An Afghan in Africa

IlahaBy Ilaha (Eli) Omar ’12

My MBA experience is coming to a close, but the journey has barely begun. During my 19-month Global MBA program I traveled to Geneva, Beijing and Sao Paulo, but the long-awaited & final leg of my MBA experience was my auspicious visit to Mother Africa. Although I had previously visited the Maghrib regions of Morocco and Egypt, South Africa & Kenya were my first encounters with Sub-Saharan Africa. I knew that I couldn’t journey there without making an impact, without contributing to its people. In the end, however, it was Africa that gave to me. She helped alleviate the kind of poverty you don’t see, the internal and emotional emptiness that often remains hidden amidst external opulence and first world convenience.

The plan was this- after a week of regional business analysis via MBA lessons in Johannesburg, I would meet my service-sisters, Sonali Fiske, a Sri Lankan native and Sehba Abed, an Afghan-German native, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. Prior to our departure it would be important for us to find a worthwhile cause we all felt passionate about and to determine the value and impact of our undertaking. Through our non-profit network, we had followed the substantial on-the-ground good works of Christopher Lowman (The Living Smile – indeed a living smile). Fortuitously, it would be Christopher who would be instrumental in creating an opportunity for us to interact and connect on a local level with the beautiful people of Kenya. He would identify a specific need and entrust three strangers with the task of creating a solution.

Christopher, an endearing spirit, traverses the world sharing his love – and fortuitously attracts positive connections in the course of his work. In Nairobi, we focused on Kituii Ndogo, one of the environmentally harshest slums within the city and home to 50,000 residents. This was primarily a construction project- to build three sewage trenches to address the severely stagnant sewage issue that directly affected the lives of 6,000 people on a daily basis. We made it a conscious effort to implement and encourage involvement and support at the local level. Hiring local labor and volunteers made the project more impactful all around. The project was devoted to cleaning up toxic raw sewage to prevent the spread of waterborne illnesses like Cholera and Typhoid. Essentially, this was about saving lives. I didn’t quite grasp this until I was standing above it, steeped in human waste at the doorstep of a local resident. It is difficult to explain the stench and look of raw human waste, but even harder to fathom the deeply demoralizing effects of living in this condition. Whatever doubts or skepticism I might have had about being able to accomplish this, no longer remained. We had no choice.

With the overwhelming help of friends, family and Thunderbird, we were able to raise $6,000, the total amount needed to build the three trenches. It was enthralling to witness compassion and generosity pouring in from all over the world. Most notably, people like Thomas McIntyre, a fellow T-Bird, who felt so compelled to support this cause that he instantly and enthusiastically formed a fundraising campaign on campus. And then there’s Stephanie Krafchack, whose significant donation made in honor of her brother-in-law undergoing a critical 18-hour surgery that same week, brought greater meaning and depth to the existence of this project. It is people like Thomas and Stephanie who kept hope alive, and reminded us that our collective humanity is far too similar, even an entire continent away; that in the remotest parts of our planet and under life’s most cruel circumstances, we truly are one.

We spent the next few days at the Brosis Center, the school of Love, where I witnessed and engaged in another life-affirming adventure. Hesitantly, a mother of one named Caro approached me. While the other ladies whispered words into her ear, through her limited English Caro asked me if I had a job for her. While I was quietly relieved that she didn’t ask for money, I was disappointed at having to let her down – explaining that I wasn’t in a position to hire her. Subsequently, one thing did lead to another and by the end of our limited yet engaging conversation I discovered that Caro had a skill, an actual sewing certificate. It was here that a seed began to take root, so-to-speak.

The following two days were spent buying sewing machines, chairs, tables, fabric, and additional sewing accessories. We rented a facility for three months until the sewing room addition would be built on the Brosis school grounds. The hand-up program would be led by Caroline and Sara. Together they would train other women and spread their knowledge to create and cultivate a truely sustainable business. A percentage of the proceeds would be set aside to support Brosis in an effort to sustain the school. The lack of educational opportunities for youth diminishes the chances of young people in this region furthering themselves and their communities. But by helping their mothers become independent and self-sufficient, we are helping families to afford education for their children. And the key here is promoting ownership and empowering women to lead.

I made this connection during one of Dr. Babarinde’s lectures on the mindset of African people and the effects of pre/post colonization. The destruction of the hand-out mentality was evident. It’s time now for Africans to believe in themselves and maximize their capabilities, resources and power. The biggest challenges wasn’t launching the project and opening the business, rather it was making the women believe they were capable. I caught myself repeatedly mentioning the sky’s the limit concept hoping to plant the seeds of a mindset to empower them to think BIG, and to believe change is possible. A major challenge lies ahead in nurturing the changes and advancement of women by providing them with the willpower and mindset to ensure their own prosperity. The key is creating initiatives to support women until they become self-actualized and thereby reduce and eliminate the dependence on humanitarian aid while transitioning women into self-reliant contributors of society.

At the very last hour, as I surveyed the dark yet lively sewing room, I noticed the outcome of two days’ work – a legitimate business. But beyond that, I joyfully eyed the sewing technician, the neighborhood welder, Eugene the driver, Christopher, Abel the school principal, Sara and Caro. I noticed eagerness and apprehension in their eyes, the same feelings I had in my heart. “I am because you are, and since you are, therefore I am”…the calling of Ubuntu. It was Dr. Babarinde who taught me the theory behind the humanistic philosophy in the classroom, and it was Kenya who gifted me with the honor.

Many people pursue their MBA to further their career, start a new business/career, or increase their salary, but my motivation lay elsewhere. Pursuing my MBA was part of honoring my life’s conviction –strengthening the internal and external support systems of women and promoting their self-sufficiency in the developing world. With my work experience and an MBA degree, particularly a Global MBA, I believe I will continue to become a better advocate for enterprising women. Because of the opportunities afforded to me, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to utilize my skills and accomplishments in the service of disadvantaged women around the world. It would also be a great honor to continue the legacy that my great-grandfather and grandfather created for me, as the female torchbearer. I believe Afghan women are emblematic of oppressed women in the world. It is incredibly empowering that if a once oppressed woman, confined to the boundaries of her home, can lead a life of freedom and independence, then anything is possible for disadvantaged women worldwide. Whether we are talking about the systematic rape and spread of HIV endured by women in rural Congo, the sex trafficking of women in Nepal, or the millions of Guatemalan women suffering from domestic violence, improving the health and well-being of women is paramount. If it can happen in Afghanistan, it can happen anywhere. Improving life in every country begins with placing power in the hands of women and giving them autonomy to manage their own lives. In the powerful words of UN Secretary General Koffi Annan, “When women thrive all of society benefits, and succeeding generations are given a better start in life.” Thunderbird was exactly the environment I needed to pursue these collective goals. Thank you Dr. Babarinde, Dr. Nelson, Dr. Borris and Dr. Pearson for sparking my internal fire – may the flames keep burning.


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