From serving at home to wherever duty calls: the journey begins for the third cohort of African Young Women Leaders

June 10, 2024

Growing up in the heart of Tunisia's soulful city of Sfax, amid ancient olive groves, Arij Bardaa was raised in a family with deep roots in both academia and agriculture. Her family imparted wisdom across generations about identity, liberation and freedom, instilling in her a profound respect for hard work. Arij shares this trait with many of the other young African women selected to participate in the African Young Women Leaders (AfYWL) Fellowship Programme — a joint initiative of the African Union Commission (AUC) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

In the sweltering heat of August 2023, Arij applied to join the third cohort of AfYWL Fellows, casting her aspirations onto the international stage, not knowing that amid a sea of 11,000 hopeful applications, hers would find its place among the chosen few. Today, Arij describes herself as “humbled yet emboldened” to be one among 36 exceptional individuals. Following the official induction of the third cohort in early May 2024, Arij says the other fellows have already become more than colleagues. "They are my sisters and my friends.”

Daisy Olielo recalls how her childhood experiences defined her career path. “Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, my early years were shaped by my family's travels to Khartoum, Sudan. Despite the language barrier, my brother and I easily bonded with the children there, learning the universal language of play and human connection. These experiences, coupled with my father's stories of the health challenges faced by communities, sparked my desire to pursue a career in healthcare.”

Although Daisy’s childhood dream of becoming a doctor evolved, her desire to make a difference remained strong. This motivated her to study public health, and she was later placed in an internship at the Umoja II Health centre in a programme that focused on preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Here, she witnessed first-hand the challenges faced by young women.

Now assigned to the HIV and Health Group at the UNDP Regional Service Centre for Africa (RSCA), Daisy has embarked on her fellowship journey with five other fellows based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “Navigating this city and experiencing it together has been remarkable. Our stories, experiences and resilience have already woven a strong bond.”

On the other side of the continent, Fadimatu Zara Mustapha, originally from Nigeria, has been deployed to the UNDP Country Office in The Gambia — known as the smiling coast of Africa. She shares her fellowship experience so far. “It’s been both thrilling and demanding. I am already participating in major initiatives on energy security and environmental protection. The daily tasks are a whirlwind of trying to understand the different abbreviations and terminologies.”

It’s been both thrilling and demanding.
Fadimatu Zara Mustapha, AfYWL 3rd cohort fellow

Also in West Africa, Irene Merveille Ngamy, has started her deployment at the UNDP Country Office in Togo. Originally from Cameroon, her experience brings a new environment with new people, different culture and food. Six weeks into her fellowship journey, she is adjusting with the support of her colleagues. 

“Growing up in Cameroon in a very conservative society and being constantly reminded of the many things I cannot do as a woman, I applied to this programme to prove to myself, and to those in my surroundings, that I can be a woman and a leader as well,” shared Irene when asked about her motivation for applying. 

Liza Kiwara from Kenya passionately describes her first month of the fellowship. She highlights how her fellowship experience at UNDP Zambia exceeded her expectations. For Liza, this opportunity has unlocked strengths within her that she didn't know she had. She shares that by the first week of the fellowship, she was able to explain UNDP’s work in the energy ecosystem during a stakeholder workshop. After three weeks, she was entrusted to make a presentation on behalf of the energy and environment unit.

“I attribute this strongly to the support of UNDP's great leadership, my supervisors and my colleagues. I used to talk about SDG 7, but now I work in the organization behind these goals, my work is to ensure that this goal is achieved. As I do this, I aspire to inspire and empower young girls, particularly in Africa, to pursue their dreams relentlessly.”

Munashe Mataranyika from Zimbabwe, who was assigned to the UNDP Rwanda Country Office as an Economic Governance Analyst, shared how economic governance is a new area of focus for their country office. She shares that her experience so far has been full of learning and laying the necessary foundation, with the help of the Transformational Governance Unit and new Resident Representative. 

“The most interesting thing I have learned so far is Rwanda’s ‘Home Grown Solutions'. I love this as it reiterates my passion for African perspectives in policymaking and it excites me to see it in action! Seeing how committed both the government and UNDP are to making this work shows that this is an attainable desire for all African countries, should we devote ourselves to it.”

Arij Bardaa reflects sentiments shared by most of her AfYWL sisters when she describes a strong sense of being an ambassador who wears many hats.

In the end, it is not the roads we choose that define us, but the journey we undertake.
Arij Bardaa, AfYWL 3rd cohort fellow

“With each step I take, I carry with me the hopes and dreams of my homeland, my continent, and the global community at large. For in the end, it is not the roads we choose that define us, but the journey we undertake. In that journey, may we find the courage to chart a course that leads us not only to our destination, but to the essence of our humanity.”