Yawa Hansen-Quao Leading the Way
We in the US – from academics to NGOs to social entrepreneurs to pundits – do a lot of talking about what ails Africa today. We have assembled a state-of the-art linguistic arsenal of weapons with which to wage our campaigns of talk. Words and concepts are wielded like small arms (or, in some cases, like carpet bombs) in reports and grant proposals: “anti-corruption, leadership, democracy, women’s empowerment, micro-credit, economic enterprise…” (And then there is the mother of all weapons, the one all lexicon warriors covet: “African Solutions to African Problems”). Don’t get me wrong – for the most part, I think we are well-intentioned in our talking, whether we are documenting or strategizing. Good things and money flow from our talking and it largely beats not talking.
But it turns out…that while we talk, Yawa Hansen-Quao, a young Ghanaian social entrepreneur, and founder of the Leading Ladies’ Network (LLN), is already doing many of the things we all simply talk about. Her work flows from her own life story and experience – a narrative tracking closely with that of her country and continent of birth. One can only hope that this tracking holds up because her future is undeniably bright – you could even say she is the embodiment of “African solutions to African problems.” She is also the face of what is what is not a problem about Africa.
I met Yawa in November 2010 while traveling in Ghana on a documentary project for PhotoPhilanthropy and The Carter Center. Our journalistic team was attached to a group of women philanthropists from the San Francisco Bay Area who were interested in seeing programs promoting women’s issues. Before we joined up with The Carter Center, the organizer of our trip asked Yawa to guide our group around Accra and Cape Coast, help educate us about historic and modern Ghana, and give us insight into what the current generation of women is facing in Africa. As we journeyed miles and centuries, I spent the day interviewing her about her life, her passions, and her work with the the Leading Ladies’ Network. Then, several months later, our paths crossed again in Marin County, California while she was on a trip to the US to engage with other women leaders at the TED Women Conference.
Yawa is the oldest daughter of a Ghanaian politician forced to flee the country during the chaos of the military coups d’etat in the early 1980s. She lived her early life as a refugee, first in Togo, and then, through the UNHCR, in the United States. She lived formative years between worlds – part distinctly American, part resolutely African. Speaking English at home, wearing American hairstyles and playing soccer with her brothers one day, and the next driving 4 hours with her family to Huntsville to find immigrant farmstands that sold her native foods like palm oil, plantain, and cassava powder. Her family maintained strong ties to Ghana, and Yawa grew up amidst the refrain, “when it is safe to return…”
In 1996, Ghana had a new constitution and a place amidst the constellation of African countries on the rise, and the family returned to Accra where, as a teenager, Yawa’s bi-national identities collided when she experienced for the first time the comparatively limited space and range of opportunities available to girls in Ghana. Language and culture separated her from her African-born and raised classmates. Compounding this were financial difficulties and the separation of her parents, which left Yawa as the caretaker of her father, who was to become ill with cancer, and her five siblings.
Through these struggles, Yawa was sustained and buoyed by the example and counsel of her father, her camaraderie with a best friend (a fellow repatriate from the UK), and a series of mentors who saw in her potential worth nurturing (with her Junior Achievement faculty advisor going so far as to personally pick up her school fees so that Yawa could stay in school amidst her family’s hardship). She came to find in school an outlet for a dynamism that bubbled out of her enforced maturity and sense of responsibility. She quickly emerged as a leader and held multiple elected and appointed offices. She graduated high school with honors and began working in order to support the family, frankly uninspired by the options Ghana offered for higher education.
Then, she heard of Ashesi, a new university founded by Patrick Awuah and knew “in her gut that she had to be there.” She was inspired by the passion with which Patrick spoke about Africa, and the questions Ashesi challenged its students to ask themselves about what the future of Ghana should look like. In her own words, “Ashesi was a place where I could get an American-style progressive liberal arts education in an African context – I could remain in Ghana and be part of Africans transforming Africa.”
She entered Ashesi in 2003 as a member of the second class ever admitted to the young institution, and took it by storm. Cobbling together multiple jobs, grants, work-study stipends, and stints living on friend’s couches, she “gave herself to Ashesi,” becoming an HIV/AIDS peer educator and founding two campus organizations, the Ashesi Business Club and the Women of Ashesi. In 2006, Yawa became the first female to be elected President of a college-level student government organization in Ghana.
