.

After the 2018 elections we have 6 councilors and two MPs in Kailahun District. In the entire Eastern Region, we have 26 women councilors and four MPs.

We continue to advocate and lobby for women to be included in chiefdom committees as well, and play leading roles in the implementation of development projects. Even in the district council we had about six female councilors as chairpersons of various committees including health, education and waste management.

In a bye-election following the death of a sitting MP in Luawa town in 2015/2016, we lobbied the two main political parties and they gave us two women candidates; this has never happened in the politics of Sierra Leone. And the elections went on peacefully.

Most importantly, we have facilitated the establishment of the network in Kenema and Kono districts.

Apart from politics, what other aspects of women’s life has KWiGN positively influenced?

We are not only involved in politics, but we know change comes easily when there’s the political will. So politics is the vehicle we are using. We are also involved in health; women monitoring the free health care program in all chiefdoms in Kailahun. During the Ebola outbreak, our women volunteered to be contact tracers, they sensitized grassroots women on the Dos and Don’ts and the bye-laws established by the Paramount Chiefs. We continue to advocate for the development of community health posts in our Wards to ensure rural women have access to essential healthcare.

We have also tackled the sensitive traditional issue of Female Genital Mutilation and we now have a minimum age of consent at 18 years.

We are also in livelihood support. Through KWiGN women’s socio-economic status has improved greatly. The micro finance scheme introduced by SEND Sierra Leone has helped to empower women economically. Women now have access to resources to improve their lives, educate their children, provide food and pay for the family’s health. Women now own property and other assets.

We also give voice to women’s issues through our regular radio programs. Women talk about burning issues affecting them and the girl child; they talk freely about gender based violence, early marriage, teenage pregnancy and other issues.

You seem to have reached the climax of your aspirations for women?

I am afraid no; far from that. We have to congratulate ourselves and our partners for what we have achieved collectively so far. But there’s still a long way to go for the ordinary women of this country, not only in Kailahun district. Sierra Leone is still a male dominated society, not in terms of the numbers but the mindset. Despite the enactment of the four gender Acts offering protection for mainly women, it is still difficult for most women to have access to material resources, social, educational and political opportunities in their respective communities. There are still some communities clinging on to those archaic customs and traditions that have so long marginalized women.

Gender based violence, especially rape, is a huge challenge in Kailahun and other districts as well. Issues of child marriage, education of the girl child…These are all rolling issues that we will continue to deal with.

We humbly called for equal opportunities for women in all aspects of life- social, economic, educational, political and access to material resources. These are things we will not stop advocating for.

Where do you see the women of Kailahun in particular and Sierra Leone in general in the next five to 10 years?

Firstly, we want to see more women joining the political parties, paying their dues, participating actively in party activities and occupying decision making positions and committees within their respective parties. We want to see more women parliamentarians; more women ministers; and more women holding senior positions in local and national governance. We want women to preside over the development of national policies and laws and then all other sectors will benefit.

We want to strengthen the relationship between women and men towards the development of the nation. We want to see women and men supporting one another towards a common goal.

We are not working in isolation; we are in partnership with a lot of influential women groups across the country including Fifty-Fifty Group, MARWOPNET, APPWA and AMNet.

South Africa: African Development Bank Group Supports Skills Development in Eskom’s Medupi Power Plant

For many years, Sarina Malatji dreamed about helping out her community. She grew up in a community where few young people could afford an education. Today, she has not only educated herself, but she is also contributing towards the education of others.

William Morifi, the director of Excellent Perceptions, a fire equipment sales and maintenance company in Lephalale (Limpopo, South Africa) on 09.04.2019 ©AfDB/Olive Thiong’o

Malatji was raised in Limpopo Province where the scorching sun and bushveld disadvantage reign.

She worked for the state power utility Eskom until 2011, when she left to start her own cleaning business – Green Dot – which currently employs 115 people at the Medupi power plant, one of the largest energy projects undertaken in South Africa since 1994. Medupi thermal plant is located in Lephalale, Limpopo Province. It is the fourth largest coal-powered plant in the globe, with six boilers that will contribute 4,764 MW of power to the national grid, at optimal output. Construction of the plant commenced in 2007 and the plant is expected to be fully operational in 2020.

In 2013, Malatji heard about the Eskom Academy of Learning, dubbed the Medupi Learning Initiative, and decided to join because she wanted to advance her project management and business skills. The training is a leadership and skills development programme aimed at improving small and medium enterprises proficiencies, to be able to participate in large corporate business, such as Malatji’s Green Dot. From this training, her business has grown from a single entity to four entities employing 475 people; the latest of which is a boutique hotel in Lephalale in Limpopo, which is expected to open in June 2019.

Malatji says she comes from a humble background, which fuels her passion to serve her community. “Through the four businesses, my partner and I have managed to support student education at different levels. In 2018, we provided four laptops to students joining university, and our dream is to open a foundation for many such students at all levels of education,” she said.

Medupi Power Plant has provided a host of opportunities to local communities and migrant workers over the past decade. The skills developed, jobs created and surrounding business opportunities for men, women and youth has been phenomenal.

At the peak of the Medupi construction, 20,000 people were employed at the plant and its supporting activities. Limpopo was seen as an ideal location for the project because of its natural resources, but also because the province, one of South Africa’s poorest, stood to gain a great deal.

Now, as the construction works are finalized, the socio-economic difference is seen in the infrastructure developed, business acumen attained, and emerging opportunities.

Through the Medupi Leadership Initiative and the Eskom Contractors Academy, thousands have been given the skills to provide services to Medupi Power Plant and neighbouring businesses, as well as set up new businesses in the region.

The Medupi Leadership Initiative and the Eskom Contractors Academy are projects supported by the African Development Bank through its funding for skills development in line with the operational needs during the plant’s set up. They have launched the careers/businesses of many others like Malatji. Since they were launched, the Medupi leadership initiative has trained 16,602people on financial literacy, 2,000on drive your life, and 1,304 on modular employable skills, from the entire country. The contractor’s academy on the other hand has 116 local business owners.

Malatji, a 39-year-old mother of three, said she was grateful for the training that has provided her with skills, networks and mentors who have helped her grow her business. “I didn’t know what skills I needed before to grow my business, and I am glad the training has empowered me to improve my skills in the ventures I am undertaking.”

William Morifi was trained in the contractor’s academy, hoping to develop skills and grow his existing fire extinguishers business. Thirty-five-year-old Morifi – a disabled man from Limpopo Province – said his vision was to learn about outdoor advertising. He undertook the contractors training program. “I learnt how to go about my first and current venture in the fire extinguishers supply and maintenance business with big corporates such as Eskom. It taught me various skills, from acquisition of certificates, the correct bidding process to win tenders, and optimal business sustainability models. With this, I have managed to collaborate with Mesong Fire – a larger and more experience firm – to provide Eskom with some of its fire extinguishing equipment at the Medupi plant since 2016. Eskom is one of my main clients,” he says.

Morifi’s business is growing in leaps and bounds, with a staff of five and a female partner, as well as meeting the South African B-BBEE (Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act) requirements. Just as well, as the area continues to grow, so do the prospects for the fire extinguishing and signage opportunities he hopes to attain.

It has been a decade since Morifi completed the contractor’s academy programme, and the results are visible. He now has local clients from taxis to buses and other businesses in the region. The Bank’s support to the academy goes well beyond the power plant’s operation, but to envisioned gains such as the development of new industries and creation of employment opportunities that reduce poverty levels.