During her time at Ashesi, one issue in particular became clear to Yawa. Ashesi, she decided, needed an honor code. In schools at every level throughout Ghana, cheating was far too commonplace, as were bribery and reports of students trading sex for good grades from opportunistic teachers. She wanted Ashesi to be different and to set an example within the larger educational system. As she puts it, “Corruption in government and corporations begins with a mindset viral among youth in school. If students begin learning and practicing ethical behavior early enough, the better the chances that these ideals will remain entrenched as they transition into adulthood and enter positions of power.”
Against considerable resistance within Ghana’s education community, Yawa led Ashesi students in deliberations to create an honor code and a system to support it. Subsequent student government administrations built upon Yawa’s efforts, and in 2008 Ashesi became the first institution in sub-Saharan Africa to adopt an honor code. The code remains a centerpiece of the Ashesi culture today. The crusade Yawa launched around this issue, and the solution she helped to devise, are emblematic of the sophisticated and long-term thinking that distinguishes her as a leader.
Ashesi provided for Yawa the perfect environment to nurture her natural leadership proclivities. The intellectual stimulation, the emphasis on critical thinking and debate, the exposure to ideas from around the world – these nourished her mind and talents as she thought deeply about her generation and its place in Ghana’s future. But what profoundly transformed her from a bright, motivated girl into a nimble and influential leader was the community she found there. Upon graduation, she reflected on what she could do to create a similarly vibrant and supportive space for other women to come into their own as she had.
In Yawa’s view, women have always been leaders in African society – in families and communities – but rarely have they been recognized as such. “In too many situations, women’s great ideas get drowned out by their own doubts and lack of confidence – their dreams are quashed internally before they are quashed externally because women through socialization and other factors don’t naturally see themselves as leaders.” This had been her own personal journey…figuring it out as she went along, cobbling it together, collecting mentors, mentoring others, making the most of opportunities, finding her way to where she is now. Did it have to be so hard? Couldn’t that process be made easier through a formal system of support and connection? Couldn’t something be developed that would serve the function of the “old boys’ network” for strong, motivated, African women?
Out of this, the Leading Ladies’ Network (LLN) was born as a resource and relationship hub for young women to support one another as they take seats at the table – in government, civil society, grassroots movements, corporations. LLN promotes women’s leadership for Africa through its flagship program, the Female Leadership Advancement, Mentoring and Empowerment Series, or FLAMES. This unique leadership curriculum for college women is designed to awaken the social consciousness of trainees and give them the tools and support they need to become effective agents of social change. Through a core commitment to what is known as “servant leadership,” all LLN leadership trainees must dedicate back the skills and connections they glean from the program to their communities in the form of durable, creative solutions to local problems. By supporting emerging women leaders in crafting social change projects, LLN seeks to impact a host of issues surrounding women’s equality, including disparities in education, health care, and economic opportunity.
“Why university women?” Yawa is repeatedly asked. “With all the poverty and illiteracy and difficulties meeting basic needs, why put resources towards this particular (some would call elite) segment of the population? If they got to university, they probably are already doing okay…” But that, it seems, is the point. These women have what it takes to go back into their communities after their education and tackle these thorny issues. What they need to become catalysts for change may be a boost, a network, a mentor, a model, a break, a laugh, a hand-up – or any of the other “hard” and “soft” things LLN provides. Most of all, they need each other, and even connections to other women all around the world trying to do similar things for themselves and their communities.
Communities throughout Africa all have their own Yawas – young, smart and dynamic women with fresh ideas and potential to transform Africa. If their talent and potential can be nurtured and expanded, a new network of female leaders will emerge as true African solutions to African problems. Now, that’s exactly the kind of change we ought to be talking about.
By Cate Biggs
Cate Biggs is a free-lance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in global affairs. She is the lead writer of The World Savvy Monitor (http://worldsavvy.org/monitor/) and the blog Grasping Global Poverty (https://graspglobalpoverty.wordpress.com/).